'I never fell out of love with football' - Ireland's most successful Premier League manager on his football exile
David O'Leary has been out of the Premier League for a decade, but would still jump at the right job
Published 02/12/2016 | 02:30
Many of the great and good of football were gathered in the directors' box at Arsenal last week for the match against Paris St-Germain, and deep in conversation were two Davids who certainly merit the former description.
"I had not seen him for a while, so that was lovely," says David O'Leary.
And what did David Beckham say back to a man who has played more games for Arsenal than anyone in their 130-year history? "He asked me, 'Where have you disappeared to?'"
Variations on that question are also often aired by fans but, after a decade out of the English game, the answer is that he has not gone anywhere.
O'Leary (58) still lives in Yorkshire with Joy, his wife of 35 years, and he looks almost identical to when he began a first job in management at Leeds United, that remains one of the Premier League's most extraordinary chapters.
As he reminisces over several cups of coffee ahead of a match tomorrow between Leeds and Aston Villa, both of whom he managed, it seems curious to think that he has been out of an English dugout for so long.
"I don't have an agent or people putting me forward in the media," says O'Leary, who needed some persuasion even to do this interview.
"Would I like to come back if something that felt right came along? Yes, of course. I have never fallen out of love with football.
"We had some fantastic times at Leeds and I know I did a good job at Aston Villa."
Indeed, in seven seasons at Leeds and Villa, O'Leary's teams finished outside the top half of the Premier League table just once. They had five top-six finishes, three top-four finishes and reached the semi-finals of both the Uefa Cup and Champions League.
Add in a set of off-field traumas at Leeds which ranged from two fans being stabbed to death before their Uefa Cup semi-final against Galatasaray, to the trials of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, and you can see why O'Leary felt so disappointed to hear former chairman Peter Ridsdale tell him they wanted to take the club to "that next level".
They certainly did end up at a different level. Leeds, as well as Villa, have since been relegated to the Championship.
"I hope they both go up," says O'Leary. "Leeds in the top flight and the whole city is buzzing. They seem to be going in the right direction, which is fabulous.
"It is a great time for Steve Bruce to go in at Villa and it would be no shock to me if he gets them automatically promoted."
After Villa, his only other managerial job was 16 matches in Dubai with Al-Ahli, and he has been an ambassador at Arsenal for the past two years.
O'Leary went to England from Dublin in 1973, and broke into the Arsenal team under Bertie Mee at the age of 17.
"Probably the lads thought I was a bit boring," he says. "I always ate a balanced diet and never drank much. Tony Adams used to tell me I would stretch myself to death."
It was George Graham who first planted the idea to coach.
"George would always say to me that I should stay in the game," says O'Leary. "When Tony Adams took all that abuse after the 1988 Euros, George took me to one side and said he was thinking of taking him out of the team. I thought it would be the icing on the cake in terms of harming his confidence. George nodded but didn't say anything.
"Anyway, the team was announced (early in the 1988-89 season) and he kept Tony in. I then had to do a double take because he had dropped me instead. I went mad, but George just said, 'I wasn't going to drop Bouldy'."
O'Leary's on-field highlight was naturally the 2-0 win at Anfield in 1989 to clinch the league title, when he started as a sweeper alongside Adams and Steve Bould.
"I had the best view possible when Michael Thomas broke through," says O'Leary. "I was directly in line thinking, 'Don't get a bobble'. When the team bus got back that night, the fans had stayed up for us. I was meeting up with Ireland the next week and the Liverpool players in the squad were so shocked still, they could hardly speak."
After retiring as a player, the call from Graham to join him as Leeds assistant came out of the blue.
"A fabulous learning experience; hard work," he says. "He would think nothing of sending me up to somewhere like Perth (in Scotland) after training to watch a player."
Graham then asked O'Leary to join him at Tottenham but he stayed, not because of any expectation of getting the Leeds job, but because "I couldn't join Tottenham".
O'Leary recalls an extraordinary week when, after being convinced Martin O'Neill would be appointed, Ridsdale came to his house to offer him the job. "The difference when you are manager is unbelievable," he says. "Sleepless nights and, every day, 20-odd people all looking at you to take the lead."
Young players such as Woodgate, Stephen McPhail, Harry Kewell and Alan Smith were promoted. When he was asked by Ridsdale to provide a list of centre-back targets, O'Leary placed Rio Ferdinand at the top but added the caveat that he would "probably cost £10m". The expectation was that he would join Manchester United. "I then got a call saying we had Rio but that it was £18m."
O'Leary calls Ferdinand a "Rolls-Royce" but believes that great centre-backs have become rare.
"I was brought up that you have to defend first and then play if you can. I look at players now and think, 'Would I take them?'" he says.
"(Eliaquim) Mangala and (Nicolas) Otamendi? No. John Stones I would have bought even if it is ridiculous money. (Eric) Bailly? Yes - and I was amazed there were not more takers for Virgil van Dijk. Full-backs now are also not so much defenders; they are wing-backs.
"So that system of Antonio Conte is clever because it suits how full-backs play and was maybe a way to get the best from David Luiz. (N'Golo) Kante was a great signing. I was hoping Arsenal would get him. I would have liked him in front of me when I was playing."
And what of Arsenal? He expects his old club to be "in the mix" and thinks that they have strengthened since missing a "big opportunity" last season.
He believes that there has been a drop in top-end Premier League quality but says that Arsene Wenger's unerring consistency should not be underestimated.
"Manchester United would probably count top four as success at the moment," he says. "The biggest compliment I can pay Arsene is that I thought I played for a big club for 20 years. It is on another level today."