As Ted Sagar’s career drew to its 1950s conclusion, one of the most urgent tasks facing Cliff Britton was that of finding an adequate replacement for Everton’s longstanding goalkeeper. There was no shortage of talented candidates – Harry Leyland, George Burnett and Albert Dunlop all challenged for the Everton goalkeeping gloves – but it was Jimmy O’Neill who provided the most convincing case to succeed the illustrious Sagar.
Born in Dublin in 1931, the son of Moses O’Neill, a professional golfer, the young goalkeeper started as a youth international with Brentford, but was scouted by Everton and signed professional forms in May 1949. His debut came against Middlesbrough in August 1950 and he made ten appearances during the 1950/51 campaign as Britton alternated the green jersey between O’Neill, Burnett and Sagar. The latter eventually reclaimed the goalkeeping berth as his own, but the season ended in disaster as Everton were relegated for the second time. Sharing a debut season with a campaign doomed to the drop was an unrelished distinction O’Neill shared with Sagar.
As his illustrious forbear was edged out of contention over subsequent years, O’Neill was afforded his chance to stake a claim. A slim and slightly gangly man who stood just 5 foot 10 inches tall, he was scarcely a giant. But with his long spindly arms O’Neill had the capacity to draw crosses from the air and reach for shots from distance. Like the very best of goalkeepers he was a natural showman too, utilising his outstanding reflexes like a gymnast to add some theatre to his shot stopping. By the time of Everton’s return to the First Division in 1954 he was established as the club’s first choice goalkeeper.
By then he had earned the first of 17 Ireland caps, although his first international outing was a disaster. Called up to face Spain in Madrid in June 1952, Ireland were thrashed 6-0 and were 2-0 down before O’Neill touched the ball other than to lift it from the net.
At Goodison he fared better and his consistency between the posts helped Everton consolidate their top flight status in the mid-1950s. However, the arrival of Ian Buchan as manager in 1956 saw O’Neill an early casualty of his regime. Dropped after a quarter of the 1956/57 campaign, Buchan favoured Albert Dunlop, a player O’Neill considered his inferior. For most of the rest of his Everton career, O’Neill played second fiddle to Dunlop, and yet, when called upon, provided satisfactory service. Two games into the 1958/59 season this perseverance seemed to pay off when Dunlop was dropped. But the return was brief: O’Neill conceded ten goals in Everton’s record defeat to Tottenham that October and was consigned to the reserves once more. O’Neill only made five further appearances for the club.
In July 1960, Tony Waddington, the new manager of Stoke City, offered £5,000 for O’Neill and the bid was accepted. At the Victoria Ground Waddington assembled a good, experienced team, many of whom – including O’Neill, Dennis Viollet and Stanley Matthews – had been prematurely written off by more prominent clubs. In 1962/63 Stoke returned to the top flight with O’Neill ever present. Still aged only 32, the Irishman might have expected a top flight Indian Summer, but Waddington had different ideas and replaced him. In March 1964, O’Neill joined Darlington, later returning to the Potteries to play out his career at Port Vale.
On retirement, O’Neill settled with his family in Ormskirk, where he ran a taxi firm. He remained a regular visitor to Goodison until his death in December 2007.