Football: `I didn't think David was hard enough'

Old Arsenal colleague gives verdict on the progress of Premiership overlord O'Leary
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The Independent Online
WITH ARSENAL'S doctor, the one with an honorary degree from the University of Hertfordshire, away last week, it fell to his trusty lieutenant to take charge of team affairs. The accent may have been different, but the methods were all too familiar.

Gamesmanship has long been a feature of Arsene Wenger's tenure at Arsenal. Rarely a week goes by without the Frenchman airing his views on football as he warms to the theme of underplaying his team's chances. On Friday, Pat Rice maintained the status quo by assuming the role of head of mind games. But rather than talk down the Gunners, the Ulsterman turned his attentions to Leeds - Arsenal's opponents on Tuesday at Highbury - and their manager, David O'Leary.

"If you had asked me when David was a player, whether he'd go into management and do as well as he's done, I think I would truthfully have said no," said Rice, who played alongside O'Leary in the Arsenal team of the late Seventies.

Rice may not have been directly criticising the man who replaced him as captain in 1980, but there can be little doubt that his regard for O'Leary's managerial skills remains qualified.

"As a player, and off the pitch, he was always confident, but he was also very relaxed," Rice added. "Don't get me wrong, like all of us in that side, he was somebody who wanted to win, but he wasn't a ranter and raver. If you remember he gave up the Arsenal captaincy too. Because of David's mannerisms you thought he might go into coaching, but I did not think that he was ruthless enough then to become a manager."

The older and wiser O'Leary is clearly strong-minded. In the space of a year, he has changed Leeds from top-five finishers into a potential trophy-winning team. The transformation has been noted at Highbury. "To be perfectly truthful, I am really surprised how well his team have performed. But he's done tremendous," Rice acknowledged. "You have to hold your hands up and say that since he's been in the chair and George [Graham] has gone, he's done a remarkable job."

Following a nasty bout of flu, Dr Wenger is expected to be fit enough to resume his leading role in the dugout for today's trip to Coventry, but his assistant manager has had a busy week steering the Arsenal ship clear of the potential pitfalls of the festive season.

With such a large contingent of imports in their ranks, Arsenal are keen that the players - most of whom are used to winter breaks - remain focused over the next few days. "A lot of the other foreigners do that," said Rice. "The likes of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, who have been here for a while and sampled football at this time of year, are helping out. They may not like missing the holidays, but they adapt. Make no mistake about it, all the players, whatever their nationality, realise these are two important games."

Freddie Ljungberg, the Sweden international who has enjoyed a prolonged run in the team of late, supports Rice's claim. "Of course, I'd like to be with my family over Christmas but in a way this is our chance, as foreign players, to show how professional we are."

As it happens, Arsenal do not just need their imports to play, they need them to play well. With Chelsea now seemingly out of the domestic race and Manchester United escaping to South America for the World Club Championship, the Gunners have a real chance to impose themselves and take charge of the Premiership.

"That is something which you'd like to think might happen, but there are no guarantees," Rice said. "It's not just about pulling away from Man Utd. The fact is both the Christmas and Easter periods are absolutely crucial in deciding how the League will pan out." History backs his view. During the first seven years of its existence, the Premiership was won by a team who were in the top four at the turn of the year.

As Ljungberg added: "We know that if you don't concentrate over the Christmas season, you can very easily lose the championship. If the flu doesn't kill us all [virtually the entire squad have been struck down by the virus in the last month], then we have a good chance of getting some points under our belt and putting some pressure on Man Utd before their return."

Some of Arsenal's experienced campaigners should be back for the Christmas fixtures. Tony Adams, David Seaman and Martin Keown hope to be named in the side to face Coventry, while Dennis Bergkamp and Vieira, whose ban is almost completed, will be back in contention for Tuesday's crucial confrontation. The powers that be may say differently in public, but there is no doubt that it is the Leeds game which is uppermost on Arsenal's mind.

While Rice praises Leeds for showing the strength of character to maintain their early season promise and momentum, he does, however, feel that O'Leary's side need to win a trophy. "They've been terrific," said Rice, who last month turned down the chance to replace Lawrie McMenemy as Northern Ireland manager. "Only time will tell, though, whether they can translate that potential into silverware."

Rice's generosity about the Leeds team is tempered by the fact that he believes their "young and naive" tag is misleading because "so many of this side, guys like Lee Bowyer who played for Charlton at 17 and Gary Kelly who was given his debut by Howard Wilkinson, may be young in age but they are full of experience".

Ultimately, you sense that Rice's attempts to unsettle the Leeds manager will fail. Without doubt, O'Leary would like nothing more than to shatter the festive spirit in N5. "They're not going to come and sit back," Rice said. "I hope we can avoid the mistakes Chelsea made [in their 2-0 home defeat by Leeds last Sunday] and get the better of them." The doctor could not have put it better.