A former Sydney banker and solicitor, the 64-year-old has been a steadying and successful hand at the wheel for two of Australia’s biggest sports, as chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union and Football Federation Australia.
During his tenure at rugby and football, O’Neill re-shaped both organisations, taking both to eras of unprecedented success on and off the field.
On Wednesday 21st October 2015, John O’Neill will receive the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a figure of Australian sport, when he is Inducted as a General Member of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.
In August 1995, following John O’Neill’s retirement as managing director of the State Bank of New South Wales, a phone call out of the blue led to a significant leap of faith.
“I was intent on staying in financial services, when I was asked to take a call regarding the first chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union in the professional era,” O’Neill said.
“I thought, look it’s not something I was planning, but I knew enough people around the board table, and that there were enough smart and talented people there, so I took the job.”
“That leap of faith took me down some fascinating pathways – far more good times than bad times, but challenging nonetheless.”
Upon accepting the position he oversaw not just the transition of the ARU to a fully-fledged professional sporting body, but steered Australian rugby into its most successful era.
“The first two years was like herding cats,” he reflected.
“It really was a challenge to bring professional management to an organisation that had been run for more than one hundred years by honouraries who, whilst doing a good job, were working part time and not getting paid for it.”
“The union deserved competence and good management, and I hired good people.”
From 1995 to 2003, O’Neill watched on as the Wallabies enjoyed an unprecedented run of success. Australia claimed the Bledisloe Cup for five consecutive years, won their only British and Irish Lions series, and took out the Tri Nations series in 2000-2001. In 2000, Sydney’s Stadium Australia hosted 110,000 people for a Bledisloe Cup match a world record which stands to this day. And in the year preceding, the Wallabies won the 1999 Rugby World Cup.
“From a sport that was really living on the smell of an oily rag, we became profitable, we held every trophy possible,” O’Neill said.
“It was a remarkable five year period – a purple patch, a golden era that hasn’t been repeated – sadly.”
But O’Neill’s ARU tenure was not without its challenges. When Australia won the rights to host the 2003 Rugby World Cup, it did so under an agreement to share the tournament with New Zealand. However, a bitter contractual dispute over ground signage rights between the New Zealand Rugby Union and the International Rugby Board saw the entire event controversially shifted to Australia alone – a decision backed by a vocal O’Neill.
“I got a phone call one day from the then Prime Minster of Australia John Howard. My secretary put him through, and it was right at the heat of the battle,” said O’Neill.
“The Prime Minister said his counterpart in New Zealand, Helen Clarke, had called about this controversy, and he asked me straight up, did I know what I was doing?”
“I took a deep breath and then I explained to him exactly what I was doing and why we were doing it.”
“He said well that’s good enough for me.”
The tournament was a huge success, with 48 games held across 11 venues in 10 cities, and more than two million tickets sold. The ARU itself banked $40 million dollars. O’Neill and his team had pulled it off.
“We saw the opportunity and we ended up with a wonderfully successful world event, which broke the mould and was regarded as the best ever World Cup.”
“By any measure, it was just one of the most wonderful experiences any CEO of a sporting body could ever have.”
Having achieved all one could at the Australian Rugby Union, it was time for another leap of faith when respected businessman Frank Lowy came knocking in the name of football in January 2004. His pursuit of O’Neill had been relentless for a number of months, and he proved too persistent and too persuasive to turn down.
“I thought my time was up in Australian rugby, and I could sense the powers that be could smell blood, so it was an opportunity that Frank offered to me,” O’Neill said.
“I was nervous about it [the move] because football had such a bad reputation for internal politics and bloodletting, but Frank gave me his assurance that he would take care of it, and he did.”
“I had the most remarkable three years anyone could have in charge of a sporting body.”
Together, the pair reshaped football in this country, and captured the hearts and minds of Australians through a sport which had previously been shunned to the periphery.
“I do think the combination of Frank Lowy and myself was a formidable one, and it was one which was made for the times,” O’Neill recalled.
“We sat down and tried to work out what was missing, and in terms of what was missing, we were spoilt for choice. It was scorched earth – a blank canvas.”
The Socceroos had not qualified for the world cup for more than 30 years, and had not played a game at home for 33 months. The National Soccer League was also on its last legs. O’Neill, Lowy and Football Federation Australia had next to no content.
“We had nothing to sell. So we had to create content and we created the A-League as the shopfront,” admitted O’Neill.
Launched in April 2004, the A-League continues to stand the test of time and enjoy continued growth. But that was merely part of the overall equation – the Socceroos needed to make it to their second World Cup, and O’Neill’s hiring of Guus Hiddink proved the masterstroke through which it was made possible.
“We had the players but we needed someone who had been there and done it,” said O’Neill.
“I’m a great believer in been there, done it people. When the stakes are so high, you can’t have someone on training wheels.”
That decision and a sense of fate combined on the night of November 16, 2005. Already a successful venue for O’Neill in the past, Stadium Australia held more than 82,000 people to witness the heroics of Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and the now famous John Aloisi winning penalty, to secure Australia’s first World Cup berth since 1974.
“It was the most remarkable evening of sport I have ever experienced. Pandemonium really. I’d never seen anything like it, and never to this day have I seen such an outpouring of adulation and relief,” O’Neill said.
“The support that came with it, it was like opening Aladdin’s den. The way Australians got behind the Socceroos – the Socceroos became level pegging with the Wallabies and the Australian cricket team.”
O’Neill’s last move at FFA, before returning to the ARU for a brief stint between 2007 and 2012, was to work with Lowy on Australia’s move from Oceania to the Asian Football Confederation, which was ratified by FIFA in 2005.
Like many of John O’Neill’s decisions as a sports administrator, hindsight has proven it the correct one, as the Socceroos have since qualified for every world cup since 2006 and even claimed their maiden AFC Asian Football Cup title as host nation earlier this year.
“In terms of all the things we did, strategically it was the most important,” admitted O’Neill.
“It set football up in this country for a very bright future.”
In 2004, John O’Neill was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for service to rugby as an administrator, to the financial services sector, and to the community through educational and charitable organisations. In 2005, O’Neill was awarded the French decoration of the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, in recognition of his assistance in the preparation and organisation of sporting events in Australia and France, and for his contribution to the development of the bilateral relations in the field of sports between Australia and France.
For his commitment and excellence in sports administration, John O’Neill will be Inducted to the Sport Australia Hall of Fame on Australian sport’s night of nights – the 31st Sport Australia Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala Dinner, held at Palladium at Crown, Melbourne – presented by Etihad Airways.
Sport Australia Hall of Fame Selection Committee Chairman Rob de Castella AO MBE said the feats of John O’Neill AO highlight just what can be achieved through astute sports administration.
“John O’Neill is the gold standard for inspired and calculated sports administration,” de Castella said.
“His leadership at two peak Australian sporting bodies has proven pivotal in the ongoing success of both rugby union and football in this nation, and with time as the ultimate test, O’Neill has established himself to be an artist of administration.”
Established in 1985, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame plays a vital role in preserving and perpetuating Australia’s rich sporting heritage, whilst promoting the values of courage, sportsmanship, integrity, mateship, persistence, and excellence, all underpinned by generosity, modesty, pride and ambition.