Lubo Moravcik didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Having endured a nightmare season under the John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish ‘dream team’, he was underwhelmed when Martin O’Neill entered Celtic Park as manager just 21 days before the Slovakian’s 35thbirthday.
The Irishman came with a reputation, but not one that warmed the heart of a midfielder who was more piano player than the piano lifters O’Neill had littered his teams with.
And when the Derryman announced to him in their first meeting that he hadn’t even heard of the talented player, a member of Czechoslovakia’s 1990 World Cup team and one of Zinedine Zidane’s idols, he feared the worst.
But speaking this week after O’Neill was named Ireland boss, the 48-year-old didn’t pause for breath when extolling everything about the man who eventually gave him two of the best seasons of his long career.
“He didn’t know me, but it became a very special time for me,” he says.
“When we first met, he said, ‘I don’t know you’ — but I said, ‘ok, I don’t know much about you either!’ I wasn’t sure what to expect.
“But what was important was that we had a meeting, spoke together and found a good solution. After that first meeting with him, we were very clear; I told him what I can do, he said, ‘ok fine, I’ll give you a chance’.
“After that I had a very good relationship with him at all times, and he used me well.”
O’Neill brought the best out of Moravcik, and in return the Slovakrepaid O’Neill, scoring 20 goals in two seasons as the Hoops won a first, and then a second SPL title in O’Neill’s first two years in charge.
Tack on a Scottish Cup and a League Cup too, and it’s clear why his time there was held in such high esteem by the player who had surprisingly won only the 1997 Uefa Intertoto Cup before arriving in Scotland.
To turn Moravcik’s Glasgow experience into a positive one, O’Neill had taken a Celtic side that limped home 21 points behind Rangers in the 1999 season to one that romped to the title the next, 15 points ahead of their city rivals.
Next season the 1967 European Cup winners made their first appearance in the rebranded Champions League — a contest that until then was dominated by the Glasgow team in blue.
Moravcik had never played in the tournament, but O’Neill employed him exclusively as a sub until the final group game against Italian aristocrats Juventus.
The 4-3 victory is still recalled by Celtic fans as one of the all-timeoccasions in a stadium that’s seen many epic European nights, and forMoravcik, who started the game and delivered a virtuoso performance remembered by anyone who witnessed it, O’Neill’s managerial magic was key to the result.
“I knew against Juventus that I would start, and I didn’t know that just 10 minutes before the game, he said it to me a few days before, he said ‘this may be your last chance...’ so I wasreally prepared for this game.
“It was the absolutely perfect way to prepare me. He knew it was my last chance to show my football at a big competition, in a tournament like the Champions League against a great team. This is coaching. It was perfect. He knew the perfect words to say, and how to show players what to do.
“A manager’s job is to prepare his players psychologically, to work on them a few days before big games, and this is why this job is perfect for Martin.
“His influence on the group with Ireland will not be like in a club, where you work every day, the preparation will only last a matter of days, pre-match and then preparing for game.
“In many ways, it’s similar to building up to Champions League or important league games. It’s perfect for him.”
Moravcik’s praise for O’Neill contains no caveats, and the only negative thought in his mind was jealousy — of the players about to work with him and Roy Keane.
“I’d say the Irish players are very exited, and they should be,” he said.
“Martin’s a very nice guy, he’s always had good relationships with his players, and whenever I see him now it’s very nice to see him and we talk about a lot of things.
“He’s got Roy Keane as assistant now and I know he a he’s a big star, an Irish legend. It’s a brave new step for the Irish national team; they’ve struggled a bit in the last few years but you saw what happened to Celtic when Martin went there.”
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