LIAM MACKEY: Close encounters of the tetchy kind - the Martin O’Neill and Tony O’Donoghue grudge match

Martin O’Neill and Tony O’Donoghue seemed to attract most public interest than the inaugural Nations League draw, writes Liam Mackey.

Even more than the renewing of not so old acquaintance with the Welsh and the Danes, it was Wednesday's stinging rematch between Martin O'Neill and Tony O'Donoghue which seemed to attract most public interest on the back of the inaugural Nations League draw.

If it’s any consolation to the RTÉ man, legendary BBC commentator John Motson has been there before him — and in infinitely more bruising circumstances — when he infamously got on the wrong side of Alex Ferguson in a post-match interview which was conducted in 1995 but considered so toxic by the BBC that it wouldn’t be screened until the documentary ‘The Ferguson Factor’ made it to air in 2002.

The immediate background to the original exchange was the fact that Roy Keane had just been sent off for the third time in 14 matches for Manchester United, prompting Motson to ask: “I appreciate that you keep your disciplinary action inside the club, but is the Roy Keane situation one you will have to address?”

Ferguson replied: “John, you have no right to ask that question. You are out of order. You know fine well my ruling on that, right? That’s the interview finished.”

And then came the ferocious postscript.

“I’m no’ wanting that on,” an increasingly furious Ferguson told Motson. “I want to cancel that interview right? The whole fucking lot of it. Cancel it. You know the fucking score, son, so fucking make sure that it doesn’t go out or you’ll never get in this fucking club again. You’re fucking not getting in again.”

Motson: “Well, I was asked to ask you, Alex.”

Ferguson: “You fucking know the rules here.”

(For the record, the mild-mannered Motty recently recalled that, “he was alright with me when I met him again a week later.” So that’s grand then).

Another consolation for TOD, I would suggest from painful experience, is that Van Morrison never became a football manager. (Van Utd, anyone?).

Let me state for the record here, that I yield to none in my reverence for the Belfast Cowboy as a singer, songwriter, musician and arranger — or, to put it more succinctly, as a God-like genius — but not even the man’s well-established reputation as a “difficult interviewee” quite prepared me for the car-crash which ensued on the one occasion I sat across a microphone from him.

It was 1988 and, marking the release of the Irish Heartbeat album — his collaboration with the Chieftains — Hot Press sent me off to London to get the story. 

Chief of the Chieftains, Paddy Moloney, was in on the act too, not that his valiant attempts to lighten the mood proved very successful.

It didn’t help my cause that about half a dozen other journos had already run the gauntlet by the time I was escorted to a booth in a hotel restaurant, where I was greeted by a smiling Paddy and an unsmiling Van.

And I kind of knew I was in trouble right from the off when in reply to my very first question — the not strikingly original but, still, I felt, perfectly reasonable ‘whose idea was the collaboration?’ – Van more or less barked: “Well, it doesn’t really matter who contacted who…everybody’s asked that question. There’s just too many people asking the same question. It’s boring by now.”

And I definitely knew I was in trouble when my very next question elicited the following from himself:

“Is it ok if I go to sleep? Everybody asks the same first question, the same second question. I’m gonna fall asleep. Can we have something else, please? Anything. Anything different.”

Thereafter, things proceeded downhill at a rate of knots. 

Before long, Van was even bypassing me and addressing my esteemed Editor directly through the tape-recorder:

“Niall Stokes, hello, you’ve got your pound of flesh. Pound of flesh is over now. Professional time!”

Other edited, um, highlights: “Oh, I think that’s a stupid question really…”

“I’m sorry we don’t have any dirt for you…

“What more do you need? What more do you want?
Do you want me to stand on my head?...”

And then this when I’d made bold to ask how they had decided on what songs to include in the album.

Van: “That’s how you do anything. I mean why are you wearing that particular jacket today? Y’know, why not wear a pink one?”... I mean, these questions, God, they’re unanswerable. Why those songs? We’ve been asked that all day. I mean, why get up in the morning? Why, why, why? There is no why. You just do something because at the time that’s the thing to do…”

Unexpectedly, things started to take a turn for the better when Van began talking about how, growing up in Belfast, his interest in folk music had predated his engagement with the blues but, just when it seemed that I might actually salvage some class of an enlightening interview out of the debacle, the record company woman came in to tell me my time was up.

Out in the lobby, an NME journalist of my acquaintance was nervously waiting his turn. “How is he today?” he inquired in the kind of the tone you might use to ask after a contrary relative. 

“Oh absolutely grand,” I beamed, “just so long as you don’t ask him anything about the new album…”

I could see the blood draining from his face as the record company woman began marching him to his certain doom. All of which brings me back to that other feisty Northerner and his sometimes troubled relationship with the Irish meeja.

I can understand why, in the immediate aftermath of the 5-1 defeat to Denmark, one of Tony O’Donoghue’s questions — the one which included the words ‘shambles’ and ‘humiliation’ — would have inflamed an already raw nerve and, perhaps, left O’Neill with the sense that he was being kicked when he was down.

But Tony was far from the only one using those words in the atmosphere of heightened emotion after the final whistle and, anyway, it wasn’t remotely as if he spent the interview jabbing a finger in O’Neill’s face while chanting ‘sacked in the morning, you’re getting sacked in the morning’.

There’s certainly no merit in the manager bringing it all up again in public a couple of months on.

At times, his tone in the interview in Switzerland was squirm-inducing and did him absolutely no favours. Time surely for this grudge match, as my old mucker Van would have it, to be real, real, gone.


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