Ex-Pompey skipper: Nobody wants you at 35 – but I’m ready to play

Mark Catlin

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There are whispers, tantalising titbits nibbling at the tedium, yet the phone has yet to discover its voice.

Gary O’Neil is waiting.

Gary O'Neil in action at Blackburn

Gary O'Neil in action at Blackburn

At the age of 35 he’s realistic, certainly not disheartened, but possessing the steely pragmatism of a footballer dwelling in his twilight years.

Without an employer following release from Bristol City at the season’s end, the former Premier League performer is officially a free agent.

While many clubs launch their pre-season training schedule during the forthcoming week, O’Neil’s diary remains untouched.

It has been almost seven months since recovering from the hamstring tendon injury which blighted his Ashton Gate stay, while a personal trainer and Bromley parks continue to top up fitness levels.

According to the former Pompey favourite, there remain another two years to add to a career which has also taken in Middlesbrough, West Ham, QPR and Norwich. Yet the unwanted summer sabbatical stretches on.

He told The News: ‘Once you get to 35, nobody wants you. That’s what it is like and it has surprised me, it didn’t used to be.

‘I played in a Pompey team with people like Steve Stone, Tim Sherwood and Teddy Sheringham, loads of senior pros, and I thought that was great. The game has changed, though.

‘There is a lot more running, players have to be a lot more athletic, but fortunately I am fairly lean and free from injury.

‘Everyone deems that once you are over 30 then it becomes a lot more difficult, which I get, injury records have proven you are far better looking at younger players so I understand all that.

‘Consider the games you can get out of a 20-year-old compared to the games you can get out of a 35-year-old, you would obviously expect more out of the 20-year-old.

‘But you need a blend. I have seen teams go extremely young and struggled so you do need experience, especially when getting into the crunch part of the season, having a few senior pros definitely helps.

‘Steve Stone was great with me on a daily basis at Pompey. One thing which sticks in my mind was when he absolutely hammered me in training.

‘We were having an eight-a-side the day before a game, I was on his team and the ball dropped between me and somebody else but I didn't want to injure myself so pulled my foot out of it.

‘Stoney went absolutely crazy at me “That is not what we do, even when playing eight-a-sides on Fridays we try to win. If I see you do that again I’m going to kick you up the backside”.

‘He also regularly told me when I did really well, but that stuck with me. I got on really well with Stoney considering the age difference.

‘I used to call him grandad – now I’m the grandad!

‘Senior players can definitely help younger ones. Obviously you need the right ones, I get why managers are picky and choosy about which ones they take, you need to have the right influence around the place.

‘I really enjoy that side of it and there is still a part to play. I feel 100 per cent fit now, the best I’ve felt for ages and I’ll just see where I end up.’

O’Neil made 191 appearances and scored 17 times for Pompey having come through the ranks.

In the process, he became the youngest player to represent the club when, in January 2000, coming off the bench against Barnsley.

Aged 16 years and 256 days, it’s a record which stood until August 2017, when the Academy’s Joe Hancott appeared for the Blues in the Checkatrade Trophy.

O’Neil was sold to Middlesbrough in August 2007, yet almost 18-and-a-half years after his debut he remains active. Now he merely needs a stage.

He added: ‘There are a few whispers of interest and stuff, but everyone is away, so I’m just going to wait for an opportunity to come up.

‘I'm hoping something happens, I just think it will take a while for somebody to commit, probably once everyone is back in pre-season and clubs have seen what they have got, play a few games and things will open up more.

‘It’s a weird one, you wait, try to stay fit, you don't want to drive people mad by pestering and want it to be the right club when you get it, you don't want to be jumping at stuff and throwing yourself around willy nilly.

‘Everyone thinks they are okay at the moment and waiting for people to leave while trying to sign 23-24 year-old strikers, that’s just the way it is, but I’ll just wait and I’m sure the next club which signs me are going to get more out of me.

‘In the meantime, I have a fitness coach who I worked with at Norwich and has just left West Ham, so he’s available at the moment and we have been doing good work.

‘You can use the gym, but when you want to do some pitch work the local park is the only place you can go, it’s difficult to find a grass area.

‘I’m in good shape and trying to make sure I am ready to go when someone needs me. I'm really excited about the next part of my career.’