Martin O’Neill: the international story so far

by , November 5, 2013

With Forest legend Martin O’Neill expected to be named as the new Ireland manager, Alex Walker profiles the midfielder and his remarkable international career with Northern Ireland…

Martin O’Neill arrived at the City Ground in 1971 as a teenager having made his name at Belfast-based Distillery FC in an Irish Cup-winning side. He made his début for Northern Ireland against the USSR shortly before joining Forest and was a regular international throughout the decade that followed, even when he was on the transfer list at Forest prior to Brian Clough recognising his talents. Between 1971 and 1981 he won 36 caps while on the City Ground books and his collection was only limited by his nation not competing in any major tournaments in this time.

This changed in 1982 when (for the first time since 1958) Northern Ireland qualified for the World Cup. Thirty-year-old O’Neill, now playing for Norwich, was named as captain for the tournament in Spain. They drew their first two group games with Yugoslavia and Honduras, 0-0 and 1-1 respectively, leaving them needing a draw at least against Spain to make the next round. Remarkably they beat the hosts thanks to a Gerry Armstrong goal on 47 minutes.

The 1982 World Cup featured a second group stage in place of the quarter finals, so Northern Ireland faced Austria, getting another credible draw, and France. The French were too strong, winning the game 4-1, but O’Neill’s side had done themselves proud, arguably matching the achievement of the 1958 side who reached the World Cup quarter final. O’Neill had become accustomed to winning major trophies at club level, but 1982 was certainly among the highlights of his playing days.

O’Neill also represented his country in two victorious British Home Championships, taking the 1980 competition with wins away at Scotland and Wales and a credible draw at Wembley, and topping the 1984 table on goal difference with all nations level on three points. It was the last time the competition was staged, therefore the Northern Irish FA still holds the trophy and the country can claim to be ruling ‘Champions of Britain’.

Martin O’Neill, a champion of England, Britain and Europe, won a total of 64 caps for Northern Ireland and scored eight goals. In November 2011 he turned down the chance to succeed Nigel Worthington as Northern Ireland manager to become Sunderland manager instead. He is now in talks to succeed Giovanni Trapattoni as Ireland boss with fellow former Forest player Roy Keane set to be his assistant.

  • This piece was originally published in Alex Walker’s book The Glory of Forest, now available for just £6.99 (while stocks last).