O'Leary learns to live with great expectations

Disappointment as Leeds stutter has brought the knives out but manager is determined his team will emerge stronger
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The Independent Football

Elland Road has been strangely quiet of late. And we are not just referring to the hush from the faithful that followed a succession of goals conceded to Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur over Easter weekend.

While there has been no suggestion that Trappism has been declared the new order at Leeds, the club which in the past has been accused of being open house to opinion, a kind of Oxford Union debating chamber for football issues, have to a large extent maintained their own counsel. Jonathan Woodgate not considered for England by Sven Goran Eriksson? "I have absolutely nothing to say," declared his manager, David O'Leary, immediately after he had been advised of the exclusion order.

The problem with that strategy is that it can be as mischievously misconstrued as the utterance of a passionately held belief. After all, isn't "silence", as the French writer Duc de la Rochefoucauld suggested, "the best tactic for him who distrusts himself"?

There is no evidence in O'Leary's case that there exists any self-doubt, and there are few signs of self-recrimination. Whatever else is laid against him – and in recent weeks the accusations against the Irishman have been so plentiful and so vociferous that he must have felt like Jonathan Aitken under fierce cross-examination by the late George Carman QC, instead of a football manager who has overseen some indifferent results in the aftermath of a sensitive and protracted court case – O'Leary will never stand accused of understating his abilities.

On occasions, he may have run away with his own loquacity, may have permitted the emotion of an occasion to cause him to misdirect a word or two, but better, it might be contended, that than the mute monk which some demand that he should become.

It was almost refreshing on Friday, after he had finished working with his players at the club's Thorp Arch training centre in preparation for this afternoon's game at Sunderland, to find that O'Leary was soon back to his perennially optimistic manner. Here is a man who would swear blind a glass of Guinness was nearly full, not half-empty, particularly when it was suggested to him that he may have taken the club to their, and his, limits.

"We've had a difficult season but this club, this squad, will be back," he insists. "We might have to take our medicine this season, we might have to suck our lemons, but we'll be back nice and strong in August. And we'll be better for the experience. We've had to take a lot on the chin. We were top of the League at the time, yet it felt as if we were bottom. A lot of our players have learnt a great deal from this season. They have been through a lot and they will come out better people, stronger mentally. Let's not lose track of the fact that though they have got a lot of football on the clock they are still very young."

He added: "We have made mistakes here; myself, others around the club, and it has been a tough year. I think we have done well to be where we are under the circumstances. We could have been like a great liner, with the engine failed, out in the middle of the ocean, but the fact is that we are still in with a chance of [qualifying for] the Champions' League or the Uefa Cup. We have done well to handle all that this season considering what we've been through.

"We might have been mid-table now, adrift. It's a tribute to the players, and Brian [Kidd] and myself, that we've developed the spirit of staying together when we've had a lot of knocks. Going out of the Uefa Cup in the final seconds to PSV Eindhoven, everything's been that way. But we have all kept together and clung on in there."

Nevertheless – you are compelled to broach the matter – there are several of those personnel who, it has been reported, may make an unseemly charge for the lifeboats should Leeds fail to return to Europe. There will still be those whom the Italian and Spanish leviathans will attempt to inveigle into their clutches; Mark Viduka, Olivier Dacourt, Harry Kewell and Robbie Keane, to name but four. O'Leary describes such talk as "ridiculous speculation, but what do I know? I'm only the manager. People talk about us having to make a £15 millionprofit, but that's news to me".

He adds: "You can't guarantee anything. If any plc club get an offer they can't refuse for a player they will let him go. But people love being here playing for Leeds. Even under the difficult circumstances, the greatest respect you can have is that you have got a group of players and nobody wants to leave you. We've tempted people like the Ferdinands and the Fowlers. Loads of other people were in for them, bigger clubs maybe.

"But it's not just about having a bit of money to spend. It's about your reputation as a club. There are some players that other people are after that I want to come to us this summer [specifically the PSV midfielder Mark van Bommel]. Hopefully I will get them without having the silverware to attract them, and that's a good reflection on where we've come from and where we're going."

No one would question O'Leary's right to plaudits for what he achieved last season when his team, weakened horribly by injury, surprised even themselves by reaching the Champions' League semi-finals. But, as he approaches his fourth anniversary in charge, he is confronted by those, like my Independent colleague James Lawton, whose analysis is that it is "a brilliant job half-done".

The manager pauses before responding: "I think I've done a good job here. I think people within football know that. People keep talking about me spending £60m. Well that has taken us up to the top level of this League. Some clubs have spent a lot of money and don't have a lot to show for it at the end but a lot of dead wood. We have invested 60 million, we have bought young, they have become better and they're worth much more. I know that from the bids we get in compared to what we've paid for them."

To support that claim, an independent auditor has recently valued the Leeds squad at in excess of £200m. "So, for all the money that's been laid out, this club are not in debt," he maintains. "They can cash in on that any time they want. Yes, we have invested a lot of money, but it's good money, not wasted money, and it's worth a lot more now, and I can say to the plc: 'I think that I have done a good job for you'."

But what about the not immaterial issue in many supporters' minds of an absence of silverware? "This club, for the last three years, has had a lot of success," he claims. "Even though we might not have a trophy. When we come back in July our main objective will be to qualify for the Champions' League, because that's what plc companies want. They regard it, in the nicest way, as a trophy. As a football person, you would probably want to win the FA Cup. But not the plc. They would say: 'Forget that, we want to be in the Champions' League'."

Confirmation of Leeds attaining a Uefa Cup place, at least, could arrive next Sunday, FA Cup semi-final day. If, as appears a strong likelihood, the results contrive a Chelsea-Arsenal Cup Final, the sixth-placed Premiership club would then secure entry into the Uefa Cup, and Leeds are virtually assured of that. It would relieve any immediate pressure on the manager. Not that he admits to feeling any, merely fatigue.

"I am a realist and I tell the truth," says O'Leary. "This has not been enjoyable for anyone this season. I can't wait for it to end. Certainly, we have made mistakes along the way. But we have taken this club a long way, into that top six, and we have set standards. The problem is that a lot of people want to push us further than we have come." And failure to meet expectation, as he has discovered, is always the greatest sin.