O'Leary sees Villa's return to top six and end of apathy

The way David O'Leary tells it, his trip to Dublin early this year to watch Ireland's rugby union XV lock horns with England resembled a before-and-after advert. On the flight out, everyone was animated, full of anticipation and drink. Coming back, chins were on chests as the passengers dozed, full of the craic and yet more drink, until touchdown jolted them from their dreams.

O'Leary was then out of work, having been unceremoniously sacked in May 2002 by Leeds United, despite the club's fourth consecutive top-five finish under his managership. Following a gap year from the Premiership, the Irishman officially resurfaces at Portsmouth today as his new club, Aston Villa, seek lift-off after what many supporters view as two decades of slumber and precious little craic.

Villa, European champions as recently as 1982, trailed in 16th under Graham Taylor in May. The club with the potential to be "the Manchester United of the Midlands" (so said Taylor's predecessor, John Gregory) finished below neighbouring Birmingham City in the top flight for the first time in 44 years. The campaign finished amid apathy and acrimony, much of it directed at the chairman, Doug Ellis.

Ellis and O'Leary make an odd couple. Ellis is notorious for wanting to keep a tight rein on Villa's purse strings, as well for dispensing with those managers who believe that the funds are theirs to invest in the transfer market. O'Leary, thanks to what we now know was kamikaze economics on the part of Peter Ridsdale, spent like there was no tomorrow at Elland Road.

Such is the cynicism surrounding Ellis' alleged parsimony and lack of ambition for Villa that when O'Leary related how he sat in the septuagenarian's kitchen discussing the job over breakfast, one reporter mischievously enquired whether Ellis had said: "Your toast", as in "You're toast". O'Leary saw the joke, yet it is hard to imagine his settling for crumbs when it comes to team-building budgets.

Therein lies the key to the prospects for their relationship, and for Villa's chances of regaining the top-six status they enjoyed under Gregory and which O'Leary regards as "where this club belongs". For the squad he has inherited is nowhere near as strong as that which he took to third in the Premiership and the Champions' League semi-finals at Leeds.

O'Leary had himself dismantled the one George Graham left him at the Yorkshire club. Out went Graham's signings in much the same way that O'Leary dispensed with Steve Staunton's services yesterday. In came products of Paul Hart's youth academy such as Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith and, in time, Paul Robinson, all three going on rapidly to gain full England caps.

Intriguingly, given where Villa open the campaign, one of the first indications that he was building something special came at Portsmouth. Leeds won 5-1 in an FA Cup tie and O'Leary drooled on television about "my babies".

He soon splashed out on some of the country's best young players, his outlay approaching £100m in less than four years. Rightly or wrongly, he gained a reputation as a "chequebook manager". Hence the wry smiles when Ellis appointed him in the wake of Taylor's resignation.

To a large extent, therefore, O'Leary will have to reinvent himself if he is to avoid a conflict of philosophies. He still aims to buy "young players with lots of mileage in them". Ellis should be aware he has not recruited his Leeds scout, Ian Broomfield, to watch schoolboy prospects.

The audacious attempt to prise Robinson from Leeds sent out positive signals to the claret-and-blue public. However, the fact that it failed because Villa, i.e. Ellis, could or would not match the goalkeeper's wages was an ominously early sign that manager and chairman may prove incompatible.

In fairness to Ellis, he was prominent in warning against the kind of debt-accumulation madness Ridsdale sanctioned at Leeds.

Despite a penchant for prudence that puts Gordon Brown in the shade, he made a statement to the Stock Exchange last month, which explained that Villa were not immune to football's "financial difficulties" and announced a 30-fold increase in pre-tax losses for the club's plc.

O'Leary's instinctive response to the news was to reiterate his intention to strengthen the squad and get Villa playing at the higher tempo with which Leeds briefly threatened the ascendancy of Manchester United and Arsenal. That way, he reasoned, their league standing (and prize-money) would improve, cup runs would be more likely and attendances would rise, stimulating revenue.

Ellis' reaction, unless the old leopard is about to change his spots, will be to watch the pennies even more carefully. So far, he has approved two signings, those of Gavin McCann and Thomas Sorensen from Sunderland, for a combined fee of £4.5m. He doubtless hopes O'Leary will reassert the side of his character that promoted youth so strongly at Leeds. Villa did, after all, win the FA Youth Cup last year.

O'Leary sets little store by such competitions. He was a player at Leeds when they held the Youth Cup, but only Noel Whelan, now of Millwall, established himself in the Premiership while the Manchester United team they beat in the final spawned Beckham, Scholes and the Nevilles.

Last weekend, O'Leary was back in Dublin, and once again the flight was memorable. This time the reasons were less auspicious. An Irish fog and what he viewed as airline incompetence conspired to turn the short hop from Birmingham into a tiring slog.

Nevertheless he emerged a satisfied man, Villa having kept weariness at bay long enough to beat Leeds on penalties.

The early signs are that the man accused of "losing the players" at Leeds has reunited Villa's dressing-room. Players who were peripheral under the previous regime, notably Juan Pablo Angel and Alpay Ozalan, have been reintegrated. On a personal level, the reception from Leeds' fans in the Irish capital showed that, far from holding grudges against O'Leary, they still cherish the excitement he generated.

The task now is to put apathy to flight at Villa Park. The trick will be to do it without alienating Ellis, the serial scourge of managers. And without finding out why he is known as "Deadly Doug".

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