|"The most traumatic day of my life"|
|Dawn was breaking over the Westerwood Hotel just outside Cumbernauld when John O'Neill awoke. It was Sunday, the 20th of October, the day of the Challenge Cup final.|
John went down for breakfast, then, after a team meeting the coach set off for Broadwood. Little did he realise then what a traumatic day it would be for him.
"The atmosphere in the dressing room prior to kick-off was electric" he recalls "When the game started we were all very confident and it was a match we never looked like losing.
"I scored the opening goal and although it was hotly disputed I still maintain the ball crossed the line. But there were no argument with the second goal scored by Derek Lyle and we all celebrated lifting the cup to add to the League Championship Trophy we'd won only a few months earlier.
"We then returned to our hotel for a buffet and some drinks before setting off down the road to Dumfries to party. As we sped down the M74 we had to slow down to pass a row of cars in flames. I remember thinking 'O my God, I hope there's no-one trapped in there'. About half an hour later I received a phone message saying my girlfriend, Karen, had been in one of the blazing cars and was being taken to hospital by ambulance.
"I recall running down to the front of the bus in an awful state for I had no idea the extent of her injuries. It seemed like an eternity before another message came through saying it wasn't critical but she was in hospital. When we eventually reached Dumfries there was a taxi waiting to whisk me back up the road to the hospital in Wishaw and I was so relieved to find Karen had only superficial burns. She was so lucky--how she managed to kick her way out of her car I'll never know. But I felt so sad for those who didn't survive. However, it put everything into perspective--although we'd won the cup it was still only a game of football".
Americans will never forget 9/11 but John O'Neill will never forget 10/20.
Born in Glasgow, he played for his school teams, St Fillans Primary and Holyrood Secondary as a youngster but signed amateur forms for Queens Park when only 15 years old. "All my mates envied me at that time for there I was playing regularly at Scotland's National Stadium only weeks after battling it out on muddy school playing fields.
"I was five years at Hampden before joining Celtic. I was really thrilled, imagine John O'Neill being a Celtic player--it's something you just dream about. It was Lou Macari who actually signed me but only weeks later he left the club and Tommy Burns took over. All of a sudden I was mixing with stars like Paul McStay, John Collins and Pierre van Hooijdonk--it was marvellous. I only made three first team appearances but I'll always remember my debut. It was a testimonial match against Manchester United at Old Trafford with 44,000 packed into the stadium. It was a magical moment".
After two years at Parkhead John moved to the south coast of England to join Bournmouth. "I enjoyed my spell down there" he confessed "It was a really mild climate and we established quite a reputation as 'giant killers'. We knocked West Brom out of the F.A. Cup and beat both Wolves and Crystal Palace in the Worthington Cup. We also reached the final of the Auto Windscreen Shield at Wembley but lost 2-1 to Grimsby Town. That must rate as one of the most disappointing moments of my career"
He joined Queens on the 1st of January 2001 and soon became a big favourite with the Palmerston fans with his goal-scoring ability. His boyhood idols were Kenny Dalglish and Eric Cantona, two legends renowned for their goalscoring prowess but, for a player who operates more in a midfield role than a striker, John doesn't do too badly in that department himself.
That first season (or should we say half season) he scored 10 goals in 18 games and last season did even better, netting 21 times.
Many of his goals have come from the penalty spot and he has now built up the reputation of being the 'Penalty King' of Palmerston. "I don't mind taking penalties" he says. "You've got to be positive and once you make up your mind where you're going to place it, don't change it"
One well-known player from the past said the secret of taking a penalty is based on the three Cs--Confidence, Composure and Concentration, and John wholehearted agreed with that.
He has always been the type of player who loves to be out on the park rather than on the subs bench. "All players feel the same" he admits. "Sometimes you're left out for tactical reasons or maybe you're not quite recovered from an injury. I accept that, but I'm always much happier when I'm out there in the thick of the action".
His most memorable match for Queens was the game up at Forfar last season when we clinched the League Championship. "It was a great day in the history of the club and our fans were unbelievable. We were under a lot of pressure but played well".John has scored many fine goals since coming to Palmerston but two he recalls with pride was the one against Stenhousemuir last season when he chipped the keeper from 25 yards and the other was in the Challenge Cup at Peterhead earlier this season which he describes as his "best ever".
Last season he was voted the P.F.A. 'Player of the Year' for Division Two. "It meant an awful lot to me" he acknowledged "Because those voting were fellow professionals not fans or sportwriters. It was the ultimate compliment and just topped off a great season for me".
John now lives in Newcastle and is currently the accounts manager for a business magazine. "I stay only two doors away from our club physio 'Healing Hands' Crichton" he joked "But I suppose we all have crosses to bear".
He is affectionately known by the fans as 'Jonjo' after the famous jockey but John laughed and chortled "I hate horse-racing. I'd rather stick needles in my eyes than watch that". So here endeth the saga of John O'Neill.
Next month on 'PLAYER CHAT' we feature the 'ELEPHANT MAN' himself, PETER WEATHERSON.
5th March 2003