Football: Leeds' job focus back on O'Leary

Nottingham Forest 1 Leeds United 1
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IN A SEASON when extra-curricular episodes have dominated football as never before, the shadows of absent "friends" loomed large as Forest and Leeds slugged out a stalemate that satisfied neither.

Reconciliation between Forest and Pierre van Hooijdonk is probably beyond even the peacemaking powers of Messrs Trimble and Hume. The stay-away striker says he might just be prepared to return. But by describing him with a word approximating to "Arsenal", Dave Bassett was saying: "Over my dead body."

In contrast, Leeds' pursuit of a successor to George Graham may be nearing a conclusion, though not necessarily with Martin O'Neill arriving from Leicester. If there is no end to the impasse by the middle of the week, they plan to reconsider David O'Leary.

This may sound a little Irish, given the way the acting manager has ruled himself in and out. However, with O'Neill as unwilling to resign as he is genuinely unsure whether he wants the post - and with Leicester grimly determined to refuse him permission to talk to Leeds - an in-house appointment looks increasingly attractive as a way to end a month of uncertainty.

Peter Ridsdale, having put all his eggs in one basket, risks getting them on his face if the saga drags on. After seeing Leeds denied their first win in five games by Forest's first goal over the same period, the chairman effectively set O'Neill a deadline.

"If we haven't heard from Leicester or Martin by Wednesday, when we get back from our Uefa Cup match against Roma, we'll have to regroup, rethink and look elsewhere," he said. "David will be very much in our thoughts. He's done an outstanding job since he came to the club. We have to decide whether he can bridge the gap from being a No 2."

The team-sheet handed in by O'Leary was tantamount to a job application, revealing a ruthless streak behind the genial manner and gentle brogue. Over pounds 6m worth of internationals, Lee Sharpe and Alf-Inge Haaland, were not even on the bench. Danny Granville and two 18-year-olds, Jonathan Woodgate and Stephen Mc-Phail, were given full debuts.

Granville repaid his faith with two bookable offences which left Leeds to face an hour with 10 men. This setback also enabled O'Leary to show flexibility by taking off the hugely promising, if slightly built McPhail, his fellow Dubliner, in favour of the robust Gunnar Halle.

The Norwegian promptly headed Leeds into a lead their superior passing and movement merited. Forest toiled to make any impression on a back three in which Woodgate - "a future England player" according to O'Leary, who said he pushed Graham to blood him earlier - performed with a maturity Aston Villa's Gareth Barry appeared to have a copyright on.

Gradually, though, the numerical disparity told. Despite the defiance of Nigel Martyn and Lucas Radebe, a pounds 10m defender if ever there was one, Steve Stone's header rewarded intense pressure. In a manner alien to the grudging Graham, O'Leary admitted it was fully deserved.

Bassett derided reports that his team's goal drought might hasten a ceasefire with Van Hooijdonk. "He's history as far as I'm concerned," snapped the manager who could give them all lessons in honesty. "He expects us to go to see him and offer an olive branch? Well he can stick it up his arse."

We can take that as a "no", although if this draw does not herald an upturn in Forest's fortunes, something surely has to give. Leeds are already at the point where compromise has become imperative, not least because O'Leary claims the speculation has started to "unsettle" the squad.

O'Neill would evidently like to discuss such matters as what funds really are available for players; and who he would answer to, Ridsdale or Leeds Sporting plc. If he is not allowed to do so, a respectable result in Italy could clinch it for the caretaker.

To complicate further an already tortuous situation, Uefa, the governing body of European football, has refused to lift a touchline ban on O'Leary in the eternal city. The eternal servant Eddie Gray thus returns to the role he held for three years until 1985.

Goals: Halle (53) 0-1; Stone (85) 1-1.

Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Beasant; Bonalair, Hjelde, Chettle, Rogers (Johnson, 54); Stone, Gemmill (Freedman, 86), Armstrong, Bart-Williams; Shipperley, Darcheville (Gray, 60). Substitutes not used: Lyttle, Crossley (gk).

Leeds United (3-5-2): Martyn; Woodgate, Molenaar, Radebe; Hiden, Bowyer, Hopkin, McPhail (Halle, h-t), Granville; Kewell (Wijnhard, 89), Hasselbaink (Ribeiro, 79). Substitutes not used: Wetherall, Robinson (gk).

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street). Sending-off: Leeds Granville. Bookings: Forest Rogers, Chettle. Leeds Granville, Kewell.

Man of the match: Radebe.

Attendance: 23,911.