David O'Leary left Aston Villa last night after three years of steady decline in the club's Premiership standing, but he did achieve something at Villa Park which few Midlands observers believed possible. He managed to replace Doug Ellis as the focus of supporters' dissent.
Last season, when Villa finished 16th to continue a slide from sixth place in his first campaign to 10th in his second, he accused Villa's followers of being fickle. A banner promptly appeared in the Holte End proclaiming: "We're not fickle: we just don't like you."
It was a different scenario when he arrived in the Midlands three years ago. Having taken a year out after his surprise sacking in 2002 by Leeds United - whom he led into the Champions' League under the spend-spend-spend chairmanship of Peter Ridsdale - he appeared, at 45, to be the bright young manager an old, under-achieving club needed.
O'Leary was at pains to point out, during his honeymoon period, that he was no mere "chequebook manager". He made modest signings, with the £4m capture of Gavin McCann and Thomas Sorensen from Sunderland arguably the best, and was initially successful in exploiting his inheritance from the reigns of Graham Taylor and John Gregory.
However, like his two immediate predecessors and many, if not all, Villa managers down the decades of Ellis' control of the club, he gradually became frustrated by a feeling that the octogenarian chairman was more concerned with balancing the books than fulfilling Villa's vast potential. They are now the only top-flight team in the Midlands, yet fans note that promoted clubs such as Wigan Athletic and West Ham United have invested more despite having smaller fan bases.
Gregory managed to turn the popular anti-Ellis feeling to his advantage before his patience with Ellis ran out and he joined Derby County. In contrast, O'Leary failed to keep the faithful on his side and also alienated key players. Critics bemoaned his tendency to make excuses - notably about the size of Villa's squad - and what they perceived as a habit of taking the club down by dampening expectations. He was also accused of refusing to attend supporters' forums.
O'Leary had been hot favourite to be the first manager sacked this season. "Deadly Doug" no longer dismisses his charges, but as one cynic noted as the Irishman drove away in his silver Mercedes from a jeering throng at Villa Park last night, they all leave anyway.
Ups and downs O'Leary's journey
1958 Born 2 May in London.
1998 Appointed as Leeds United manager. Over next four years guides Leeds to semi-finals of Uefa Cup and Champions' League.
2002 Leaves Leeds by "mutual consent" but later claims he was sacked.
2003 Appointed Aston Villa manager. Next year they miss a Uefa Cup place on last day of the season.
2006 Villa finish 16th. O'Leary leaves on 19 July in what Villa say is "amicable parting of the ways" after inquiry into statement allegedly from first-team squad criticising Doug Ellis.Reuse content