Kevin Keegan and John O'Neill

Former Player Remembers: John O’Neill

When centre-back John O’Neill spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his life as a professional footballer, he recalled that between 1978 and 1987, he played over 300 games for Leicester City, many as captain.

He was selected for Northern Ireland in the 1982 and 1986 FIFA World Cup Finals in Spain and Mexico. During his career, he also played against some of the biggest names in world football such as Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish and Brazil’s Zico.

John was born in Derry in 1958. The manager of his youth team was a Leicester City scout, who recommended him to Filbert Street.

“Leicester wanted me to sign an apprenticeship at the age of 16,” John began. “But I was doing my A-levels, so for the next two years, I was travelling backwards and forwards from Derry to Leicester during breaks and holidays.

“When I was 18, my A-levels grades got me into Loughborough University and Leicester City signed me as a non-contract player. For three years, I trained once or twice a week with Leicester, played at weekends and studied for a B.Sc in Economics and Accountancy. Sometimes I felt that I might be falling between two stools but I didn’t have time to be homesick!”

Jock Wallace became Leicester City’s manager in June 1978, following the Club’s relegation from the top-flight.

John added: “In August 1978, Jock gave me my debut in a 2-2 draw at Burnley. It was the first game of the season. I didn’t expect this. I was still at university. Their centre-forward was Steve Kindon, who was a folk hero up there. He was an old school centre-forward who was hard as nails. I had my hands full. He was the sort of centre-forward who beat up centre-halves! It was a very hot day, I remember.

“I became a regular in the side from about Christmas onwards. Later that season, Gary Lineker came into the side. At first Jock played him on the wing but he was never a winger. He didn’t have the skill to take it up to you and past you. But as a centre-forward he had blistering, blinding pace which defenders couldn’t deal with.

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John O'Neill
John O'Neill

O'Neill made over 300 appearances for the Foxes.

“Players like myself, Larry May and Tommy Williams all came through together. We struggled a bit in our first season, which was a learning curve. In the second season it all clicked and we were promoted back to the top-flight as champions. To my surprise, I was Player of the Year! Gary was Young Player of the Year. Winning promotion and being Player of the Year were real highlights.

“That season, though, we lost to (Isthmian League) Harlow in the FA Cup. It was a total disaster. I had heard of Harlow as it’s mentioned in a Genesis track and I was a big fan of Genesis. I hadn’t been home that Christmas so Jock said I could go after the Harlow game which was at Filbert Street. We were 1-0 up but they equalised and that was my trip home gone! Down there, we were out-muscled. When teams got physical we struggled a bit.

“Jock said we would win the old First Division title even though we’d just been promoted! Early on, we did beat Liverpool at Filbert Street when Andy Peake scored his wonder goal. Later that season, we won 2-1 at Anfield where Liverpool had been unbeaten for 85 games.

“Playing in the First Division was a big step up. The higher up you go, the more you get punished for mistakes. Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish were two of the toughest forwards I ever played against. They worked you hard, putting you under pressure when you were on the ball.

“We were relegated at the end of the season. We weren’t ready. We needed the experience and you don’t have time to learn in the top division. From a defensive point of view we weren’t bad, but we didn’t score enough goals.

“The following season we had a great FA Cup run to the semi-finals at Villa Park against Spurs who had Ossie Ardiles, Ricky Villa and Glenn Hoddle and their side. We didn’t do as well as we should. Tommy Williams broke his leg”.

Wallace left the Club at the end of that season. Gordon Milne, the ex-Liverpool and England wing-half, succeeded Wallace and Leicester City were promoted at the end of his first season.

“Gordon was a totally different type of manager,” John continued. “He was the best manager I had by a mile. He made me captain. He wanted to get the ball down and play. This is how football should be played. I remember once, when we were struggling, we had a team meeting in the old cricket pavilion at the Belvoir Drive training ground. He told us not to worry about relegation and that he would take all of the pressure. He said we could put 10 players at the back but who wanted to play football like that? He told us to go out, enjoy ourselves and play our way out of trouble. It was a great speech.

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John O'Neill
John O'Neill

O'Neill is remembered fondly by the Blue Army.

“It was a great period for us. Gary Lineker, Alan Smith and Steve Lynex were getting 50 goals a season between them. What a great player Alan Smith was! The find of the century! We had Ali Mauchlen, who was as tough as nails, and Gary McAllister who was a great midfield player. We also had Russell Osman and Laurie Cunningham, who was unbelievable. When he first signed, 4,000 fans turned up just to watch him play for the reserves! Also there was big Bob Hazell. He was concussed in his last game for QPR and he used to say that when he woke up he had signed for Leicester! They couldn’t find shirts and shorts big enough for him! They had to be specially made.”

John was strong in the air and in the tackle and was an excellent reader of the game. Team-mates say he didn’t take prisoners, even in training. These qualities resulted in him winning 39 caps for Northern Ireland.

He continued: “Whilst I was still at university Danny Blanchflower brought me into the squad for the home internationals in May. My university exams were in June. When I met up with the team, I had all my studying books with me. When I wasn’t training I was studying in my room. My room mate Chris Nichol would bring my food up for me.

“When Billy Bingham became Northern Ireland manager, he gave me my debut against Israel in March 1980. I went to two World Cup Finals, in Spain in 1982 and in Mexico in 1986. Martin O’Neill was captain. He didn’t suffer fools lightly! We only just failed to qualify for the European Championships in 1984, despite beating West Germany twice.

“The highlight for me was my final international game, which was against Brazil, who won 3-0. Not a bad way to go out! I was up against Careca and Casagrande. Zico came on as the substitute! (City team mate) Paul Ramsey was also in the squad.

“In the close season of 1986, when Bryan Hamilton arrived at Filbert Street everything changed. I still played about 30 games that season, but I could see the way things were going. At the end of the season my contract was up and I went to QPR for a few weeks before going to Norwich.”

John’s distinguished career at Leicester City was over. Sadly his career was nearly over too. Making his debut for Norwich City at Wimbledon, he suffered a serious knee injury which ended his career.

 “Norwich gave me a testimonial,” John concluded. “Gary Lineker came over from Barcelona and scored a hat-trick including one from 35 yards! Trevor Brooking and Steve Bruce also played. Looking back though, I had a great career and a great 10 years at Leicester.”

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