Football: Reinforced steel of O'Leary

Guy Hodgson studies the qualities of the Elland Road manager-elect
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THERE was a moment in Rome where you knew where the manager's job at Leeds United would be offered. David O'Leary had just finished radio interviews in the depths of the Olympic Stadium when he bumped into his chairman, Peter Ridsdale. The two men looked at each other and then embraced.

The gesture was more than an expression of the sheer delight in achievement, it welcomed O'Leary into the fold. The phone call Ridsdale made to journalists three hours later at 2am to confirm Martin O'Neill was not coming to Elland Road was scarcely necessary; we had already seen the informal coronation.

It was symbolic as O'Leary had been the outsider in more ways than one as Leeds had set off for their Uefa Cup tie against Roma. He knew he was second choice to Leicester's O'Neill and he was geographically apart from the centre of things as a suspension derived from the previous round meant he could have no contact with his team during the second round first leg. He was not so much in the cold as in the refrigerator.

Not any more. "First is first, second is nowhere," as Alan Hansen is fond of saying, but not in O'Leary's case. O'Neill, the initial choice, buttressed his position at Filbert Street by rejecting Elland Road but his dithering also dug a solid platform for the caretaker. O'Leary could dictate his terms on Friday to Ridsdale, whereas three weeks ago he would have been beholden to his chairman for the opportunity to succeed George Graham. Hence the reported pounds 12m fund for new players and the prospect of a healthy contract, which Ridsdale yesterday revealed would put O'Leary in the same league of managerial earners as Graham, Alex Ferguson and Ruud Gullit.

O'Leary played down suggestions that Tuesday's match was integral to his being offered the job but it was like a practice session in Formula One in that it would not win the race but it certainly could lose it.

If Leeds had performed lamentably, showing signs of discontent and disarray under O'Leary's stewardship, then they would have been forced to look elsewhere. Instead, with luck deserting them, the players contrived a more than respectable 1-0 defeat, having had to play for more than a third of the game with 10 men.

Leeds, the team, showed the determination that O'Leary himself had shown to be his own man during his three weeks of power. It was his choice to give 18-year-old Jonathan Woodgate his debut against Nottingham Forest last Saturday and it was his gambling instinct that meant another 18-year- old, Stephen McPhail, was preferred to Alf Inge Haaland in midfield against Roma. Neither decision suggested a lack of confidence.

Which belies a "nice guy" image that O'Leary cultivated at Arsenal and Leeds and one that probably counted against him when Leeds initially drew up a list of managerial candidates. "He has to change a little bit in terms of dealing with players," Frank Stapleton, a former colleague said. "As a coach you can put a friendly arm round players but a manager has to be aloof from that. It's about making tough decisions not about being popular. The club over-rides everything."

Stapleton confirmed that O'Leary did not appear to harbour ambitions to be a manager as a player but Graham, who appointed him as his assistant at Leeds, and has studied him since has detected a degree of steel. "I'm an amiable fellow if you go for a meal with me, but when I go to work, I go to work. David is the same, he has a toughness about him."

That toughness will have to be unveiled soon because Leeds, their fine work in Italy notwithstanding, are short of challenging for major honours, domestically or at a higher level. Graham said he needed three players "to compete with the big boys" and O'Leary concurs. Leeds have lacked creativity in midfield since Gary McAllister was sold while the strike partnership of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Clyde Wijnyard does not have "made in heaven" stamped upon it.

Any club needs direction and one with a place in the Uefa Cup third round within reach needs it more than most. Today it is up to O'Leary whether he provides it.