When Neil Adams recruited Gary O’Neil on a free transfer two summers ago, not many of us were that excited.
Yes, he had a wealth of experience in the top flight with Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and West Ham and he had also just got promoted from the Championship with QPR but nobody went overboard in their praise of ‘another cheap signing.’
Now though, he has turned into an integral part of the Norwich City first team and is no doubt one of the first names on the team sheet. His performances alongside Jonny Howson, who has also been great, have been so important to the mini surge up the table that the Canaries have enjoyed in the last three games.
His midfield battles with Fernando and Fernandinho against Manchester City were a lesson to those young midfielders watching that size and athleticism isn’t everything.
Standing just 5’8′ tall and aged 32 (he’ll be 33 in May) he had a running battle with the two Brazilian internationals in that game and he didn’t give them an inch. There were many good Norwich performances that day, everyone played well but O’Neil stood out for me and he’s been critical to shielding the back four ever since.
He likes a tackle, can pass the ball well and is often given the responsibility of taking corners from the right side. I guess you could say his career is enjoying an Indian Summer with the Canaries.
Against Newcastle he had another great game and was up against Shelvey and Wijnaldum. The Dutchman is the modern example of a central midfielder, he’s strong and athletic and at 25 years of age has nearly eight years on O’Neil but such is the level of performance that O’Neil is achieving at the moment that he is dealing with this sort of challenge with aplomb.
Would he be playing as much if Alex Tettey’s season hadn’t ended prematurely through injury? I suspect he probably wouldn’t because Tetts was generally partnering Howson up till that point, partly due to O’Neil’s challenge on Afellay at Stoke that got him a three match ban.
That was a senseless challenge from O’Neil and probably cost us the game but he immediately apologised and got his head down. He worked hard and when Tettey was injured, he was back in the side and boy, has he stepped up.
On Saturday he will face the Crystal Palace midfield and come up against Yohan Cabaye, a player that can change a game if you give him the room to work. Gaz is the perfect answer to the Frenchman’s guile and I expect he’ll let him know what sort of game he’s in for, right from the off.
Well done Gary, keep it up son!