Football: O'Leary dips into fountain of youth

Premiership: Leeds manager putting predecessor's lessons to good use while stamping own mark on Elland Road
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HE MAY be the founding father of the Arsenal back four, a sort of Tony Adams prototype, if you like, and he may, in his own words, want to be "just like George Graham", but the Irish in David O'Leary, whether he likes it or not, has invested in him a free spirit. As a consequence, the new Leeds manager is very much his own man.

It is fair to say that few of those six or seven players under the age of 21 who will take the field at Highbury tomorrow would have been among the visitors' selection had Graham still been in charge, particularly as it will be no place for innocents, not after the champions have been written off by their own coach, Arsene Wenger, in the wake of last Sunday's startling 3-2 defeat at Villa Park.

But O'Leary has little alternative but to keep giving youth its chance, and besides, it is what he believes in. As someone who was introduced into the Arsenal first team 23 years ago as a 17-year-old, it would be hypocritical to be otherwise. Not that his philosophy went down too well with the Leeds board when he was appointed last month. "I think some of them pooed themselves when I told them what I wanted to do," he said.

It had been a constant battle with his mentor to persuade him to play the kids, the precocious Harry Kewell apart. Eighteen-year-old Jonathan Woodgate, a centre-back in his new manager's own image, was only risked in a friendly in Ireland during an early-season break on the understanding from Graham that "if it goes well, I'll take the credit, but if it goes badly I'm blaming you." As it turned out, it went well but Woodgate still did not get his chance in the League side until O'Leary took over.

"That's the great thing about being manager - you get to pick the team," he said with boyish enthusiasm. "For the two years I'd been training the youngsters I'd been telling myself, `if I ever get the chance I'm going to put them in'. They may think I'm a young idiot of a manager but I might as well succeed or fail doing it the way I want to."

O'Leary, though, was less than positive when it came to wanting the job of Leeds manager. On the contrary, he said he did not want it. "I didn't think the people here would want a No 2. I was shocked when I discovered that the fans did. I knew the players did but that worried me. I've been in dressing-rooms before where players wanted managers for the wrong reasons.

"I didn't agree with the club and the three weeks they spent piddling around with Martin O'Neill. It should have all been decided in a week. But when they eventually offered it to me, I couldn't take it just like that, I had to consider one or two things. I haven't been offered a pot of gold here, I haven't even been told how much I've got to spend. But I do know if we're going to get this club back challenging for honours we've got to buy a lot more quality players.

"The youngsters are peaking now but they'll get tired when it matters, sadly, when the final push comes for a European place," said the voice of experience. "They always do. The body at that age finally has enough and closes down. But next year they'll be stronger for it."

After the success he has had since taking over from Graham, it would seem strange to hear O'Leary say: "I wish he was still here, it would have been a pleasure working for him for the next three or four years." They may not have always seen eye-to-eye tactically or about the deployment of youth but O'Leary has the utmost respect for the man who has been his boss, both as a player and as an assistant manger.

"People say I should have gone somewhere like Cambridge and learned my trade but, with all due respect to those people, I'd like to know what I would have learned down there," he said. "At Leeds I was under a fella who is the best - although I've got great admiration for Alex Ferguson. George was my mentor, I couldn't have had a better teacher. Under him I learned about discipline and about tactics and coaching, and I learned that I want to be like him, not to be a manger who brings someone else in to coach. Like George I do the lot, I've seen Bertie Mee's administration and Don Howe's coaching and I want to be both of them together, because I think that's what George was.

"He was down in London a lot so I was left in charge. He would let me do most things - although he wouldn't let me sign anybody - but the fact that he gave me so much responsibility meant he respected me. I learned a lot and because I was coaching the players I knew exactly who I wanted in and who I wanted out."

Having spent five months living together in a hotel in Yorkshire, O'Leary got to know the former Arsenal manager probably better than most of his No 2s have, not that he believes it has afforded him any special privileges: "For all us being great friends, I know if he could buy some of my players he flaming well would," he said. "I could be out with George having a good night but if he could stitch me up by selling me a dud he'd do it. That's what makes people like him and Ferguson winners. If anything gets in their way, too bad."

Yet O'Leary was not afraid to stand up to him, once taking an extra week's holiday after the 1990 World Cup - against Graham's wishes. "He was a silly sod and he knows it. I'd played in 53 out of Arsenal's 57 games the previous season and was one of the fittest players in the club but he refused me. He told me: `It's not my problem you've been running around Italy all summer.' When I didn't return on time he fined me two weeks' wages and banished me to the reserves for three months. I'd be on the bench and the fans would be shouting for me and I could see George thinking, `well, he's not coming back until I say so'.

"But it's taught me to be strong with players, you cannot afford to let them get away with an inch in the present financial climate. With the money players earn nowadays fining them is a waste of time. You've got to earn their respect otherwise you can end up losing your job. It only takes a couple of bad eggs to ruin a club."

If that makes O'Leary sound like a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, one should point out that he went into bat for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink when the Dutchman asked Graham for extra time off after the World Cup finals last summer - and this time got it - and was instrumental in persuading Lucas Radebe, whom Graham hungered after, and Nigel Martyn to sign new contracts. "If I'd left I don't think Lucas would have stayed, no matter who came in, but I had him here," he said pointing to his pocket.

He has also begun to bring out the best in arguably the most exciting but hitherto most disappointing of all his youngsters, Lee Bowyer. The expectation of being the country's most expensive teenager, when he arrived at Elland Road from Charlton two years ago for pounds 2.6m was a burden in itself, without being weighed down by the deadweights around the club at the time, such as Tony Yeboah and Tomas Brolin.

"It was the wrong club for him at that time," said O'Leary. "He needed to go to a better squad to improve. It reminded me of when Charlie Nicholas came down to Arsenal. He was supposed to be the icing on the cake but he was nowhere near the finished product. He should have gone to Liverpool and joined a top squad, it might have been the making of him.

"Bowyer should have been used like [Nicolas] Anelka was by Arsenal last season, putting him in, taking him out, learning his trade. But I'm starting to win the battle with Bowyer now, got him doing weights and he's building himself up. I've told him he's going to have to come and live with me if he doesn't conduct himself right and live right."

For some 20 years as a player, O'Leary was the model professional. The majority of those years were spent at Arsenal, where he seemed as much a part of the furniture as the marble halls themselves. Yet the club does not seem as deeply ingrained upon his heart as it was with the sadly disgraced Graham, who, it seemed, could not get back to that corner of north London fast enough.

"It's a different club now," O'Leary said. "I've had my day there and now I'm totally immersed in everything Yorkshire."