‘Chicken’ did not look happy as the TV cameras panned across Boro’s medical room.
‘Chicken’ did not look happy as the TV cameras panned across Boro’s medical room. There he was at 11 o’clock at night, well past his bedtime dressed in his old man’s cardy looking completely confused, bemused and dejected as if his whole world had fallen apart. To all intense and purposes it had, and so had mine. The rolling caption at the bottom of the screen read CONFIRMED: O’Neil joins Boro.
It was 31 August 2007 and Pompey had just sold their shining star. One of the last remaining players who we as Pompey fans knew would always wear our shirt with pride and give 110% irrespective of the conditions, the opposition or the competition. We had just sold the boy, who in January 2000 at just 16 years old had become our youngest ever player. We had just sold our next England international. I wondered as I saw that caption roll across my screen again, whether we had just sold our soul.
It was Tony Pulis who first gave Gary O’Neil his break and although at the time we had no idea of the type of player O’Neil would become when he made that appearance from the bench three and a half months shy of his 17th birthday, it was still good to know that despite him being a Millwall supporter he was still a product of Pompey’s youth system.
As it turned out we didn’t see Gary again that season or that much more of him under Pulis or Steve Claridge come to that, but Graham Rix the third manager of the disastrous relegation threatened season that was 2000/01 gave Gary the opportunity to establish himself in the final few matches of the campaign. And establish himself he did. In spite of sporting a shirt with his name spelt incorrectly Gary battled for the cause and even rounded off the season scoring his first professional goal in a 3-0 win that secured our Division One status.
O’Neil became a key player for Rix the following season and although it proved another disappointing campaign for the club, his reputation continued to grow. Uncle Harry arrived on the scene at the end of that season and decided the squad needed rebuilding. Luckily, O’Neil was one of the few not to be moved on; in fact Harry publicly heaped praise on him stating that he was the future of the club. Things were looking good for young ‘Chicken’.
As it turned out despite Harry’s public commendation Gary featured in just 11 league games of our successful 2002/03 season. So as Merson & Co breezed convincingly to the title Gary had to be content with no more than a ‘bit part’. Once the euphoria died down however, he pondered his future. Did Harry think Gary could make the step up to the Premiership?
We had to wait a while before we had an answer to that question as at the beginning of our first Premiership campaign Gary was loaned to Walsall in order to gain first team experience, whatever that implies. As it turned out an injury crisis led to his recall and Gary was placed straight into the first team and given his Premiership debut against bottom of the table Leeds. O’Neil didn’t disappoint and netted two as Pompey recorded an empathic 6-1 victory in front of a delirious Fratton crowd.
Responsibilities as Captain of the England U20’s meant that Gary’s tenure in the first team didn’t last long and upon his return from the U20’s World Cup in Dubai the injury crisis that saw him recalled from Walsall had passed and with it had gone his chance to stake a claim for a regular first team place. O’Neil was to play no further part for the remainder of the season. Once again Gary had to wait for an answer to that question of whether Harry thought he could make that step up to become a regular in our Premiership first team.
Events have a strange way of repeating themselves as once again O’Neil was sent on loan, this time to Cardiff. Again, this was cut short due to another injury crisis and he was hauled back to face Southampton in one of matches of the season. The following match, in which he scored, proved to be the end of Harry’s reign and the hapless Velimir Zajec took over as temporary manager. Zajec made O’Neil a regular in the midfield and although he continued to graft, Pompey began freefalling toward the wrong end of the table.
Alain Perrin’s appointment focussed on keeping Pompey in the Premiership and Gary became a crucial part of the Frenchman’s plans. As expected whether playing on the right or, as he preferred through the middle, our ever reliable geeky looking youth product ran his socks off for the cause and was one of the main reasons why Pompey were not relegated after only two seasons in the top flight.
Rumours of a rejected £5million offer from Liverpool surfaced but as it was O’Neil started as a regular for Alain Perrin’s new-look 2005/06 team and once again Gary impressed, but those around him flattered to deceive and by November relegation was a larger than life reality. Perrin to the relief of many was shown the door.
The return of Harry was viewed by some to signal the beginning of the end of O’Neil’s Pompey career but as it transpired he retained his place in the team and with Gary in the middle Pompey went on their best run of the season.
The signings of Mendes and Davis from Spurs in January however, ousted ‘Chicken’ from his role and he was asked once again to play out on the right. That reshuffle and Harry persistence to accommodate the other new signings coincided with string of results that left us odds on for relegation.
We all know how that seasons story ends, with Pedro’s goals igniting the team into life, but for me O’Neil’s performance on d’Alessandro’s debut away to Bolton a couple of weeks earlier was pure inspiration and in itself should be considered a potential turning point of the season. After all, it was performances like that which earned him the Supporters Player of the Year Award.
Despite rumours of run-ins with Harry, Gary retained his place as a regular on the right throughout the 2006/07 campaign and week in week out continued to prove his worth, although it took until a game against Sheffield United in January before he won his bet with Sean Davis and had his first hair-cut of the season by scoring what was to turn out become his final Pompey goal.
It was performances like those described and the way in which we saw Gary as ‘one of us’ that led to his ‘fans favourite’ status and although we adored him it’s fair to speculate that we, and indeed Gary himself, believed deep down he was never considered one of Harry’s boys and as such his days were always going to be numbered, but knowing this didn’t alter our or his disappointment when he signed for Boro in August 2007.
A few months on it was suggested that ‘Chicken’ wasn`t happy with his move to the Riverside and although his early on pitch performances didn’t seem to suffer his form dipped over the second half of the season as his family struggled to settle in the North. As it was the need for a knee operation ended his season early and stories started to emerge that he was looking for a way out of Teesside due to homesickness.
I was pleased to hear only recently however that Gareth Southgate had stated that he would bend over backwards to keep him, and in turn Gary himself had said he had fully committed his future to Boro after resolving the issues that put his mind in doubt. He may never wear a Pompey shirt again but I along with most Fratton fans wish him all the best.
In summary, it looks as it Gary has got over the move he never wanted and is knuckling down with life at the Riverside. As for me I will never forget the look of bewilderment on his face on the telly that night and although I no longer feel that we sold our soul, I can’t help thinking how I would have felt seeing ‘Chicken’ parade around Wembley?. in a Pompey shirt? holding the FA Cup aloft.
‘One of us’ would have been on the pitch.