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Football News: O'Leary's Leeds

O'Leary's Leeds
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David O'Leary's Leeds United

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Apologies, this article request has been sat on my to do list so long that I have lost the name of the person who requested it.

David O'Leary was a legendary, long-serving Arsenal defender who moved to Leeds on a free transfer in 1993, but only managed 14 appearances before an Achilles injury sidelined him. In September 1995 O'Leary was forced to accept that he would never be able to return to the level he once displayed and he hung up his boots. A year later George Graham brought O'Leary back to the Leeds set up as his assistant manager.

Leeds at this time were financially stable, with a packed stadium and a youth academy that was producing some excellent young players under Eddie Gray and Paul Hart. That season they won the FA Youth Cup and Harry Kewell had broken into the first team, while Ian Harte was on the fringes of the squad. There was a lot of hope for the future when lifelong fan Peter Ridsdale was appointed chairman in the summer of 1997, promising to restore the club to greatness as he stepped into the role.

Graham continued the upward trajectory as he managed the team to UEFA Cup qualification and it all looked like the Yorkshire club were going to be a club to reckon with. Then Tottenham Hotspur stepped in and made Graham an offer, despite his Arsenal connections. Even though the club had a lot of promising youngsters, Graham looked at his team and felt he had taken it as far as he could and he was not interested in rebuilding it, so he jumped ship in October 1998. O'Leary was offered the opportunity to go with him, but he decided to stay put and was put in caretaker charge while Ridsdale looked for a long-term replacement.

There were a number of candidates in the frame for the permanent job, none of which were O'Leary, at least to begin with and his first match did not help his case. Playing against the team of the bookies favourite, Leicester City, then managed by Martin O'Neill, and Leicester won. O'Leary was annoyed with himself because he had played it safe and not gone with the team he wanted to play, instead sticking pretty much with the team Graham would have chosen. The following game against Nottingham Forest, O'Leary decided to back himself and brought in some promising youngsters, at the expense of Lee Sharpe and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Hasselbaink also received heavy criticism from O'Leary ahead of the match, leaving both senior pros with a doubtful future. Despite the addition of Jonathan Woodgate and Stephen McPhail, who George Graham had once described as "the next Liam Brady", Leeds could only draw with Forest, leaving O'Neill as even firmer favourite for the job.

Two days later O'Neill's Leicester face George Graham's Spurs, with even the Leicester fans expecting O'Neill to go afterwards. The crowd was full of boards and placards begging him to stay. After the Foxes won 1-0, O'Neill discussed the Leeds job with Graham. Meanwhile O'Leary was preparing the Leeds team for a trip to Rome in the UEFA Cup, fully expecting O'Neill to be announced on their return. After Leeds lost 1-0 in Rome, O'Leary went to the Leeds fans and applauded them goodbye. It was as they were taking their seats for the return flight that news filtered through that O'Neill had rejected Leeds and instead signed a new deal with Leicester. That evening Peter Ridsdale offered O'Leary the job and he immediately accepted it.

O'Leary wanted to make Leeds an entertaining side, like Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United, that would win the hearts of neutrals and become everyone's second team. He began by bringing academy graduates Jonathan Woodgate and Stephen McPhail into the first team as regulars and also brought Alan Smith in. Smith, who Graham had not been at all convinced by, made his debut at Anfield with Leeds losing 1-0. His first touch was an equaliser and Leeds ran out 3-1 winners. With South African defender Lucas Radebe, so good he inspired a local band to name themselves Kaizer Chiefs after the team Leeds signed him from, there to guide the youngsters, O'Leary felt safe to bring the academy players in.

Even so, O'Leary still wanted a bit more experience in his team and so moved to bring David Batty back to the club for £4.4m from Newcastle in December. It worked out that season as, with the help of an 11-match unbeaten run, the Yorkshire side recorded their highest finish since winning the league in 1992 as they finished 4th. In those days that place put them in the UEFA Cup once again.

O'Leary decided to move on experienced players such as Gunnar Halle and Lee Sharpe, to make more room for his young guns. His biggest call was selling top scorer Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to Atletico Madrid, after he hit out at the Dutchman for not trying hard enough, wanting to be the club's highest paid player and then refusing to play for the club. It was a massive decision but the arrival of Danny Mills, Darren Huckerby, Eirik Bakke, Jason Wilcox, Danny Hay and, particularly, Michael Bridges over the course of the season more than made up for those who left. Bridges managed 19 goals in his first season, ensuring Hasselbaink was quickly forgotten.

Results also helped the fans move on from their old heroes, as Leeds started strongly, going top of the table on 5th December 1999 with an Ian Harte stoppage time penalty winner over Derby County putting them there. The players headed to the Old Peacock to celebrate according to Michael Bridges: "it was just a bit of fun but it was over the top. It wasn't the best thing to do, not that early on. I think it came from the team spirit we had because we all got on so well but it was naive to get carried away that early in the season. It was a mistake. We went too soon. We got excited too soon. If you'd seen us there you'd have thought we were champions. Then, to put it bluntly, we all shit our pants."

Perhaps Bridges is being too hard on the players, as the apple cart was upset by Eddie Gray being pushed aside to make room for Brian Kidd as O'Leary's assistant, while results were good on the pitch. The season was still a step forward, with a UEFA Cup semi-final defeat to Galatasaray and a Premier League finish in 3rd place, to qualify for the Champions League for the following season. But there were other signs that just perhaps O'Leary was not fully focused as he endorsed a Game Boy Colour game entitled O'Leary Manager 2000 and not all down to the players. Maybe.

The 2000-01 season saw Leeds splash the cash, after chairman Peter Ridsdale borrowed £60m against future gate receipts. Ahead of the new season it was announced that O'Leary had been given a new 6-year contract, reportedly making the Irishman the highest-paid manager in the English game. May saw Olivier Dacourt arrive from Lens for around £7m, July saw Mark Viduka arrive from Celtic, reportedly for £6m, though O'Leary himself said the Australian striker cost £8m. Despite a known longstanding knee problem, Dominic Matteo joined from Liverpool in August for just over £4m. He was not the only central defender to join that season as injury problems with stalwart South African Lucas Radebe triggered an £18m British record transfer for Rio Ferdinand from West Ham in November. Leeds were not quite finished and Robbie Keane returned to English football from Inter Milan in December for a further £12m.

On the out side it was mostly moving on the more experienced players such as Alf-Inge Haaland, David Hopkin and Robert Molenaar, but they also let Darren Huckerby go to Man City for a £2m loss after just a season. On the pitch the season revolved around an exciting run in the UEFA Champions League, as they were never truly in contention for the Premier League. In the league they made a slow start and losses to Man City (who ended the season being relegated), a draw with Coventry City (who also got relegated) and Derby County (who just scraped through to survive) left the team trailing.

O'Leary put the blame on European football: "After a big European night and the travel, we were tired and often struggled to refocus." But he also blamed injury problems and the physio was sacked due to misdiagnosing and incorrectly treating a number of players. The one thing that can be certain is that they did have big European nights that season as their first group stage placed them up against Barcelona, AC Milan and Besiktas. They beat Milan at home and a Matteo header got them a draw in the San Siro. Besiktas were hammered 6-0 at Elland Road as Leeds made it through to the second group stage in second place, while Barca dropped into the UEFA Cup, despite beating Leeds 4-0 at the Camp Nou.

Perhaps the real blame can be laid at the door of indiscipline amongst the squad, as O'Leary took more of a back seat and was no longer on the training pitches every day, it had begun to disintegrate. With players like Bowyer and Woodgate, who had histories of violent assaults in their past, it is probably no surprise that the lack of discipline resulted in a violent assault after a heavy night of drinking. Particularly in Woodgate's case, as these kind of fights had been a problem while he was with Middlesbrough, which is why he ended up in Leeds' youth team in the first place. In fact he had a previous offence on his record which was very similar to the assault on Sarfraz Najeib.

The second group stage saw them face Real Madrid, Sven Goran Erikson's reigning Serie A champions Lazio and Anderlecht. O'Leary's mean went to Rome and beat Lazio 1-0, beat Anderlecht 4-1, also away from home and once again made it through. Though their passage was not without issues, as Matteo's knee problems were put under extreme stress according to the player himself: "There was a couple of games in the Champions League where I was dying, I was struggling with injuries my whole career. I used to have injections before a lot of games. It was the Lazio game at home that was 3-3, I was like 'I need to rest here, we're already qualified'. I think I was having an injection, I was doing something, I was heavily strapped. I was thinking, 'he's going to give me a rest tonight'. The next thing you know, big Rio obviously gets a rest, the rest of the big hitters get a rest and he pulls me at the hotel, the Malmaison and tells me, 'Dom, you're playing tonight.'"

The draw matched them against Deportivo la Coruna to the delight of the Depor players, some of whom publicly declared how glad they were to get Leeds as the Yorkshiremen were the weakest team left in the tournament. That saved O'Leary having to come up with a team talk as the comments motivated Leeds' players ahead of the first leg, which they won 3-0 at Elland Road. Depor did make it a close shave by winning 2-0 at their El Riazor stadium, but it was Leeds that went through to the semi-final to face Valencia.

This was a Valencia side that would go on to win La Liga the following season under new manager Rafael Benitez, but they were still a strong side under Hector Cuper and held Leeds to a 0-0 draw at Elland Road. Bowyer was suspended for the second leg and Leeds missed his workrate in midfield and were overrun, losing 3-0. The Champions League run had also cost them in the Premier League, where they only managed to finish 4th, which qualified them for the UEFA Cup once more. Ridsdale's gamble on lengthy Champions League runs was looking more and more like a mistake.

Belts needed to be tightened somewhat, which resulted in no major signings coming in during the summer, though both Viduka and Dacourt were given improved 5 year contracts to ward off interest. Despite the lack on incomings, results were good, though they did mask poor performances to a large degree. Even with Woodgate and Bowyer having to report to the court for their trial during the season, Leeds still kept picking up results on the pitch, though there was divides appearing as the club hired a private investigator to investigate the player's stories and Michael Duberry was called to give evidence against his teammates.

Ridsdale, despite the club already in financial difficulties behind the scenes, gave the greenlight to spending £20m on Seth Johnson from Derby County and Robbie Fowler from Liverpool to try and keep the title challenge on track. Johnson arrived in October to join a team sat second in the table. Fowler was brought in a month later as the forwards were misfiring and Alan Smith had picked up another suspension for the 5th red card of his short career. Leeds were in the 3rd round of the UEFA Cup and had not lost a game in the Premier League until November. With the court case resolved and Bowyer acquitted, while Woodgate was only convicted of affray, Leeds seemed in a strong position for the present and the future.

Next up was the FA Cup 3rd round tie at Cardiff City, with O'Leary dismissively saying: "We will begin and end out FA Cup run in Cardiff." While he was meaning the final which was being held at Cardiff's Millenium Stadium due to Wembley's renovations, it could have been prophetic. Cardiff owner Sam Hammam was not shy in cranking up the pressure, telling the media that his Bluebirds were a bigger club than Leeds. When Hammam was offered the use of the Millenium Stadium for the match, he rejected it feeling that Ninian Park's intimidating atmosphere would give Cardiff an edge.

It was later claimed that Hammam had the bolts loosened on the fences in the home end so that they would make a deafening racket when rattled. Certainly there could be no argument that the atmosphere was truly intimidating and the game only made it as far as the 1st minute before it had to be stopped so that bottles and coins thrown from the crowd could be removed from the pitch. Later on the referee, Andy D'Urso, needed treatment after being hit by an object thrown from the crowd.

Despite the atmosphere, the Premier League leaders went into a 12th minute lead thanks to a goal by Mark Viduka. It was not to last though and the tide turned against Leeds as Rio Ferdinand picked up and injury and Graham Kavanagh equalised for Cardiff. To make it worse, Alan Smith picked up yet another red card for an elbow just before half-time and the centre-back partnership was now Woodgate and Duberry, who had not spoken since Duberry testified. Leeds were still hanging on to the draw, so Hammam decided to begin parading around the perimeter of the pitch with his 'bodyguard', who was a convicted football hooligan as part of the Cardiff Soul Crew.

There were 13 minutes left and Hammam's strutting was whipping the crowd up into a frenzy and more objects rained down onto the pitch. It is little wonder that Leeds eventually succumbed and Scott Young scored the winner in the 87th minute. At the final whistle Cardiff fans invaded the pitch, rather than celebrate the win they charged the away end and the Leeds fans reacted to produce scenes that would not have looked out of place on a Leeds players' night out. The scenes made both back and front page headlines.

Then David O'Leary's book "Leeds United on Trial" was released the next day, though he claims to have known nothing of the title, it was clearly an attempt to cash-in on the events of that night. The timing could not have been worse. With performances already suffering, discipline disintegrating, Woodgate was to have his jaw broken in yet another boozy night out incident, it is little wonder that the teams results dipped too. Once again Leeds were top at New Year only to end up finishing the season in the UEFA Cup places as they ended the season in 5th.

It was to be the end of the O'Leary era as Leeds announced he had left by mutual consent on 27 June 2002. That announcement sparked a war of words between the outgoing O'Leary and Ridsdale, showing there must have been friction between them for a while, as O'Leary made it plain he had been sacked. Ridsdale pointed the finger squarely at O'Leary's tell-all book, claiming it had caused O'Leary to lose the dressing room, though Dominic Matteo is not so sure it did: "I think there was a mixed opinion of David throughout the squad being totally honest. Personally I think the only mistake David made was when he stopped being out on the training field as much as he was. It wasn't like it was a lot that he missed out on, there was just a little dip in the players because I think you always want your manager out there."

For me, I think the problem with figuring out what wrong at Leeds in this period is that Ridsdale's disastrous chairmanship is overshadowing the mistakes O'Leary made. And there is no doubt in my mind that O'Leary made a lot of mistakes, in the same way you see both Mauricio Pochettino and Brendan Rodgers' teams throw away good positions in the league. It is a lack of discipline, the three are all coaches that favour the arm around the shoulder approach, but do not have it backed up by an assistant who provides the discipline and keeps players in line. Young lads given an inch will almost always try and take a mile and training suffers as a result. Once training suffers, eventually that will show in performances on the pitch, especially when the pressure is on. When that was added to him cashing in on that lack of discipline, it was never going to end well.

O'Leary did get a lot right, he made Leeds exciting to watch, he allowed young players to play and always tried to get a win, rather than playing it safe. However, his obsession with Ferguson's Man Utd saw him change what had been working and try and emulate the Scot, even going so far as to bring in Ferguson's former assistant Brian Kidd. That was where it all started to fall apart. O'Leary was doing fine with Eddie Gray, a Leeds legend, alongside him, pushing him out the door was always going to be a step that alienated some. Then he compounds it by replacing it with a man from Leeds' most hated rivals, that alienated more. Gray was also more of a disciplinarian than Kidd, something far more suited to working alongside the soft-spoken O'Leary, especially as he took a step back and turned over more of the day-to-day training to his assistant. When all that gets added to the feeling, even before 'the book' came out, that O'Leary was more interested in self-promotion than anything else and his constant flirting with any big job opening that came along, it is little wonder that it went wrong. Though no one realised just how spectacularly it would explode thanks to Ridsdale's ineptitude (or perhaps not so much ineptitude as he still managed to walk away with pockets bulging, as he has done from a number of other clubs since that he has spent into financial ruin).

"It was madness, I was worn out come the end. But do I think I was good for Leeds? Yes, without a doubt. Do I think I was sacked unfairly? Absolutely." - David O'Leary

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Written by Tris Burke June 22 2021 07:45:56


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