Gone the naïve young manager. In his place has metamorphosed "a boring old fart". His words. David O'Leary maintains he has learned just one thing from his four-year stewardship of Leeds: opinions are cheap, but they can prove mightily expensive.
These weren't exactly his words as we sat in one of the private boxes at Villa Park. But that was the essence of his declaration as Villa's 10th manager in 20 years surveyed the Holte End and, like all those before him since the Ron Saunders era, pondered how he could return football's equivalent of the Land That Time Forgot to a vision of plenty.
By that, we can possibly assume there will be no immediate plans to publish Doug Ellis and Me: Claret & Blue Blood Brothers. "The one thing I learned [at Leeds] is not be so opinionated," he said. "I'm a nice person, with a nice family, who gets on with people, but I'll reserve some of the opinions I used to give and be a boring old fart. I'll just be giving my opinions about Aston Villa, nothing else."
It was the former Arsenal defender's preparedness to reveal rather more than was necessary about the club and their personnel in his tome Leeds United on Trial while still in office which undoubtedly contributed to his downfall at Elland Road.
The fact that his team failed to secure a Champions' League place when expenditure had been committed precisely to that end was another. In the circumstances, it was perhaps inevitable that a good proportion of the Irishman's introduction as the latest incumbent of a chair as precarious as Sweeney Todd's should be taken up with self-justification.
In a week in which some financial commentators have been obsessed about fat- cattery, it was perhaps unfortunate timing that Leeds' new chairman, Professor John McKenzie, should have revealed that O'Leary and his successor, Terry Venables, had received pay-offs, jointly, of £5.7m, with the former reportedly taking £3.7m. And though they were doubtless contractually obliged to receive these sums it was, effectively, for perceived failure. No wonder O'Leary wasn't in a rush to return to the mad, mad world of professional football.
But of more concern to him was nailing the persistent criticism that not only had he failed, but that he had also cost Leeds £96m. "People say, 'You spent over £90m', but we recouped over £70m, if you include [Rio] Ferdinand and [Robbie] Keane, because they were already going then. We splashed out £13m on [Oliv-ier] Dacourt and [Mark] Viduka, and what's Viduka worth now? People also forget that at the same time we raised £7m by selling other people."
He added: "I won't interfere with the financial side. I had a thing with Leeds that I'd nominate players. I'd say, 'They would be good for the future'. Ferdinand, say. You look at all the players at Leeds, everybody still wants to buy them. Several important people rang Mr Ellis on my behalf from within football. They knew, when you take the headlines away, and break it down, there was a team built there for 26 million quid. It wasn't a bad side for that money."
It's a fair point, and the fact that O'Leary elicited such promising performances from the young players at his disposal, including notably Alan Smith and Jonathan Wood-gate, rightly adds to his own positive self-estimation. Yet this is a far more daunting task than the position he found himself in at Elland Road when George Graham departed for Tottenham, leaving the foundations securely in place for O'Leary.
The transition was just about seamless. "This will be more difficult," he agreed. "There's been a lot of talk about the young players here, and I'm all for them. When I got the job at Leeds they said to me that there's only a few million pounds to spend. I said, 'Get me David Batty'. Then there were three or four kids in the reserves that I put in straight away. It was like getting five new players. But there I knew about all the staff. Here I don't.
"Hopefully, they'll be good enough, because as I know from my Arsenal days, if you can bring through home-grown kids it's great for the supporters. If they're good enough, David O'Leary won't be afraid to put them in."
The other difference, of course, is that he is likely to find Ellis a somewhat less obliging chairman than Peter Ridsdale. Had he been discouraged by Ellis's reputation? "If that was the case I wouldn't have taken it. I don't want to be seen as arrogant, but I didn't need to come back into football." The last three managers (Brian Little, John Gregory and Graham Taylor) actually resigned. "That was pointed out to me. But who knows? My relationship with Mr Ellis has only started today. This club finished in 16th place [this season]. I come here to put this club where it should be, in the top six places. I've signed a three-year contract. Only time will tell if I'll be here for three years."
The bookmakers will give you short odds on him even surviving one. It's the significant job that O'Leary craved, all right, but is arguably one of the toughest - while Ellis retains control. There is enormous expectation but little of the financial commitment that accompanied his first stint at management.
Certainly, the Irishman cannot say this is not a true test of his mettle.Reuse content