Football: The liberal waiting for a party

Interview with DAVID O'LEARY: Leeds' new manager, pupil to the master, has already shown he is no Graham clone.
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The Independent Online
George Graham must have felt like a Jesuit priest learning that his most gifted novice has lost The Faith. It was a Sunday evening, two days before Leeds faced Roma at the Olympic Stadium in the second round of the Uefa Cup, when David O'Leary received a call from his mentor. "George had just joined Tottenham and the previous day he'd seen them win at Derby. I congratulated him, but he was more interested in how I was going to play in Rome. He said 'You're going to do 4-5-1?' I said 'No George, I'm going to do 4-4-2.' He didn't say anything, he just went quiet, which is typical George, but I got the impression that he thought I'd lost my marbles." O'Leary chuckles at the recollection, but then paraphrased his approach to man- agement. "Y'see, I want adventurous play - but with a purpose."

On the night, Leeds lost 1-0 and were eventually eliminated; yet, honour at least was intact, and a heroic performance was vindication of the acting manager's intrepid approach. So much for those who had assumed that Graham had left behind nothing more than a genial clone when he answered Alan Sugar's distress flare from Pride Hurt Lane.

New manager; new broom. O'Leary has already established that fact by his players' exhilarating performances in his first two months. Now he confirms it by word. "I always knew the way I wanted to do things. I've been told I'm young and naive, but I'm going to play the way I want to play and if I get the sack because of it, so be it," he insists. "I had a great input with George, but he was the boss. I didn't bring in the players. I didn't pick the team. There were a lot of things I didn't agree with. I want to play a certain way, which is 3-4-3 in many ways, attacking-wise taking a man from the back and getting an extra man up the field, while George was very much 4-4-2 or 4-5-1."

Not that the master was unaware of his pupil's liberal leanings after the central defender rejoined his former Highbury guv'nor at Elland Road in 1996. O'Leary recalls: "When we went to Maritimo, George played 4-5- 1; I told him privately that I didn't agree. I'm not saying we should be gung-ho and get battered at the other end, but I believe you should go forward and try to play in their last third as much as possible. I just don't believe in playing one up and sitting on the edge of the box. It invites pressure from the opposition. He listened to my point, but said 'No, we're going to play my way.'"

The world is full of those with such cavalier philosophies, but not too many at the serious end at the Premiership. O'Leary counters: "I don't want to concede goals, I don't want to be into sexy football, say, like Kevin Keegan. I want to win things, not just hear people saying 'They're a great team to watch.'"

It is Thursday morning, and O'Leary had swept with almost presidential authority through Leeds United's isolated training complex opposite Wealstun Prison, a few miles south east of the family home at Harrogate he shares with his wife Joy and their two teenage children. He has a word for one startled apprentice and a playful punch for another, a hearty "good morning" to the girls in the laundry-room. You suggest that he is, maybe, too much of the Mr Nice Guy, a kind of Dublin response to Gary Lineker, to hack it as boss? "I'm the mild-mannered new kid on the block," he agrees. "I don't trade under a macho image, but people within the club know not to take liberties with me." Certainly, O'Leary, the Irish international whose distinguished career at Highbury brought him more medallions than your average Mr Nouveau Riche from Essex, lacks nothing in authority. It persuaded even the wayward Lee Bowyer to consider peace on earth and goodwill towards all men as a reasonable subject for discussion.

Leeds play Coventry at home tomorrow on the back of putting four goals past West Ham, and moving into third place in the Premiership, last Saturday. That win may have been the most tangible evidence of O'Leary's managerial potential, but concluding extension of contract negotiations with his captain Lucas Radebe and Nigel Martyn - in doing so extending his own credibility as a fully fledged number one - together with the pounds 4.4m return of David Batty from Newcastle, were as important long-term.

That is how he views his mission, and explains why he did not exactly genuflect before the chairman Peter Ridsdale when the job was offered to him two months ago once Leicester's Martin O'Neill had decided to stay put. Even now, he remains irritated by the handling of the affair. "All that time, waiting for Martin O'Neill, was a farce and I told the chairman so," he declares. "They should have given him a week and then pulled out. Instead, it went pear-shaped on them. So, they offered me the job one morning and wanted me to go straight away to the club so that they could announce me as manager. This, after piddling around for nearly four weeks."

He adds: "Before agreeing, I needed to know what money was available. But it was never a question of demanding a pounds 20m pot of gold; I told them what players I had ideas of getting in and they said 'Fine, we'll back you on those.' That was good enough for me."

O'Leary has yet to have his own terms improved. "George got me a very good new contract last year. At the time, the chairman told me, 'You're not just a number two.' When I took this job they said, 'Let's see how you go, and we'll look at your contract in the summer.' So, in a way, I'm on trial here myself. I'm not worried about that. It's no good me being rewarded with a mega-contract - and having no money to spend."

O'Leary, 40, admits, with remarkable candour, that he wishes "George was still here, and I was still working for him. Because all I'd been doing was learning more." So why not follow him to Spurs? "If I'd have got the sack here, he might have offered me the job, but I never had an open ticket. With all the ballyhoo over an Arsenal legend like George going to Tottenham, would they have really wanted someone else who had played over 800 games for their great rivals and was Arsenal through and through?" O'Leary's greatest satisfaction has been the transformation of Bowyer, Leeds' greatest enigma. "He was undisciplined off field and sloppy on it," admits the manager. "So we had a heart to heart and since then he's grown up. I told him he was coming to live with me if he didn't. The only restriction was that he had to be in by eight o'clock every night. I think that got home to him. He's still maturing and a wonderful talent. He's an England possible, without a doubt, but he'll have to show it because there's no way I'll tell Glenn Hoddle."

O'Leary responds to a quizzical glance. "I grew up with Glenn in a sense, him being at Tottenham and me at Arsenal, but I don't know him," he explains. "On the odd occasions we bump into each other you'd have thought he'd never met you before. He's a stranger these days."

It will not be just Bowyer and the goalkeeper Martyn who are certain to come under the England coach or his successor's scrutiny in the next few years. O'Leary had no compunction in fielding six young players, including the defender Jonathon Woodgate, forward Alan Smith and goalkeeper Paul Robinson in the West Ham game. "I used to be on to George about them, but he probably thought 'Well, thanks number two. I'm the one who'll get the stick putting them in'. But I believed in them and I think they could go on to be real quality. Eddie Gray [now O'Leary's assistant] takes a lot of credit for nurturing them. They can go on and play for their country, no doubt about that."

Yet the eternal fear is burn-out, and the preponderance of young blood in his side is partly why O'Leary won't hear of talk of achieving one of the three Champions' League places. "If they handed the prizes out at Christmas we might be able to do it, but over the season we're only a top-eight side," says O'Leary. "I got into the Arsenal team at 17 and stayed in because Bertie Mee thought I was a quality kid. But I was on my knees in the last couple of months. It was the same here with Harry Kewell last season."

O'Leary adds: "This time, we haven't got one like that, we've got six. Alex Ferguson can rest young Wes Brown if he wants to. Woody is a similar player but I'm having to flog him to death. I'm picking him all the time, because he's playing great and I've got nobody to replace him." As O'Leary has quickly discovered, "Playing is a doddle. This is hard."

And this from a man with a team in form, his managerial stature expanding by the week. Certainly, instant success hasn't deluded him about his ultimate vulnerability. "One thing I don't fear is the sack," he says as he departs for a coaching session. "That's a certainty anyway; it's just a question of how long..."