In praise of the underdog

Unglamorous. Unfussy. Uncluttered. Gary O’Neil may not be the world’s most exciting footballer (that’s Wes, obviously) but Dan Brigham says his Premier League experience will be vital for Norwich’s survival bid

Here’s a fact: Gary O’Neil has played in more Premier League games than any other current Norwich player.

That’s quite surprising, isn’t it? After all, the way most Norwich fans reacted to his signing last year (with a shrug) and to his calm, intelligent performance against Swansea (with surprise) you’d think everyone was expecting him to be out of his depth in the Premier League.

Well, no. Saturday was his 195th appearance in the top-flight – that’s more than Jonny Howson, Nathan Redmond and Alex Tettey combined, by the way* – and those games have spanned 12 years, nine seasons, four clubs and, it seems, one haircut.

Perhaps the nature of those four clubs is why it’s easy to forget just how experienced he is: he’s made a career out of blending in at forgettable teams. From an underrated Portsmouth side to a relegated Middlesbrough team to a West Ham side going nowhere but down under Avram Grant, O’Neil has been an unflashy presence at unflashy clubs.

Yet he’s made over 25 Premier League appearances on four occasions, and has come up against the kind of midfielders who need only a surname: Gerrard, Ballack, Ronaldo, Makélélé, Scholes, Modrić, Mascherano, Lampard, Vieira, Robben, Alonso, Bale and Fabregas (as well as Phil Mulryne and Damien Francis in 2004-05, but we’ll forgive him if they’ve slipped his mind).

That’s a pretty handy CV. The kind of CV which would have potential employers suspecting someone’s been wild with the truth, like claiming deep-sea diving as a hobby, signing The Beatles as an achievement and assassinating Osama Bin Laden as previous experience. But, in O’Neil’s case, it’s all true: he may never be the star, he may never grow a top-knot, he may never be name-checked on Match of the Day, but he knows what it’s like to play against the very best – and that’s an invaluable commodity for Alex Neil to call on.

He’s a better, more natural holding midfielder than Bradley Johnson ever was, and without him, Norwich would have a poorer, less resilient squad

Let’s be realistic though. While Tettey and Youssouf Mulumbu are both fit O’Neil won’t start most games (he probably doesn’t expect to), but who better to slot straight into the side than someone whose footballing muscle memory has been formed playing in midfields against some of the greats of the game?

He isn’t the bulkiest of holding midfielders, but on Saturday – and against Everton and West Brom in the League Cup – he was athletic, read the game well and made timely interceptions (as well as showing some world-class fouling ability when Chuck Norrising Ki Sung-yueng at the end). His set-pieces were constantly stabbing at Swansea and his range of passing was good – perhaps polished while playing on the right of midfield for Portsmouth. At times he did seem to take an unnecessary extra touch or two, but that may have been because options were often limited ahead of him until Dieumerci Mbokani’s arrival.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Tettey had probably his best game of a very good season. With the more naturally attacking Graham Dorrans or Howson sat next to him in the holding two, he’s had to do a lot of the mole-whacking all by himself when opposition midfielders pop up in front of the defence. But on Saturday O’Neil was also there, ready to pounce and stifle. They make a combative, shrewd duo.

He made his Premier League debut in 2003, remarkably scoring twice in a 6-1 win against a Leeds side including Paul Robinson, Michael Duberry, Alan Smith and Gary Kelly. So it’s easy to imagine him in the role of old wise owl, imparting sage knowledge and learned prudence to the dressing room. This might be doing him a disservice though. Sure, he’s been around, but, well, he isn’t really that old. He’s 32, just two days short of being a year younger than Hoolahan (and, much to my distress, a year younger than me. I have never felt so mortal).

There will be a good few years left in those legs (and that haircut) yet, and there’s absolutely no reason why he can’t play a fuller role this season if required. He’s a better, more natural holding midfielder than Bradley Johnson ever was, and without him, Norwich would have a poorer, less resilient squad.

His quiet achievements should be celebrated. He is William H. Macy, he is Maxïmo Park, never getting the leading role, never headlining, but always providing skilled, quietly invaluable support. Every team needs a Gary O’Neil.

* In case you were wondering, here’s the top 10 Premier League appearances by current Norwich players (stats from 1st O’Neil 195, 2nd Jerome 189, 3rd Mulumbu 159, 4th Bassong 157, 5th Dorrans 130, 6th Olsson 127, 7th Martin 106, 8th Ruddy 102, 9th Hoolahan 92 10th Howson 80

You can follow Dan Brigham on Twitter at @dan_brigham


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