Football editor shares inside story of most unexpected podcast interview with manager who refused his questions 10 years ago
Ten years ago, Mat Kendrick heard the words most football writers dread when speaking to a football manager: “I won’t take a question from you.”
The manager in question, Martin O’Neill, who had left Aston Villa, the club covered by Mat for the Birmingham Mail at the time, a year before that final interaction in April 2012.
A decade on without the pair crossing paths — or attempted questions — Mat and Martin finally met again recently, with the latter promoting his autobiography, and more than happy to take many questions from Mat, now managing editor of Reach’s football operations, while still presenting the Claret & Blue podcast for BirminghamLive.
Explaining how the “If you don’t mind I won’t take a question from you!” answer came about, Mat said: “Those were the last words Martin O’Neill had spoken to me in more than a decade
“Our previous exchange occurred during his first return to Villa Park as Sunderland manager back in April 2012.
“After a 0–0 Premier League draw with Alex McLeish’s Villa team I spotted an opportunity to pounce during the post-match press conferences.
“O’Neill had walked out on Villa 20 months earlier, handing in his resignation just five days before the start of the season, and had never really explained why.
“Hearing him mumble the word ‘sorry’ in a completely different context as he conducted his media duties I decided to push my luck.
“‘Hello Martin, I just heard you say sorry, but I didn’t quite catch the rest of the sentence. Were you apologising to Villa fans for the timing and manner of your departure?’
“Cue him leaping out of his seat, fuming ‘If you don’t mind I won’t take a question from you’ and storming out of the room in the Trinity Road stand at Villa Park.
“To be fair, me sending him on his way with a sarcastic: ‘No, I don’t mind, can I invite one of my colleagues to ask it on my behalf?’ hardly helped matters.”
But why wouldn’t he take questions from Mat at the time?
Mat added: “Well, as the local Villa reporter for the Birmingham Evening Mail I had not only reported on the growing frictions between him and [then owner] Randy Lerner during the final stages of his reign but had been hyper-critical about the mess his ridiculously hasty departure had left Villa in.
“He didn’t like it, and didn’t particularly like me. The feeling was mutual.”
The chance of a follow-up encounter proved something of a surprise, on several levels.
Mat said: “The main driving factor was that he has a book to promote, On Days Like These: My Life In Football. I’m not naive enough to think the reunion in a swanky Birmingham hotel was down to a desperate need to speak to me.
“However, the chance to sit down face to face with him after all this time and to finally get the answers denied every Villa supporter until now was too good to miss.
“I must confess that when a mutual contact got in touch with me last week to propose the meeting I did suspect it was a mistimed April Fool.
“‘Are you sure? Does he know it will be me?’
“‘Yes, yes, don’t worry — he knows it’s you and he is willing to go through it all.’
“‘Even the departure?’
“‘Yes, even that!’”
“Even as our multimedia guru Dan Rolinson was setting up his mics, cameras and lights I still feared it was an elaborate hoax and O’Neill would stand us up and let us down. Not so. Suddenly there he was.
“Wiry frame, a determined look behind those trademark spectacles, and appearing to be in very good nick for a man of 70.
“After a genial handshake and some small talk about the appointment of Unai Emery, O’Neill gave us 45 minutes of his time to go over his claret and blue career.
“He spoke more candidly than I have ever heard him do so before about his regrets.
“The one regret I had was that we couldn’t chat for even longer.
“O’Neill is like Marmite with Villa fans.
“There are those who prefer to remember the good times of sixth place finishes, Wembley trips, European nights and some swashbuckling counter attacking football delivered by heroes such as Martin Laursen, Gareth Barry, Ashley Young, James Milner and John Carew.
“Then there are those who resent him for leaving Villa in the lurch by throwing the strop of all strops and storming out on the eve of the season, plunging the squad and the entire football club in an unprecedented state of chaos, from which it has never truly recovered.
“On Claret & Blue we felt duty bound to reflect both sides of the argument, making the editorial decision to quiz O’Neill on the good bits and the bad bits of his four-year stint in B6.
“On this occasion he did take a question from me, lots in fact, and answered openly and honestly, showing more remorse than I ever thought possible, also sharing brilliant anecdotes and giving me some gentle joshing for old time’s sake.
“In hindsight — the benefit of being a ‘Monday Morning quarterback’ as O’Neill would term it — I feel we could and should have pushed him more on the events leading up to his exit rather than just the tipping point, which he acknowledged was Lerner’s damaging U-turn over the sale of James Milner to Manchester City.
“He did go into it, in greater detail than he ever has before, but there’s so much more that I guess we’ll never know.
“Certain non-disclosure agreements are in place about the actual constructive dismissal hearing which was ultimately settled out of court, so he wouldn’t or couldn’t say much about that and his publisher’s wish that several juicy bits be held back for the book felt like a fair request.
“Unlike that previous encounter more than a decade ago, I didn’t actually hear the word ‘sorry’ this time.
“But I certainly got the sense that O’Neill felt it.”
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