Football: Protege moves to the front of the Leeds stage

It is the most difficult job in football, and many have fallen on the path David O'Leary now treads. By Trevor Haylett
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The Independent Online
THE FORMULA sounds good in theory, but so often the practice proves to be less than perfect.

First learn at the shoulder of the best manager and then go out and be a success in your own right.

Only it did not work for Don Howe after quitting Arsenal's Double winners of 1971.

Nor for Peter Taylor after leaving Brian Clough, and neither for Colin Harvey when he succeeded Howard Kendall at Everton.

More recently, it did not work for Stuart Houston, despite his years of education alongside George Graham at Highbury.

Now out of the long shadow cast by Graham and his record of dazzling achievement comes David O'Leary, delighted finally to have taken over the reins at Leeds United and determined to prove that nice guys do not necessarily have to take their place some way down the queue when the prizes are handed out.

It is a formidable personal challenge for the Irishman with only one full season of first-hand experience of the most difficult job in football behind him.

Against that, it does seem that most of the constituent parts required to produce the Identikit successful manager are in place.

O'Leary's own career, that brought him a host of winners' medals, will have provided him with a pretty sound idea of what it takes to inspire players and produce victorious teams.

He will have instant respect in the dressing room while a likeable, well- rounded personality will underpin every decision.

It will be hard for his players to accuse him of lacking either a sense of fairness or an understanding of their own point of view.

O'Leary will also trust his own instincts and ignore the advice that is bound to rain down during these early weeks if he does not believe in its validity. Had he not been so minded, he would never have agreed to take the Elland Road job.

He remembers his good friend, John Hollins, suffering at Chelsea when the Stamford Bridge team were going through a sticky period and Mrs Linda Hollins saying to him: "Never be a manager, Dave. Only if it is the last job on earth." Many of the managers that O'Leary met subsequently told him the same thing.

But this most certainly is not "the last job on earth" for a man who you could see sliding comfortably into the television shoes of Gary Lineker or Alan Hansen.

There was also the option of joining Graham at Tottenham, but after some deliberation, he has decided to take the plunge into the most treacherous waters of all.

"Hopefully, I am going to be a top-class manager and I want to manage at the top, not lower down," he said. "I played at the top, where the pressure is, for 20 years and I want to manage where the pressure is.

"I know what a privilege it is to be asked for your first job to manage Leeds United and I know what expectations there are at this club.

"For us to take it on, we are going to have to invest in quality players - not just one or two, but a few."

Such positive thoughts and a willingness to fight his corner put the lie to any suggestion that the amiable O'Leary will prove an easy touch for players and directors.

There is a stubbornness in his character that will serve him well in his new role - a determination to do what he thinks right that cost him a shoal of international caps for his beloved country.

Jack Charlton, the new Ireland manager in 1986, whose idea of how a central defender should play was not reciprocated by O'Leary's own performances, omitted the Arsenal man from an end-of-season tour soon after taking charge.

O'Leary had not been contacted by the manager in advance of the squad announce- ment and took umbrage when Charlton later telephoned and asked him, in view of the number of players dropping out, whether he could join the party. The player had already booked a family holiday and told Charlton that he was not available.

Charlton put down the phone without another word and for three years the pair did not speak. "Looking back, do I regret not cancelling my holiday that fateful day and going with Ireland to Iceland?" said O'Leary. "The answer is a definite, unqualified no. I would do the same all over again. I know that I was not in the wrong. What Jack Charlton thinks is up to him."

O'Leary's lonely exile eventually came to an end and it was he who scored the winner in the penalty shoot-out that helped the Republic overcome Romania and claim a place in the World Cup quarter-finals in Italy in 1990. However, a frosty distance always existed between him and Charlton.

O'Leary might not have grown to like Charlton and his idiosyncratic methods - "he hurt me more than any over-the-top tackle, he accused me of not being interested in playing for my country and I have never been so insulted throughout my career" - but he would certainly like to be as successful a manager as the former Leeds strong man.

There are many in the game - maybe even Big Jack himself - who will be wishing him well today.