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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. Tending his sick wife for the past 15 months ensures that O'Neill will never be consumed with concern about what his 82-year-old chairman is thinking.

It'll be Ellis' problem trying to track down O'Neill. He's not the sort of manager who has his mobile phone either turned or even charged up, so Ellis' habit of calling his new manager on a whim will not be indulged this time.

If the chairman wants to see O'Neill, he'd better get down to the training ground and wait for a face-to-face.

O'Neill knows the history of Villa and the reputation of his chairman. As Ellis banged on about the warmth of welcome at Villa Park for Tommy Docherty and Ron Atkinson after he'd appointed them, O'Neill was onto that morsel in a flash.

He made everyone aware that he knew what happened to those two - sacked eventually by Ellis - and that he'd be walking backwards into the corridor when the press conference had finished.

Someone asked was he nervous? 'Petrified' he answered. When Ellis said there'd been at least another dozen serious applications from the job, O'Neill intervened to say 'they all came from me', with just the right amount of deadpan timing.

In case you think that O'Neill will be some sort of mad professor at Villa Park, quirky, eccentric, incapable of being pigeon-holed, rest assured he has strong footballing principles and expectations.

The players will soon know what he's about. O'Neill gives everything on the touchline and he will expect nothing less from his players.

He has a sharp tongue and can put down anyone. Players hate being monstered verbally by a manager who's too clever for them and woe betide anyone who gets on the wrong side of O'Neill.

As he recalls with a wince from his experiences at the hands of Clough. 'There's only room for one big head at this club, O'Neill - and it's me'.

I remember two graphic examples of O'Neill's readiness to tell the unvarnished truth. At the celebration dinner a year ago to mark Forest's 25th anniversary of winning the European Cup, O'Neill produced a withering putdown of Peter Shilton.

The great goalkeeper was justly lauded by O'Neill in his speech, but then, in front of more than 600 diners, he said: 'But you were such a bighead, Shilts'.

Shilton was sufficiently upset to leave before the drinking session got into full swing, but O'Neill wasn't bothered.

He also gave Stan Bowles a serve in the same speech. O'Neill had waited a quarter of a century to tell Bowles what he thought of him after he'd refused to sit on the substitutes' bench for the Hamburg game. 'And you've got the cheek to turn up here', he told Bowles. 'And by the way, you still owe me pounds 100 from that card game when you were at Forest'.

That's Martin O'Neill in a nutshell. Fearless, honest, engaging and above all, true to himself. Thank God Aston Villa have done the right thing at last.

As Bette Davis said memorably in All About Eve: 'Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride'. But it'll be fun.

CAPTION(S):

Picture/NEWSTEAM' Martin O'Neill and Doug Ellis at last Friday's press conference' their relationship will be one of many fascinating things to watch in the next few months at Villa Park
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 8, 2006
Words:1105
Previous Article:Football: Murray enjoys healthy return.
Next Article:Football: O'Neill planning charm offensive with Villa's disenchanted talents.


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