An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Stevenage on 5 January 2019.
Last Saturday’s sight of young Liam O’Neil lying motionless with his face in the Abbey turf brought back memories for some of us U's supporters of a certain vintage.
Was it really more than 50 years ago – was it 10 December 1966 to be exact – that we saw a near namesake of Liam’s knocked similarly unconscious on the field of play?
But it wasn’t a low-flying Imp that poleaxed the great U’s playmaker and net-bulger Alan O’Neill … the damage in the latter’s case was done when his bonce got in the way of a thunderously struck free kick.
Down he dropped and down he stayed, until judicious application of the magic sponge and a waft of the smelling salts brought him shakily to his feet. Sports medicine was a relatively primitive science in those days.
Alan O'Neill: heaps of skill and vision
Not quite sure where he was – we could have told him he was in Worcester for a Southern League Premier Division match – he tottered around for ten minutes before being relieved by young wing half Alan Payne, who helped United see out a 3-1 win.
It wasn’t the first time the County Durham-born O’Neill had been in the wars during a career that had seen him serve with distinction at Sunderland (27 goals in 74 games), Aston Villa (six in 23), Plymouth (14 in 40) and Bournemouth (eight in 37).
By the time he arrived at the Abbey in March 1966, aged 28, O’Neill wasn’t as great a threat to defences as he had been in top-flight football – an old ankle injury had deprived him of some pace – but heaps of skill and vision more than compensated.
He emphasised the point in his first U’s game, when he notched the last goal of a 4-0 home win over Margate, and went on proving it over the course of 134 appearances and 35 goals.
The Cambridge Evening News was impressed from the word go, describing some of his 40-yard passes as a delight to watch and bemoaning his teammates’ inability to anticipate his vision.
And he was a demon with a dead ball at his feet – we lost count of the number of times an O’Neill corner kick found Gerry Baker’s head at the near post and flicked past the keeper – and he was infallible from 12 yards.
The News, in one of its caricature pen portraits, suggested that taking penalties was a sort of O’Neill leisure activity along with his beloved golf, and wondered when he might use a six iron for a spot kick.
But O’Neill was not one to suffer fools gladly, and it was unfortunate that he came across one such during a 3-0 defeat at Poole in March 1967.
Taking a dim view of the ref wrongly disallowing a goal, and furious when play was allowed to continue after John Turley was knocked cold, he told the official what he thought of him and was suspended for 28 days. United supporters had only one more season to admire O’Neill’s contribution to the cause: in the summer of 1968 he left for the player-managership of Southern Suburbs in Johannesburg. He was sorely missed.
Above, Alan O'Neill scores from the penalty spot at the Abbey Stadium's Allotments End in a 2-1 pre-season friendly win for Cambridge United over Notts County on 13 August 1966; below, United captain O'Neill (right) shakes hands with his Cambridge City counterpart Brendan McNally before an FA Cup second qualifying round tie at Milton Road, won by City 1-0 with a goal from ex-U Matt McVittie, on 17 September 1966; bottom, how the Cambridge Evening News' caricaturist Ken Robinson saw O'Neill in the same month. Click on any image to enlarge