A Good Engine - but Not a Lot of Oomph; Yo-Yo Player Gary O'Neil Was the Dictionary Definition of a Player Who 'Did a Job' during His Time at Boro. Anthony Vickers Digs a Little Deeper and Explains Why

Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England), September 22, 2016 | Go to article overview

A Good Engine - but Not a Lot of Oomph; Yo-Yo Player Gary O'Neil Was the Dictionary Definition of a Player Who 'Did a Job' during His Time at Boro. Anthony Vickers Digs a Little Deeper and Explains Why


THERE was a stat-based buzz this week as number-crunchers released figures of distances covered by top flight teams in the first five games.

Liverpool came top of the list.

Manchester United were bottom and that was gleefully seized on by tabloid hacks as a stick to beat Jose Mourinho. Boro were seventh with a team total of 554.6km, fact fans.

But talking about running vast distances on a pitch with no obvious direct link to concrete end product made me think of Gary O'Neil.

He certainly rattled up the stats.

Stick the GPS monitor on him and watch him go. He was a ProZone superstar. Distance covered. Speed. Pass completion ratios. Admittedly, mainly short give and go exchanges 30 yards out but hey, you can't have everything.

But his key attribute was running. He ran and ran. And ran some more.

In the Big Football Encyclopaedia under the phrase "good engines" it simply shows a picture of Gary O'Neil, a midfielder who zipped about the pitch with the mobility but also the urgency and motivation of a midnight pizza moped. And what he delivered was usually a lukewarm let down too.

When O'Neil arrived the team were in the Premier League and the side included Mark Schwarzer, Robert Huth, George Boateng, Stewart Downing and Yakubu.

When he left they were adrift in the Championship despite the best efforts of Brad Jones, Justin Hoyte, Merouane Zemmama, Willo Flood and Lee Miller.

As with the distance stats there is no direct correlation between his tenure as a first team fixture and the steady inching decline and fall of Boro - but it does make you think.

O'Neil is a symptom rather than a cause of that slow motion car crash.

For a lot of fans, it was buying "the likes of" him that underpinned that superficially slick but soft-centred shrivelling, the limp surrender to Cardiff when our name was on the cup, to relegation and to a damp squib failure to bounce back.

He wasn't a bad player. Far from it. He played for England at every level short of the seniors so clearly had talent even if it was never realised. And he worked very hard.

He "did a job" consistently and energetically without too many major mistakes but without any match-changing impact.

He was a steady six. And a half. He was football beige. No, that's not fair. He was natural hessian. Matt rather than silk. It was like he was designed by committee.

He was like that to interview too. He was honest - professionally rather than personally - and efficient and functional and always served up quotes just good enough to work with without forcing anyone to scream: "Hold the back page."

But every boss stepping up a league or looking to consolidate or aiming to claw out of the Championship needed someone like him and that probably explained why he has had such a long career dipping between the top two levels.

He was promoted at Portsmouth, relegated at Boro, went down then back up at West Ham, back up with QPR, up and down with Norwich... he is a yo-yo player.

He is currently "doing a job" at Bristol City which is probably a daft quid good omen for their play-off hopes this term.

He played 120 games for Boro and scored 12 goals.

We've had an office conflab and the thing that stands out most on the pitch was him ripping Boro apart playing for Portsmouth.

That display may have sealed his PS5m move from Pompey in August 2007 as Gareth Southgate set about shaping an Arsenal-lite side that was all surface and no substance. …

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