This column has never stinted in its admiration for football manager Martin O'Neill and after the events of last Wednesday night, there are no apologies for a reprise.

That evening O?Neill was guest of honour and main speaker at a dinner to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Nottingham Forest winning the European Cup ? an amazing feat that gets more remarkable as the years roll by.

It climaxed a day during which conflicting emotions must have coursed through the psyche of O?Neill. Earlier, he had announced his time was over at Glasgow Celtic due to the serious illness of his wife, Geraldine. His press conference at lunchtime was a model of its type ? dignified, humble, witty, marked by a refusal to blame the fates for landing cancer at his family?s door.

A lesser man would have dipped out of his responsibilities that evening in Nottingham. Not a chance with Martin O?Neill. He and his great friend and assistant, John Robertson, caught a flight to Birmingham Airport and were back there again at seven the following morning, ready to go and take training with Celtic. There was a Scottish Cup to be won 48 hours later.

Many in the audience of 500 were amazed that Martin had made it, but he began by saying he wouldn?t have missed it for anything, that he was only sorry that the late Brian Clough wasn?t there to enjoy the evening and that it was an honour and privilege to be there.

He said he?d only talk for a couple of minutes, which was the one thing he got wrong. The next 40 minutes flew by as he singled out all of the 1980 Forest squad who were there for the dinner ? including Larry Lloyd, who had just flown in from Thailand, and Trevor Francis, who?d arrived back from Spain that afternoon.

Some of Martin?s observations were engagingly waspish.

?Peter Shilton, you were the greatest goalkeeper in the world at the time, but a big-headed b******?.

Stan Bowles copped the biggest verbal broadside in hilarious fashion.

?Stanley, you were one of the best players in the country at your best, absolutely terrific ? but not for Nottingham Forest?.

For a short period, Bowles was at the City Ground, one of Cloughie?s aberrations in the transfer market. He never fitted in, not least because he preferred a bet to playing football.

I?d forgotten that on the night of the 1980 final against Hamburg, Bowles refused to be on the bench. He thought he should have started the match and said so. Forest therefore only had four substitutes that night. What a story that would have been had Forest lost!

Anyway, they won one-nil, hence the reunion dinner. But O?Neill hadn?t forgotten Bowles? protest in Madrid. He brought the house down when he announced: ?Stanley ? you are the only player to refuse to play in a European Cup Final and then turn up 25 years later for the celebratory piss-up! And you still owe me two thousand quid from those card games!?

Bowles wasn?t happy, but Martin had no qualms about fingering him in front of 500 diners. He offered the same unvarnished truths, laced with acerbic wit, that characterised his managerial mentor, Brian Clough.

Clough and O?Neill never really got on at Forest. Clough said there was room for only one big head at the City Ground and he certainly wasn?t leaving. He also didn?t rate O?Neill all that much as a player and Martin accepted in his speech that the manager was absolutely right about that.

O?Neill told an hilarious tale about the time when he finally plucked up the courage to go in and ask to play in midfield, rather than on the right wing. Cloughie looked at him scornfully and finally rasped: ?Son ? what number shirt do you wear?? ? Number seven, boss.? ?How would you like number 12 instead??

O?Neill never knocked on Cloughie?s door again ? except for the time when he asked for a pay rise and was sufficiently bamboozled that, half-an-hour later, he staggered out having signed a contract for less than he was already getting!

I was privileged to be the warm-up man for Martin O?Neill last week, during which I spent a few minutes telling anecdotes about Cloughie and then revealing that as late as last summer he told me that Martin was the Anointed One in his eyes, the next great manager. Martin was visibly moved and next day, in his usual hectic schedule, rang me for a private chat in which he was still touchingly chuffed at what Cloughie had said to me. As usual, Martin?s ?quick word, Pat? stretched to a good 30 minutes.

Watching him hold the audience in thrall, enjoying his fluency and self-deprecating wit, it?s easy to grasp the sharp intelligence Martin brings to the job of football management. He studied law at university in Belfast, still retains an amazing interest in criminal show trials ? don?t get him started on the Yorkshire Ripper! ? and has a breadth of perspective rare in football. And he needs it now, more than ever. But he?s at heart a football man, a manager who makes players surpass themselves.

At the age of 53, he?s young enough to be ready for a great job. If Sir Alex Ferguson gives it away in the next year, Martin O?Neill will be the outstanding candidate.

Who knows? Martin might even manage to make Manchester United popular among neutrals.

Bacher's rebels still prosper

So Matt Maynard is to be Duncan Fletcher?s assistant in coaching England?s cricketers. Good bloke, Matt ? lively company, popular with the players and unlikely to be found tucked up in bed watching the video of the day?s play at ten o?clock at night.

Fletcher is perfectly entitled to have who he wants around him, but I?m beginning to think the ECB should be renamed the Wales and England Cricket Board.

Consider the Glamorgan club that won the County Championship in 1997. The captain was Maynard, the coach Fletcher. Glamorgan?s chairman was David Morgan, who?s now the ECB?s chairman. The physiotherapist, Dean Conway, still does duty for England in the one-dayers while experienced and prolific batsman Hugh Morris is now the ECB?s performance director, an extremely important job at Lord?s.

All thoroughly good chaps, but isn?t this a case of the Taffia at work? I?m sure they all get along swimmingly, singing from the same hymnsheet, but doesn?t it feel a touch cosy?

Maynard?s appointment also confirms that going off to play for Ali Bacher in South Africa has proved to be no bar to advancement in the England hierarchy a few years down the line.

Many fine English players absented themselves from Test cricket to make handsome sums by playing what was termed ?rebel? cricket in 1982 and 1990. The England team suffered as a consequence, particularly during the 1989 Ashes series when the captain, David Gower, had to deal with all the clandestine meetings going on behind his back. Team spirit was almost non-existent and we were thumped four-nil.

In the eyes of many at the time, the players on those two ?rebel? tours were pariahs. Nelson Mandela was still in jail and apartheid remained on the statute book. But it?s remarkable how so many from those two tours are now part of the English cricket establishment.

Maynard, for a start. Dennis Amiss has run Warwickshire County Cricket Club for the past decade. David Graveney celebrates his 100th Test later this week as chairman of the selectors. Graham Gooch was subsequently England captain and a selector. Mike Gatting played again for England afterwards, was a selector, coached Middlesex and is now president of the Professional Cricketers? Association, the players? union.

And there?s more. Alan Knott was England?s wicketkeeping coach for a time, John Emburey is currently Middlesex?s coach, Bill Athey did similar duty at Worcestershire, Graham Dilley was assistant coach on a couple of England tours, while Geoffrey Boycott has given one-to-one coaching to England batsmen and Chris Broad is now an ICC match referee.

They all picked up generous dosh for defying public opinion and going to South Africa when they knew it would be controversial. That was their choice and no-one would deny them the option. It?s a free country ? unlike South Africa before its? first democratic election in 1994.

Some of the above are personal friends of mine and we?re talked out on this subject now. But haven?t they done well for themselves, in the bosom of English cricket, an institution that remains innately conservative?

Just for the record, some current England players did turn down the tours in 1982 and 1990 ? Rob Bailey, now an umpire, Geoff Cook, who?s director of cricket at Durham and Gladstone Small, who works for the PCA. They haven?t come late to the conclusion that Nelson Mandela is a great man.

Asian power base fuelling Bangladesh mismatches

Now that we?ve had final confirmation that Bangladesh are a hopeless Test side, we ought to consider why they?re actually in the international tent.

The answer is cricket politics. The major power in cricket circles now resides in Asia, where the biggest television contracts are found and where vast sums of money are laid out in betting and huge crowds flock to oneday internationals.

England and Australia, the oldest allies around conference tables, have been isolated by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, who no longer behave deferentially towards the imperialists of yesteryear. Zimbabwe and South Africa bring other issues while the West Indies are also ambivalent.

So there was little opposition in the International Cricket Council to appointing Bangladesh as a Test nation in 2000, because the Asian bloc could call the tune. And the ridiculous concept of the league table in international cricket meant another team was welcome to engage in the spurious exercise of playing far too many games per year.

So England have to play Bangladesh, even though they think it?s a joke. But they can?t tell the truth. Contrast this willingness to play Bangladesh with England?s sniffy attitude to giving Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka a chance to play Tests over here in the past.

It was nine years from election to the ICC before Zimbabwe played a Test in England and our treatment of Sri Lanka was even more elitist. After beginning as a Test nation in 1982, they were given one- off Tests over here in 1984, 1988 and 1991 before getting a three-Test series in 1996. Then it was back to a one-off Test, at the Oval in 1998 ? which they won with some ease.

And the Sri Lankan base for developing cricketers was far healthier than that of Bangladesh. Good schools, a thriving club set-up, excellent practice facilities and hugely talented young players meant Sri Lanka were bound to prosper, given exposure to Test cricket. And, 14 years later, they won the World Cup in 1996.

Food for thought as we contemplate another three-day Test in Durham later this week.

Why else do you think we?re not starting until Friday? Because the corporate hospitality brigade need some cricket to watch on Sunday, unlike at Lord?s last week.

Read previous Pat Murphy columns at www.icBirmingham.co.uk/post/murphy