John O'Neill

Leicester City In 100 Players: John O’Neill

Club Historian John Hutchinson reviews the careers of 100 of the most outstanding players to represent Leicester Fosse and Leicester City in the Club’s 138-year history. The series continues with Northern Ireland international defender John O’Neill, a Leicester City captain who played at the heart of the Foxes’ defence for nine years.

Between 1978 and 1987, centre-half O’Neill played 345 games for City, many as captain. He also played for Northern Ireland in the 1982 and 1986 World Cup Finals.

Leicester had hoped to offer John an apprenticeship when he was 16, but he chose to do his A-levels in his hometown of Derry, although he still travelled to Leicester during his school holidays. When he qualified for a place at Loughborough University to study for an Accountancy and Economics degree, City signed him as a non-contract player while he continued with his studies.

With John still at university, Jock Wallace, in his first match as City’s manager, gave him his debut on the opening day of the 1978/79 season at Burnley. Establishing himself in the first team from Boxing Day onwards, John missed very few games in nine seasons at Filbert Street.

Good in the air and a strong tackler, he was an excellent reader of the game. He didn’t take prisoners, even in training. Leicester struggled in the Second Division in his first season (1978/79) but he was Player of the Year the following season when City won the second tier title.

Despite the Foxes being relegated a year later, John’s performances were consistently admirable. He was an ever-present in the FA Cup run to the semi-finals against Tottenham Hotspur in the 1981/82 season, at the end of which Wallace left Filbert Street.

John continued to flourish under the new manager Gordon Milne, who made him captain of the team which was promoted back to the top-flight in 1983.

John also won 39 caps for Northern Ireland while at Filbert Street, making his debut against Israel in March 1980. He went to two World Cups, in 1982 in Spain and in 1986 in Mexico, where he played in all of Northern Ireland’s games, culminating in his final international appearance, which was against Brazil when he was up against world-class players such as Careca, Casagrande and Zico.

At the end of his Leicester contract in 1986, John moved briefly to Queens Park Rangers before signing for Norwich City, where he suffered a serious injury on his debut which ended his playing career. Norwich gave him a testimonial match. Such was his reputation in the game, this was supported by, among others, England stars Gary Lineker and Trevor Brooking.

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