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Football: O'Leary stirs the spirit of seasons past

Nick Townsend hears the Leeds chairman revel in a new beginning
FROM STARTING OUT as 'umble as a Uriah Heep to becoming as ruthless as a Fagin, dispatching his brash urchins to pilfer points, perceptions of David O'Leary have had to change quickly. In just a year the Irishman's profile has risen spectacularly as Leeds reach the festive period as Premiership leaders and victors of 13 of 18 League games. Inevitably, there will come a time when predators will cast covetous eyes. But, as chairman Peter Ridsdale reflected on a quite improbable 12 months, he declared that O'Leary will not be wooed away through lack of funds or absence of ambition.

"As far as I'm concerned, David will not go anywhere else because of money," Ridsdale insisted, "because we will make sure that both in money for the squad and his personal contract he won't be enticed away because of cash. It would have to be something else. He's got the best young squad and I hope he's happy with the culture of the club, and with me and the other directors. If that's true, why go anywhere else?"

Highbury, many would suggest, might provide an attraction given past association. Particularly in the environs of London N5, there are those who blithely assume that should Arsene Wenger be lured back to Japan, Arsenal would have an already-honed replacement who had served a suitable apprenticeship. But O'Leary emphasised himself, as he prepared to face his old club on Tuesday, that such thoughts are distant from his own mind.

"I have absolutely no interest in the Arsenal job," he said. "My tongue is certainly not hanging out, waiting for the time when Arsene Wenger goes. I spent 17 wonderful years there, but Leeds are the future as far as I'm concerned."

Ridsdale will be gratified to hear those sentiments, but not surprised. "Not only has he signed a five-year contract, but I think that David believes he's got a very special squad," said the chairman. "If he goes somewhere else, he would have to start again at square one. Why do that when he can create something at Leeds and win things?" Since George Graham defected to Tottenham ago 14 months ago, it must have seemed like having a Picasso stolen, having your bid to purchase a replacement rejected, then rummaging in your attic and coming across an unknown artist which turns out to be a masterpiece.

The irony is that while Graham stabilised Tottenham - just as he did at Elland Road - and added a Worthington Cup to the trophy sideboard, it has hardly been the most settled of stewardships. Wednesday's 6-1 FA Cup humbling at Newcastle confirmed that, without the influence of Darren Anderton and Les Ferdinand, they are a modest side indeed. If Graham remains beyond the end of this season, a significant infusion of talent will be required to restore a healthy constitution to an ailing team, together with a close scrutiny of whether their most gifted individual David Ginola is a maverick too far for Graham's modus operandi.

Similarly, despite a conclusion to the boardroom blood-letting at Leicester, the question remains whether Martin O'Neill has galvanised the East Midlands club, who intriguingly face Leeds today, to a level beyond which resources are insufficient to permit further progress. How both the Scot and the Ulsterman must occasionally glance enviously at Elland Road and the success of O'Leary, who benefited as Graham followed a southern star, and O'Neill remained committed to his principles of loyalty.

"I realised fairly early on that the chances of Martin coming were fairly slim," said Ridsdale. "But funnily enough the time it took waiting to see if Leicester would give Martin permission to talk to us, gave us the opportunity to see David working at first hand. Watching him with the players suddenly allowed us to see what skills he had got.

"George Graham is a very dominant individual, and while David worked for him he was never really able to stand out. By the time we played Roma [in the Uefa Cup] and did very well but lost 1-0 it became clear that David was growing into the job, and frankly it would have been a mistake not to appoint him. What we were seeing there was a man who was very gifted in man-management terms, and was giving young lads the chance. They were responding by wanting to play for him."

At this time last year, it was a case of rookie manager, virtually new chairman and novice players charged with re-establishing Leeds as a major force. Hardly the most propitious of circumstances. "Obviously, it was all new to him at first, but David has grown enormously in confidence and stature. I know he originally came out with that line about being `young and naive' and I think at the time he meant it. Now, of course, people are thinking, `You've said it enough; now shut up!'" said Ridsdale, with a laugh.

He added: "When he first started, we were in it together. I'd only been chairman for just over 15 months. The bond that we've got was forged by us both being thrown in at the deep end. What we've done in the last year, both in rebuilding the side and bringing the youngsters in, has been an enormous learning curve. We've grown up five years in a year."

So, too, the likes of Jonathon Woodgate and Alan Smith. "What I'm most pleased about is if you sit on the team bus there is a genuine spirit between the young lads, that they're in it together and that they are a team, not just a collection of individuals," Ridsdale said. "That's why David checks out any players thoroughly before signing anyone. When we bought Jason Wilcox last week he looked at his family background, how he was off the field. He does not want people who come along and will not fit in. Similarly, during the [Jimmy Floyd] Hasselbaink saga, we discussed it and were determined that we would not allow any player to disrupt the culture and climate of the club and we got rid. We didn't mess around. Some clubs might have had a problem between the manager and the chairman, but we were as one."

Ridsdale rightly urges caution, with that footballing truism, "we've won nothing yet". Some observers remain sceptical whether they will. You can already hear some pundits proclaiming that Leeds may not be able to sustain their progress with kids. But then where have we heard that before?

Rice on O'Leary, page 22