Glentoran v Cliftonville: Paul O'Neill on swapping the Oval for Solitude

By Mark SterlingBBC Sport NI
Paul O'Neill
O'Neill faced Glentoran not long after leaving them at the end of January

Phone calls from your assistant manager on a Sunday afternoon are probably not a regular occurrence for Irish League footballers. But this was no normal Sunday in the Irish League.

The two previous transfer deadline days had been much livelier than the Irish Premiership had ever seen before, but the drama involved in the final opportunity for new signings in January was another level.

Sunday, 31 January was the date and Conor McMenamin choosing a move to Glentoran over Larne at the 11th hour grabbed most of the headlines. However, it was the transfer of Paul O'Neill in the other direction that added the real surprise element to the deal.

A Northern Ireland Under-21 international forward who had come through the ranks at the Oval, O'Neill was a firm favourite amongst the east Belfast club's supporters, but had to quickly get his head around a surprise twist in his fledgling career.

"Mick [McDermott, Glentoran manager] had told me that he was never going to let me go," O'Neill explained.

"I knew Cliftonville were interested in me. I was hearing whispers about McMenamin wanting to join the Glens and that Cliftonville would only accept it if I was going the other way.

"Once I heard McMenamin was on his way to the Oval, I got a phone call from Windy [Paul Millar, Glentoran assistant manager] on deadline day to say there was a deal that was probably acceptable for the Glens.

"Once I heard Windy saying that they would accept the deal I thought that I wasn't in their plans and I made my mind up. It wasn't really a difficult phone call, it was a good move for me and I was going to play games of football.

"Did I expect the move to come about a week before? Probably not, no, but on deadline day I got that call and I made the choice to go to Cliftonville."

Drawing the Glens 'brought a smile to my face'

Paul O'Neill
O'Neill came through the youth ranks at Glentoran

O'Neill will be heading back to the Oval with the Reds on Saturday evening to face his former club in the stand-out tie of the Irish Cup second round, and a repeat of last season's semi-final.

The Glens won that, of course, before going on to lift the cup, with O'Neill scoring the opening goal in the final victory over Ballymena United.

He is still in touch with some of his ex-team-mates and said it brought a smile to his face when he heard Cliftonville being drawn with Glentoran on the radio.

"I have a lot of close friends at the Oval, the likes of Paddy McClean, Seanan Clucas and Ciaran O'Connor I would keep in touch with - and Paddy has already been on saying that we will meet up as soon as we can," he explained.

"But there will be no friends on the pitch on Saturday, we will be going out to win the game. You have to be nasty when you're playing football. We won't say much before the game either, you wait until it is over and then see if you can brag about it. "

After scoring four goals in his early appearances for Cliftonville, the forward was sidelined by a frustrating knee injury that he said he could do nothing for but rest.

He came off the bench in Tuesday's defeat at home to Larne - a second consecutive loss for Paddy McLaughlin's men - and is hopeful of forcing his way back into the starting line-up for Saturday.

"Being a player you always want to start games and that is why I moved to Cliftonville. At the Glens I was either on the bench or getting taken off as first substitute every game after 60 minutes.

"I had been getting a lot of game time at Cliftonville up until I got the injury, and I have been really enjoying it. Even if I do have to come off the bench I will give 100%. I take it thick when we lose and it can ruin my whole weekend. Especially against your old club, you want to come out on top."

Nothing part-time about Cliftonville for O'Neill

Paul O'Neill
O'Neill scored three goals in two games for Northern Ireland Under 21s last autumn

O'Neill was a full-time player at Glentoran and, while Cliftonville still retain part-time status, the Northern Ireland Under-21 international insists he is still training just as hard at Solitude as he was while at the Oval.

"We are out on the pitch four or five times a week and you have your match on a Saturday, so it is not part-time," he said.

"I'm still training full-time and I'm still doing my own thing in the gym when I can. Training at Cliftonville is in the evenings rather than during the day, but that is not a big deal to me - I'm training and giving my all to football."

Winning the cup last year has whetted O'Neill's appetite for silverware, and he has an added incentive for getting to this month's final - the chance to play in front of Reds supporters for the first time.

"I want to win a lot of trophies in my career because it really is a brilliant feeling when you do it for the first time.

"I'd also love to play in front of Cliftonville fans if they are allowed in to the final. I grew up around the Cliftonville area and know a few lads who always gave me a bit of stick, but it was all good fun. I'm looking forward to getting some praise from them for a change."

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