Before becoming a double European Cup Winner at Nottingham Forest in the golden era under the footballing genius that was Brian Clough, Martin O’Neill could have been a Celtic player.
Well, if he’d managed to get a kick the day the scouts came watching that is.
O’Neill spent ten years at Forrest between 1971 – 1981 as he helped the club make the incredible journey from the depths of the old Second Division to Champions of England, before going one step further and becoming Champions of Europe.
But before scaling those dizzy heights the Derry born midfielder found himself cutting his teeth in the rough and tumble of the Irish League with Belfast side, Distillery FC.
And it was there that the teenage O’Neill made his mark.
Firstly by scoring a double in a 3-0 Irish Cup win in 1971 over his home side Derry City, before taking it a step further and scoring against FC Barcelona no less in a subsequent Cup Winners Cup tie.
Clubs and scouts from the UK were beginning to pay attention.
CELTIC COME CALLING
Celtic’s Irish roots have led to numerous players from the North of Ireland making the journey across the Irish Sea to ply their trade in Glasgow’s East End.
Charlie Tully, Anton Rogan & Neil Lennon to name a few.
It would have been a dream come true for O’Neill and his family should he have been able to add his name to that list.
“If you ever get a chance to play for Celtic, son, take it immediately and don’t even stop to think.”
These are the words of Martin’s dad Leo when it was reported that Jock Stein would be sending a scout from Glasgow to watch to young O’Neill play.
The game in question was against Crusaders in 1971. A game where O’Neill even managed to score two early goals, but a career in Glasgow – as a player at least – wasn’t to be.
“I scored twice in the first seven minutes then never got a kick after that. Never got a kick!”
I remember meeting the great Jock Stein some years later. And he was really gracious – overly gracious really – when I mentioned that I mustn’t have played too well.”
The call from Glasgow never came, and Celtic and Stein’s loss was to be Forest’s gain as O’Neill went on to spend a decade in Nottingham – half of that time under the enigmatic Clough – and the rest, as they say, is footballing history.
Close to 30 years later Celtic would once again be paying close attention to Martin O’Neill – but this time it was O’Neill the manager and not O’Neill the player who was catching their eye.
But that’s a different story for a different day!