Gary O'Neil: I was a Millwall boy, but Portsmouth is my true club - now I'm coming back as a fan

For nine seasons he revelled in the Fratton end roar – now Gary O’Neil is desperate to join their number.

Sunday, 17th November 2019, 5:00 pm
Gary O'Neil hands over his The News/Sports Mail Player of the Season trophy to David James in 2006-07. Picture: Steve Reid

The converted Pompey fan is eyeing his seat for the next emotional visit to the club he has grown to love.

A boyhood Millwall fan, the energetic midfielder emerged through Fratton Park ranks to feature in the first-team 193 times.

Such was the strength of the Pompey bond which developed, there can be no doubting his footballing affiliation these days.

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Gary O'Neil and goalscorer Benjani Mwaruwari in the memorable Great Escape match at Wigan in April 2006. Picture: Neal Simpson

Sold against his wishes to Middlesbrough for a fee of around £5m in August 2008, subsequently O’Neil’s Fratton Park encounters have been sparse.

A trip to watch Kenny Jackett’s side in the 1-1 draw against Oxford United earlier this month represented a maiden south-coast return in almost eight years. 

On the previous occasion, he was an unused substitute for West Ham in the Hammers’ 1-0 Championship win in January 2012.

The 36-year-old is presently without a club and sidelined by an Achilles injury.

Gary O'Neil uses a golf club celebration to mark the first of his two goals in the 3-1 win at Fulham in April 2006

And the former West Ham, QPR, Norwich, Bristol City and Bolton man relished the recent reunion with his spiritual footballing home.

O’Neil told The News: ‘Fratton Park’s an amazing place. As I haven’t been there for so long, you actually forget how special it feels.

‘I’m definitely going to get back as much as I can now, I loved it against Oxford – and I don’t feel like that when I go anywhere else.

‘Even just to watch and sit in the stands with the fans, I will be back down as much as possible now.

Gary O'Neil last season played for Bolton in the Championship. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

‘I was a Millwall fan as a kid, I used to love going to watch them, but as soon as you start playing you can no longer do that and it takes a big part of it away.

‘So I turned into a Pompey fan because I was there for so long and they treated me so well.

‘I didn’t really want to leave, so was always looking back at the results and sort of converted into a Pompey fan, so I’ll be down there as much as I can.

‘I have never actually sat in the Fratton end – maybe one day!’

O’Neil was crowned Bolton’s Player of the Year last season, with 29 appearances and three goals in the Championship.

However, a summer return fell through, while prospective switches to QPR and Aberdeen also didn’t come off, leaving the former England under-21 international without a club.

Even an enquiry to Kenny Jackett about whether there were playing or coaching opportunities at Fratton Park was politely declined.

In the meantime, O’Neil recently underwent an operation following an Achilles injury, a setback which didn’t prevent him attending the visit of Oxford.

Yet there remains a contingency plan – coaching.

And the 2005-06 The News/Sports Mail Player of the Season possesses aspirations of carving out a new career in football management.

O’Neil added: ‘I haven’t managed to get a club yet and picked up a little injury while training by myself, probably doing a bit too much, as I sometimes tend to do. Too much rather than not doing enough.

‘That has stopped me for a little while, I’m not sure exactly how long it is going to be.

‘I think it will now be difficult for me to get anything I fancy doing, but we’ll see, I am hopeful. I want to play until maybe the end of this season and then next, but I’m doing coaching bits and media to keep me ticking over in the meantime.

‘I have finished all my badges and have my Uefa Pro Licence, I’ve also been doing stuff in certain clubs as well. Maybe I will come back to Pompey in another capacity in the future.

‘I’m not sure whether I am definitely stopping playing, I didn’t want to stop, but the way things have transpired, finding a new club has dragged on longer than I would have liked.

‘The coaching thing is still very new to me, I consider myself to be a player at the moment, but am hopeful of coming back and playing at a decent level. Perhaps even returning to Fratton with the opposition.

‘If I can't carry on playing, though, I will start to going down the coaching roots sooner than expected, which I am prepared to do.’