Football: Why Villa Got It Right at Last; Radio Five Live's Voice of Sport

The Birmingham Post (England), August 8, 2006 | Go to article overview

Football: Why Villa Got It Right at Last; Radio Five Live's Voice of Sport


Byline: PAT MURPHY

So there I was, hanging out in a North London pub when my mobile rang. It was Martin O'Neill.

I told him where I was, holed up in a boozer near Hampstead Heath. 'That's the pub where Ruth Ellis shot her bloke', he told me.

From the depths of my memory, I knew that Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in this country - but Martin had chapter and verse.

He rattled off the year, the name of her murdered lover, the fact that the execution took place at Wandsworth Prison and the name of the film depicting the events. Dance With a Stranger, starring Miranda Richardson and Rupert Everett, in case you're interested.

How many other football managers could have topped that? But Martin O'Neill is a singular man, as Doug Ellis and the Aston Villa players will be discovering over the next few days.

His interest in criminology began in his law student days at Queens' University, Belfast and he has been known to slip into the public gallery during murder trials. He is fascinated by the forensic skills used by top barristers in court, loving the cut and thrust.

I once mentioned the James Hanratty case to him and whether or not he was innocent. After correcting my faulty memory - pointing out that we were talking about 1961, not 1962 - he launched into a detailed treatise, admitting his opinion changes every year on Hanratty's guilt. And don't get him started on the Yorkshire Ripper or the Moors Murders.

All this isn't to suggest that O'Neill is a ghoulish character, obsessed with the macabre. It's just that he's different. Unlike many other high achievers in football, he is genuinely interested in the opinions of others.

O'Neill doesn't view a gathering of football journalists as a platform for his own ego and opinions. He asks questions, listens animatedly if he's engaged in the subject, punctuating the chat with 'Honestly?' and you come away thinking that this bloke has a wider perspective than any others in his profession.

O'Neill's droll humour was seen to good effect during his press conference on Friday evening when Doug Ellis laid hands on his new capture, anointing him with self-satisfied glee.

As Ellis banged on about being a guest at one of Nottingham Forest's European Cup Final victories in 1979-80 and that he would personally be introducing his new manager to the Villa players in Germany before flying home on Sunday, the face of O'Neill was a picture.

He'd known about the remarkable Ellis ego from gossip in the game, but you have to experience it practically to get a proper handle on it. O'Neill sat impassively during Ellis' bravura performance, trying to keep a straight face, steeling himself not to wink at journos of his acquaintance.

Having worked for a supreme egotist for several years, he must have thought that no one could top Brian Clough. But at least Cloughie made you laugh, not wince.

O'Neill will handle the old boy with ease. Ellis needs him to try restoring a measure of credibility with the Villa fans.

O'Neill's deft public relations skills, mixing self-deprecation with endearingly gnomish observations, will see him through for the next few weeks before an orderly transfer of power in the Villa boardroom.

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