Football: O'Leary is earning respect

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The Independent Online
AS DAVID O'LEARY wrestles over whether he should become the Leeds United manager this morning, he can calm his mind with one thought: his players betray signs they think he should take the job.

Fortitude can come from many sources but it is not often found in teams unhappy with their direction. That Leeds could emerge from a meeting Roma with a result that has put their Uefa Cup second-round tie in the balance suggests he is either popular with his potential charges or lucky. Neither quality should be underestimated in a manager.

Yesterday O'Leary, who originally ruled himself out of the job, appeared to be more eager now the first choice, Martin O'Neill, has declined the opportunity. "I shall be thinking about it a lot more seriously than I would have done three weeks ago," he said.

O'Leary has been swayed into contemplating the step up by the acceptance of the supporters, many of whom broke into "We're proud of you" when he and his team arrived at Rome's airport yesterday. More importantly, though, is the players' seeming eagerness to perform for him.

Leeds went into Rome's Stadio Olimpico about as disrupted as they could be, with no successor to George Graham named, rumours of O'Neill's decision circulating and O'Leary unable to communicate with his players because of a suspension. Yet they emerged with a result that any team in the Premiership would have been proud of.

To lose 1-0 away to the second-placed team in Serie A looked good on paper; on the pitch, after they had Bruno Ribeiro sent off and had hit the woodwork twice, the view was enhanced. "I was surprised at how Leeds kept the tempo going even when they were down to 10 men," Zdenek Zeman, the Roma coach said. "They were very impressive."

Now Elland Road awaits and if Leeds can match the will of the first leg there is hope of success. Roma have elusive and skilful strikers in Marco Del Vecchio and Francesco Totti and have worrying potential to counter- attack but Tuesday dispelled the notion they are something special.

Instead, the inclination was to side with their supporters who demonstrated at the start of the season because of lack of investment in the team. On this evidence, their league position flatters them substantially.

Which is not to belittle Leeds' performance. They can only perform against the quality confronting them and their accomplishment was a surprise even to those who know them well. A 4-5-1 formation suggested a defensive mind- set, instead they broke from their stockade easily and at one point the corner count was 8-1 in their favour.

That was due to prodigious labour in midfield, where Lee Bowyer was outstanding, but also to Harry Kewell, who shook off early-season sloth to perturb Roma's defence with some timely and intelligent runs to supplement Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in attack. Luigi Di Biagio spent more time worrying about where the Australian would turn up next than in grasping hold of the game. A regular in the Italian national side, he was a disappointment and, although his booking means he misses the second leg, on this form Roma will not be missing much.

Indeed, there were interesting comparisons all over the pitch. Who would have guessed that Cafu, a charging fullback for Brazil in the World Cup, would be bettered by Gunnar Halle? For that matter Lucas Radebe (his mistake for Roma's goal notwithstanding) and Robert Molenaar were hardly put in the shade by Roma's expensive counterparts.

Now the Leeds board must hold up this performance under O'Leary against other candidates they might have in mind. The likelihood is that it will have swayed it in his favour.