Football: O'Leary's long and glorious obsession: David O'Leary has been at Arsenal for 20 years, a feat that may never be matched in the modern game. As the Republic of Ireland defender prepares to leave, he talks to Ken Jones about the state of his art

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The Independent Online
TO IMAGINE a heroic role for David O'Leary in next week's FA Cup final after 20 years on Arsenal's payroll is carrying fantasy a bit far; it's the stuff of leprechauns and dream sequences, a Hollywood scenario. As things stand, it is unlikely that O'Leary will even be a substitute, but it helps to be Irish. 'Wouldn't it be lovely,' he said.

In the past tense, that, more or less, is how O'Leary describes the two decades at Highbury he completed last week. The records he has set there look unassailable: more than 550 League appearances; the greatest number of FA Cup ties. Wasn't it lovely, wasn't it just. 'I don't know where the years have gone,' he added, poignantly. 'I never intended to play on past my 35th birthday, but the idea of marking up 20 years with Arsenal grew and grew in my mind until it became an obsession.'

Now Arsenal are letting him go. But no matter, he's there, home and dry. He didn't fall short by a year which is what happened to Steve Perryman at Tottenham. 'I remember reading about how disappointed Steve feIt. It will be amazing if any one in the future serves a club for as long, so the closer I got the more determined I was to stay with Arsenal until they told me to leave.'

Longevity in the game prompts a great deal of ribbing. A joke in the dressing-rooms at Highbury is that O'Leary has been seen on televison - in black and white, marking Stanley Matthews. It takes him back to when he joined Arsenal as a 16-year-old from Dublin, after turning down Manchester United. A sense of history persuaded him to sign on at Highbury. 'I grew up with the idea of Arsenal being one of the greatest clubs in the world, and they won the Double two years before they took me on,' he said. 'It's the club, rather than the people connected with it, that has always influenced my decisions.'

Enough to prevent O'Leary from taking up offers to play abroad that came from Torino and Bayern Munich. 'There was a great opportunity to join Bayern about the time Liam Brady signed for Juventus, but my big ambition was always to win the championship with Arsenal.' It was achieved in a week that stands above all the rest. 'I'd done the FA Cup finals and the League Cup finals, and they were all special days. But the championship is the big thing for every professional, and to do it the way we did at Liverpool in 1989 was totally unreal.

'A couple of days later I played for the Republic in front of 50,000 people at Lansdowne Road in Dublin, and again the following week. We won well and were on our way to the World Cup, and I thought what a marvellous way to finish the season. Jack Charlton has known some tremendous experiences in football, but even he was impressed.'

We were sitting in the restaurant of a hotel just outside Dublin and it was about 5pm. O'Leary had on a green track-suit that bore the badge of the Republic of Ireland, and every now and again people came across to speak with him. Although no longer a regular in the national team, he has been an internationalist since 1976, making his debut against England when John Giles was the Republic's player-manager. 'You dream of representing your country and playing at Wembley - and there it was, all in one night.' O'Leary was barely 18. Going out for the game, all Giles said to him was: 'If you find yourself getting into trouble just give me the ball. Give it me even if three of their players are around me. I can handle it.' O'Leary smiled when he recalled that. 'Tremendous attitude,' he said.

After a 1-1 draw O'Leary was congratulated by the England manager, Don Revie, who came up to him in the tunnel. 'God bless him, Don said he thought I would be in the game for a long time.'

But 20 years with one club? 'Well, of course I never imagined it would turn out quite like that, but here I am, still going at it, and a couple of good years left in me.'

Not that it's any longer the game he grew up in. 'I've seen a lot of changes. The whole emphasis now is winning, and a lot of the old enjoyment has gone out of football. It's more serious and less of a spectacle. The authorities keep experimenting with the laws, but they don't do anything about offside which is the biggest problem, especially in this country, because the game gets compressed into midfield. You can see the effect of that in the international matches. There is a lot more space, but half the players are so used to being cluttered up that it frightens them.'

Significantly, O'Leary, unlike the majority of his contemporaries, has never acquired an agent. An agent might have persuaded him to leave Highbury long ago. 'To make the big money, you've got to move around, but that's never interested me,' he said. 'It's not that I lack ambition, simply that I had something important to achieve, and I'm really pleased the way things have worked out.'

So many years, so many games. As an apprentice clearing up the dressing-rooms one night at Highbury, O'Leary came across Johan Cruyff, the last visitor to leave. 'He was sitting there, smoking a cigarette, and I didn't know what to say. He asked me how I was getting on in football and wished me well.'

Predictably perhaps, O'Leary admired no player beyond Franz Beckenbauer. 'He had tremendous presence on and off the field,' he said. 'I wanted to be like him, to come out with the ball instead of always staying in defence. I never risked hitting those 40-yard passes that Franz put a postage stamp on, but I've always tried to play up to his influence.'

O'Leary has seen many changes at Arsenal. 'I started there under Bertie Mee, who was a fussy little sod, but a brilliant organiser. When Bertie left, Terry Neill and Don Howe were a good combination for a while. They didn't last and it became obvious that the club needed a complete overhaul. George Graham has done tremendously well. He is a very positive man, and yet sometimes I feel he is lonely. I've learned from them all as I've learned from Jack Charlton.'

Being involved with a successful national team has been a big bonus. 'When I started with them we were lucky to get 12,000 people into Dalymount Park. Now it's four times as many at Lansdowne Road. A lot of us are looking to get another World Cup out of it before going merrily on our way.' We can be sure that there won't be a song in O'Leary's heart when he finally bids his farewells at Highbury. Twenty years is a long time.

THE WAY IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO

THE year David O'Leary began his association with Arsenal, President Richard Nixon was promising 'there will be no whitewash in the White House' over the Watergate scandal, Slade were belting out three No 1 hits, England's footballers were sunk in the World Cup and the Navy was throwing carrots at Icelandic gunboats.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize in May for the investigations which eventually proved Nixon's downfall, while the pop prize for decibel output went to Slade's 'Cum on Feel the Noize' which topped the singles chart on 3 March.

The music year had kicked off with a Mersey beat of sorts - Little Jimmy Osmond ascendant with 'Long-haired Lover from Liverpool' - and besides Slade, it went on to include 'Blockbuster' by Sweet, 'I'm the Leader of the Gang (I am)' by Gary Glitter and 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree' (Dawn).

Away from the hi-fi, Arsenal's new recruit could have tackled Frederick Forsyth's bestseller The Odessa File or watched Newman and Redford in The Sting.

Had O'Leary been thinking of an academic rather than a football career, his future would have been influenced by one M Thatcher, Education Secretary. Her star was to rise unlike those of Earl Jellicoe, the Lord Privy Seal and Tory leader in the House of Commons, and Lord Lambton, a Defence Under-Secretary, who resigned after admitting that they had associated with prostitutes.

Also on the way out was Jackie Stewart, the Formula One world champion, who retired in September and England, whose qualifying campaign for the 1974 World Cup ended in a 1-1 draw against Poland at Wembley in October. How O'Leary must have felt, despite his own loyalties, for Shilton, Madeley, Hughes, Bell, McFarland, Hunter, Currie, Channon, Chivers, Clarke, Peters.

Things went better on the high seas, however, where a Royal Navy frigate's resort to vegetables got the better of Icelandic foes in a skirmish over fishing rights.

(Photograph omitted)

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