Thursday, June 03, 2010

Book review: Martin O'Neill - The Biography

By Simon Moss (John Blake Publishing)

It's a tricky thing, writing an unauthorised biography. How do you pitch it? Do you go for the muckraking reportage of rumour and innuendo like Kitty Kelley or Albert Goldman? Or just use existing sources to build a portrait of the subject.

In Martin O'Neill: The Biography, Simon Moss takes the latter approach in a workman-like book that ultimately fails to satisfy.

Partly this is the fault of O'Neill himself. A complex, intense character he deserves more than a life illustrated by old cuttings.

Even here though you feel Moss could have done better. O'Neill's relationship with Brian Clough obviously shaped both his playing career and his subsequent attitude to the role of manager. Moss refers to it a lot but fails to properly examine it.

Similarly the way events in Northern Ireland affected O'Neill as a young Northern Irish Catholic living in England are alluded to but not really analysed. That might be excusable in a football book but they must have played some part in shaping O'Neill and certainly influenced his relationship with Neil Lennon when he joined him at Celtic.

And brevity is not always the author's friend. I feel that a sentence like "O'Neill...may have been immune to the troubles taking place in his homeland, but Forest had their own problems on the pitch" veers towards the offensive when the year in question is 1972.

So we are left with a chronological tour through O'Neill's career. And there's nothing wrong with that, especially for Celtic fans as the Parkhead period is given the lion's share of the book.

Personally I'd have like to hear more about the playing years. I know a little about that strained relationship with Clough but I was unaware, for example, that O'Neill scored for Irish club Distillery in the Nou Camp as a teenager.

Still, that's a minor quibble in a book that is clearly geared towards those interested in O'Neill the manager - an approach that might yet have Liverpool fans snapping it up in the weeks ahead.

Less easy to overlook are the errors that litter the pages. The Manchester United of one sentence become the Untied of the next. It becomes laughable when "former O'Neill charge Emily Heskey" gets what must surely have been a memorable equaliser. It is perhaps unfair to judge Moss' work on the failings of his editor - Lord knows this blog is not without errors - but when "Nemanja Vidi?" is making an appearance on the second last page this reader's patience was sorely tried.

An editor with a knowledge of Scottish football would probably have also realised that Celtic were unlikely to be playing "Livingstone" (Doctor, I presume). Similarly The Herald is suddenly transformed into Sydney's Morning Herald.

There are numerous examples of this: O'Neill is quoted as saying that John Clark told him the Celtic team of 1976 never got booed. Why Clark would pick a season five years after he left Celtic is unclear. Unless, of course, he was talking about 1967. A big mistake that as far as Celtic are concerned.

When, on page 213, "O'Nell was forced to blood nineteen-year-old David Youngster" in goals at the Nou Camp, these errors had me snorting my tea. Still, for a marshall, Youngster did very well.

And that's all a shame, because the book deserves better. It's not a classic, it's not the definitive O'Neill story, but it's a worthwhile look at a man who has been involved in senior British football for almost forty years.

It's certainly readable - I particularly enjoyed having my memory jogged about Celtic's run to the UEFA Cup final - and remains so despite some of the more glaring errors.

But you can't help picture O'Neill's demented leaping at so many missed opportunities if Moss was playing for one of his teams. In the end this book leaves you wanting more. For that we might have to wait for Martin O'Neill: The Autobiography.

If he can ever sit down long enough to write it.

You can buy Martin O'Neill: The Biography and loads of other stuff at The Scottish Football Bookshop. Mercy me, I need the cash.

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