Unfairly hailed as a returning hero, O’Neil has plenty of detractors but has lately shown himself to be an important part of the team.
Local lads are becoming rarer and rarer in the modern football world. A player who’s come up from the youth ranks to the first team is normally a player who is cherished by the fans, one of our own, someone to be proud of, regardless of whether they’re the most talented player in the side.
Liam O’Neil is different. He took another path, leaving Cambridges youth team when it folded in the aftermath of relegation to the conference to go to local rivals Histon before attracting the attention of West Bromwich Albion where he made a handful of Premier League appearances. He eventually ended up at Chesterfield, where he spent two and a half seasons before returning to the Abbey.
O’Neils return to Cambridge was heralded by the club as a returning hero – something they’ll probably accept was a bit of a mistake as it occurred during a January transfer window when many fans were hoping for the return of Kwesi Appiah. To hail a relatively-unknown midfielder, who’d never even played for the club before as a prodigal son was perhaps a tweet too far. Coupled with a three and a half year contract, it was clear Liam had a bit of work to win over sceptical fans, and this was compounded by Liam giving some back to some fans after a 2-0 defeat at Accrington.
As a defensive midfielder Liam was never going to be the most expressive player on the pitch, or a tricky dribbler or goalscorer. It’s arguably the least sexy position to play, and he often had to share the centre of midfield with players of a similar style, in James Dunne and Gary Deegan. Playing 2 DM’s is not the mark of an attacking free-flowing team, and Liam has suffered from some of the negative football we played under Derry, Joe Dunne and Colin Calderwood. It sometimes felt as if he was the scapegoat for the entire team’s failings.
That said, Liam didn’t always help himself. Red cards and the aforementioned spat with fans, coupled with the general ‘heads down’ reaction of those Derry & Calderwood sides after conceding when we needed someone to stand up and encourage the players all count against him. Maybe Liam was vocal like this in the dressing room, but it didn’t really show on the pitch. There was always the impression that O’Neil was looking for the backwards or sideways pass too, rarely starting an attack or trying to carry the ball forward, although you could argue this wasn’t his job.
Under Bonner however we’ve seen a bit of a resurgence in Liam, and he’s starting to show signs of being the player that he was signed to be. Against Birmingham and Carlisle he looked like he was controlling the midfield nicely, freeing up Digby to be a bit more box-to-box. Sadly, he was injured in the Carlisle game and it looks like he is going to be out for some time, which gives an opportunity for Adam May to show what he can do.
In a previous episode of the podcast I said that O’Neil’s recent contract extension may have been a ‘pity contract’, a cheap extension in order to thank Liam for his work with the community side of the club. It’s no secret Liam does a lot of work on that side of things, and he was rewarded as an EFL Community Champion a couple of years ago, but that shouldn’t be reason enough to extend a players contract, especially if they’re not delivering on the pitch. However, I’m not a football manager, and Liam is obviously contributing something to the side that four managers now have seen enough of to consider him an integral part of the team. This, and his improved performances over pre-season and the early part of this campaign mean we’re prepared to give Liam another chance once he’s over his current injury (although question marks still remain over his injury and disciplinary records), but playing alongside a player who looks to be able to complement him rather than crowd him might show us the real Liam O’Neil.