Ex-Middlesbrough, West Ham, QPR and Norwich man Gary O’Neil: Nowhere else in my career matched my relationship with Portsmouth fans. One day I’d love to be Blues manager.

Former Blues favourite Gary O’Neil has reflected on his pain at departing Fratton Park after 11 years.

Friday, 10th December 2021, 11:00 am

And Bournemouth’s first-team coach is targeting a return sometime in the future – as Pompey boss.

The midfielder graduated from the Blues’ youth-set up to make 192 appearances and score 17 goals, while also skippering the side on occasions.

After being sold by Harry Redknapp to Middlesbrough in August 2007, he later turned out for West Ham, QPR, Norwich, Bristol City and Bolton.

Yet In the 2020 book Played Up Pompey Three, O’Neil admits that, compared to the Fratton faithful, he never enjoyed the same connection with other supporters.

And his fierce ambition is to one day return to Fratton Park as manager.

‘He commented: “The lads told me Gary O’Neil was having his medical. I said no chance. He’s never leaving Pompey, ever’.

Gary O'Neil celebrates scoring one of his two goals against Fulham in April 2006, using a golfing theme

‘That’s exactly how I felt - I didn’t imagine myself being anywhere else. From when I made my debut to the day I hung up my boots, I believed I would be at Fratton Park.

‘That probably wouldn’t have happened considering the club’s subsequent downfall and those tough times. I imagine I have needed to leave at some point, yet I never thought I would.

‘Maybe I should have stuck around and bided my time rather than joining Middlesbrough.

‘Perhaps I could have let Harry Redknapp put me in the reserves for a few months before commencing my climb back into the first-team, but I was given only a couple of days to make a decision.

Gary O'Neil left Pompey in August 2007 - but dreams of a return as manager one day

‘Harry never spoke to me about leaving, an obvious sign he didn’t want me to stay. Pompey had accepted bids from Middlesbrough and Fulham, which said everything.

‘Harry obviously felt it was time for me to move on. Besides, they were receiving a decent fee – £5m. Well, if they don’t want me, then I’ll go. I accepted my fate.

‘Having signed for Middlesbrough on transfer deadline day, I returned to the south coast to collect some stuff, popping into our Eastleigh training ground to say goodbye to my good friends Richard Hughes and Linvoy Primus, plus everybody else. It was an emotional day.

‘One minute I was sitting in my newly decorated Warsash house with my baby daughter, Summer-Mae, thinking everything was fine, having been Pompey’s captain a few months earlier.

‘Then, within a 24-hour whirlwind, I was gone.

‘After 11 years, 192 appearances and 17 goals, I said farewell to Fratton Park. I loved it there and still feel I have unfinished business.

‘I established a relationship with the fans which I never had anywhere else in my career. Even though I was from Bromley, in Kent, I did my real growing up at Pompey, this school kid who arrived - then left as a Premier League footballer.

‘I’m certain that one day I will manage Portsmouth Football Club, that’s my aim. Hopefully that moment is part of my future.’

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O’Neil was appointed Bournemouth’s first-team coach under Jonathan Woodgate in February 2021.

Following Woodgate’s summer departure, O’Neil stayed on to serve in Scott Parker’s staff.

The Cherries are presently second in the Championship, just one point adrift of leaders Fulham.

The 38-year-old added: I always thought I’d come back to Pompey and nearly did in January 2009. It was all agreed, but Middlesbrough wouldn't let me out – and that was that.

‘Tony Adams was now manager and the Blues agreed to pay me the same amount over the duration of my remaining Boro contract, so it was a win-win for me.

‘I would be returning to the south coast, we hadn’t sold our house down there yet, and I could resume what I felt was my pathway, everything fitted perfectly.

‘Middlesbrough had other ideas, though, with Southgate insisting there was no way I was going.

‘As it turned out, I don’t think Pompey could pay as much as Middlesbrough wanted them too. In addition, there were complications over a sell-on clause from the initial deal, which meant obviously there wouldn’t be money due for Middlesborugh.

‘That was the closest I came, although when I was at Bristol City and having a tough spell with injury, Kenny Jackett rang my agent in March 2018 to say “Just to mark your card, we may be interested in Gary in the summer”.

‘However, by the time that came around he had other ideas and it never really got anywhere, so I instead joined Bolton Wanderers.

‘It was a shame, I would have loved a Fratton Park return. Maybe one day – there’s nothing I want more.’

Gary O’Neil made 192 appearances for Pompey and scored 17 times from June 1996 until August 2007.

Played Up Pompey Three is available from Waterstone’s, Pompey’s club shop and Amazon.

Alternatively, contact [email protected] for copies autographed by those featured in the books, including the signatures of Michael Doyle, Benjani, Alan Knight, Guy Whittingham, Martin Kuhl, Sammy Igoe, Dave Munks, Sean Raggett and Lee Brown.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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