During the 1997/98 season, Brian O’Neil was part of a struggling Aberdeen side that finished sixth in the Scottish Premier League. If you fast forward twelve months, the Paisley born defender was appearing in the Bundesliga for a Wolfsburg team that would miss out on Champions League qualification by a mere two points.
The former international had toiled after his big move from Celtic to Aberdeen. The departure of Roy Aitken, the man who brought O’Neil to the club, had a big effect on his form and he soon found himself at odds with new manager Alec Miller. Unhappy and not enjoying his football he seized upon a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“I got a chance to go for a trial at Kaiserslautern, who had just won the Bundesliga. It went okay but on the back of it I got offered another trial match, this time for Wolfsburg. I scored a hat trick as we won 10-1 and straight away it felt like it was a good fit for me and, more importantly, the club. We got everything sorted out with Aberdeen and I started to train in Germany.”
Having spent his career up until that point in Scotland, with a brief loan spell at Nottingham Forest, the former Celtic player found himself lining up for Wolfsburg against the mighty Bayern Munich. To go from mid table Aberdeen in the Scottish Premier League to challenging for a place in Europe, was quite a change of pace for the defender.
“It was massive, the style of play suited me a lot better and I liked things a little bit more in control. A lot of the Scottish game was more about stopping the other team and focused more on tackling. The German game was more thought out, which was better for me. There was a nice build up in the matches and was more focused on passing the ball, which I’ve always enjoyed.”
Moving from the UK to Germany with a young family would be a challenge in any walk of life but his experience while at the Bundesliga club matured O’Neil and gave him a new found respect for foreign footballers who decided to try their luck abroad.
“At the time Wolfsburg wasn’t a big club, it was only its second year in the Bundesliga but there were loads of different nationalities in the squad. My wife and I were left to fend for ourselves with our little girl, who was only one at the time. The whole experience has given me a lot more understanding regarding foreign players coming to Britain.
It’s tough to move somewhere you don’t speak the language and after you pick up a few words people think you’re fluent, it made me more sympathetic towards the foreign lads situation when I joined Derby”
His time at Wolfsburg coincided with a successful period for the club. ‘Die Wölfe’s’ second season in Germany’s top flight saw them qualify for the Uefa cup, after finishing the season in sixth place. In his two seasons at ‘Radkappen’ O’Neil experienced many high points with the Lower Saxony club.
“Probably the big highlight was in my first season, when we beat Bayer Leverkusen at home to qualify for the Uefa cup. For a club in only their second year in the Bundesliga it was a fantastic occasion.
We had a lot of good players at the club, Claudia Reyna was there when I first arrived, Claus Thomsen who was a Danish international, Charles Akonnor was the Ghana captain at the time and Dorinel Munteanu, who scored a great goal against England at Euro 2000. They were really good lads and we had a good bond together.”
O’Neil still keeps in contact with goings on at his former club and the Bundesliga as a whole. As someone who has played at the top level in both the UK and Germany, what does he think British football can learn from their German counterparts?
“Hard work for starters… It’s very black and white, if the forwards don’t score a chance they really let them know about it (In Germany) that’s what it’s all about, people are there to do their job, whereas sometimes over here (The UK), they try to paper over the cracks and make excuses. I think that’s why everyone works so hard in training (In Germany). They really do everything properly and they don’t take any shortcuts to get to where they want to be.”
Brian O’Neil spoke exclusively to Bundesliga Football’s Chris Gallagher.
Click below to hear the full interview…
You can follow Brian on Twitter: @brianoneil1972