If there is a man you want in your dressing room at a Play-Off Final, it’s Gary O’Neil. The midfielder has been there three times during his career so far, has and never lost.
The Beckenham-born midfielder has not long passed the 450 professional appearance mark, and along the way, as in any career, he’s seen his fair share of ups and downs — fortunately for him, when the big occasion has come calling, he’s usually been on the winning side.
2003, 2012, 2014, and 2015 are the years that O’Neil has made the climb out of the Sky Bet Championship and into the Premier League, with the latter three all coming via the Wembley route.
It’s a special day for any player, and any club. The EFL’s showpiece event is always full of drama but unfortunately for O’Neil, in the hoops of QPR, the 2014 drama began at the core.
With an hour played against Derby County, he was shown the red card by referee Lee Mason for a challenge on Johnny Russell. However, he was spared by his teammates when Bobby Zamora produced ‘that’ goal in the dying seconds.
“I wouldn’t say I have a favourite promotion campaign,” he explained, when asked about his quartet of achievements. “The lads pulled through for me at QPR, though. I was sent off at Wembley, and that was a horrible feeling.
“It was a special moment with Portsmouth to win the league and not need the Play-Offs. My first final with West Ham was amazing, though. It was so important to the club to get up at the first time of asking, and it was my first appearance at Wembley — I won’t forget it.
“It’s the best way to go up, but the problem is, there is no guarantee. Luckily I've been there three times and won all three, but that won’t happen too often. If you can get in the top two and go straight up its certainly less stressful.”
Now with Bristol City, O’Neil could be set to embark on another Play-Off campaign. The Robins sit fifth, five points clear of seventh-placed Middlesbrough, but they’re only six points off Cardiff City who lie second.
It’s a stark contrast to last year. Lee Johnson’s side were 11th at this stage, and ended up finishing 17th. This season feels very different though, and the midfielder has a strong belief that this side are much improved and ready to mount a serious challenge.
On the pitch, things are working well, and they are off of it, too. The whole world has started to take notice of every Bristol City goal, due to the goalscoring GIFs which have become a viral sensation on Twitter. All good fun, which just adds to the dressing room spirit at Ashton Gate.
“They're fantastic,” chuckled O’Neil when asked about the GIFs, which started with high fives and have evolved over the months with the use of props such as fire extinguishers and plastic bottles. “We’ve enjoyed doing them as we had never done anything like it before.The lads have been adding to them as we go along. Aden Flint has had some decent ones, we all laughed at him DJing on the plates!
“The aim from the start of the season was to be in and around the top six. We didn’t know how easy or tough it would be; we just knew we had to work hard to get there.
“We've made some good additions to the squad from last year, and the players that were already here have made big improvements. We've got some fantastic young players coming through too, and they're getting better and better as the season goes on. We want to continue that and be right up there come the end of the season.
“We've got a fantastic energy that comes from the mix of youth and experience, and people have struggled to deal with it. We've got off to fantastic starts in games, and if that doesn’t work, the lads are fit and strong enough to come good at the end. Everything has been working well.”
League form aside, City have been going pretty well in the Carabao Cup too, knocking out Premier League opposition along the way. Wins over Watford, Stoke City and Crystal Palace have set up a pre-Christmas date at home to the current holders, Manchester United.
“The lads are feeling confident going into it,” claimed O’Neil. “It's a tough game, but we were pleased to get a big draw at home, we've beaten three Premier League sides already and two at Ashton Gate.
“Manchester United will be a completely different test because they’re a team competing at the very top in Europe and England, but we're looking forward to it — there are big games to come before that though, and we must have all eyes on them.”