Gary O’Neil: Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez was buying me from Portsmouth - then the move collapsed in strange circumstances

Gary O’Neil embarked on a post-playing career after appointed Liverpool under-23 assistant coach in August.

Wednesday, 21st October 2020, 12:00 pm
Gary O'Neil has revealed in Played Up Pompey Three how close he came to joining Liverpool in January 2006

However, 14-and-half years earlier he had been lined up as Steven Gerrard’s midfield partner for the Anfield giants under Rafa Benitez.

That was until the move from Pompey collapsed in strange circumstances ahead of the January 2006 transfer window deadline.

Sign up to our Portsmouth FC newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

He remained at Fratton Park to aid the Great Escape that season, eventually departing in August 2007 for Middlesbrough.

But O’Neil recalls that nearly moment which could have seen him become a Liverpool player.

‘I nearly signed for Liverpool during that 2005-06 season, it came very close,’ he told Played Up Pompey Three.

‘My agent had informed me the Anfield club were extremely interested and, coincidentally, Rafa Benitez’s side were visiting Fratton Park in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

Gary O'Neil and his team-mates celebrate Yakubu's successful penalty during the 4-1 triumph over Southampton in April 2005. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

‘Obviously, they had watched me plenty of times already and were going to have another look in that January 2006 fixture just days before transfer deadline day.

‘The problem was, during the build-up I was terribly ill, the worst upset stomach I’d known. I was sick and couldn't keep my food down, prompting my agent to advise not to play.

‘Liverpool would be watching and once you stepped over that white line you were deeming yourself fit. Regardless, I was desperate to feature and didn’t want to let the lads down.

‘We lost 2-1 and I rang my agent afterwards telling him I felt I’d done okay considering. Fortunately, Liverpool remained keen.

‘I was told the terms which had been tabled, it was a five-year deal, while I wasn’t too fussed about the wages, after all I was going to Liverpool!

‘The length of deal was to protect Liverpool, I was aged 22 and seen as a project. They knew I was nowhere near the finished article and wanted to see if I could progress. There was also the suggestion I could be loaned back to Pompey for the remainder of the season, which I was fine with.

‘Then, late at night, I received a strange phone call from an agent I didn’t know and whose name I cannot remember. He said: “Hi Gary, I’ve heard Liverpool are interested”.

‘I replied “Yes, possibly. I have heard a few things’. He added “The problem is, they don’t really want to deal with your agent. If you let me do it, I can get it completed. If not, it’s going to fall through”.

‘Well, I had been with my agent, John Mac, since the age of 16, he had looked after me very well and got me new deals at Pompey. There was no way I’d do the dirty on him. Besides, I believed it had all been agreed.

‘The next day, my agent rang in the afternoon and said: “Gary, I’m really sorry, I’ve just had a phone call from Liverpool. It’s off. They’re going to go down another route”.

‘I never knew whether the deal was as close as my agent had intimated or perhaps something else was going on, but that was the last I heard of it. It fell through the day before the transfer window closed.

‘The truth is, I didn’t feel I was good enough for Liverpool. The thought of me going there seemed absolutely ridiculous. I was nowhere near ready for it, but wanted to go in and give it my best shot.

‘Surrounded by some fantastic players and coaches, hopefully it would give me the opportunity to improve. If I wasn’t good enough, I could always return to a level which I was more suited to.

‘I’d got my head around it all, I was going to sign for Liverpool, possibly the biggest club in England - then the following day it evaporated. It was a blow to recover from.

‘To be a professional footballer, you need resilience and the mental ability to deal with such things.

‘I had moved away from my family at such a young age, instead living with people I didn’t know, there were the youth-team experiences, all those lessons which teach you how to pick yourself up, regardless of the setbacks.

‘I loved being at Pompey, so if I was no longer going to Liverpool then I was more than happy to still be here. Regardless, I would have been interested to see how much better I would have become at Anfield.

‘At least I would have tried and given myself the opportunity to not quite make the grade.

‘From what I did with the rest of my career, I know I wasn’t of Liverpool standard. However, whether training with Steven Gerrard and working with Benitez could have taken me to another level would have been interesting.’

O’Neil played 192 times for Pompey, scoring 17 goals, from June 1996 until August 2007.

For player-autographed copies, with the signatures of Benjani, Richard Hughes, Sammy Igoe, Martin Kuhl, Lee Bradbury or Dave Munks, email [email protected]

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

Thank you for reading this story. The News has launched a new subscription offer which gives you unlimited access to all of our Pompey coverage.

You can subscribe here to get the latest news and transfer updates from Fratton Park - and to support our local team of expert Pompey writers.

Every subscription helps us continue providing trusted, local journalism on your behalf for our city.