O'Leary still seduced by the big picture

Aston Villa v Liverpool: Leeds outcast has grandest of ambitions for new club as his friend goes on to the offensive
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A gap year; every football manager, like every student, should take one. Between leaving Leeds United 17 months ago and signing on at Aston Villa, David O'Leary had the sporting equivalent of a hitch-hiker's guide to the great cities of Europe and a tour of the Greek islands, all with enough saved up at the end of it to avoid any financial problems in the years ahead. And was he grateful? "Well, I didn't appreciate Peter Ridsdale giving me the break."

There were some advantages, he reluctantly admits, notably family life; his long-suffering wife loved the change, and with his Irish father seriously ill, he spent more time in Dublin than in the whole of the past 30 years of football in England. At home and abroad, he took in the Grand National, Cheltenham, the Masters golf and rugby at Lansdowne Road.

There was time for reflection too on the events of an absurdly eventful first four years in management, a step boldly taken in preference to following George Graham from Elland Road to Tottenham. In that time Leeds never finished outside the top five and, remarkably, made a Champions' League semi-final; then O'Leary, "just a naïve young manager", became embroiled in the trials - not to say tribulations - of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, which would have had Solomon himself phoning the League Managers' Association for guidance.

"Did I make mistakes? Yes. Have I learnt from them? Yes." And though he does not specify the ill-advised book Leeds United On Trial, he does admit that one of the misjudgements was being too ready with a quip and a quote, a headline and a sound bite: "Too opinionated, too involved with things that didn't matter."

Mistakes or not, it was still a shock when he called at Ridsdale's office the day before starting a family holiday in June last year: "I wish I'd had a tape recorder with me that day. It took two minutes. He said, 'We need somebody else to take us on.' And who am I to disagree when a chairman wants to make a change? So we'll see who's right on that." Leeds' current predicament suggests the answer, as O'Leary - less naïve than he likes to make out - well knows.

So a sabbatical it was, rather than a mere summer break. But he was only ever waiting for a suitable opportunity: "If the right offer had come along the next day or week, I'd have been straight back."

It took longer than expected, but Aston Villa, though they had just finished 16th in the table, sounded right. He remembered his visits there as player with Arsenal and manager with Leeds, and thought: "The tradition, the fans, just walking into the ground and out on to the pitch..."

Others were not so sure: "Lots of people told me not to take it." It was not hard to guess why. In playing terms, there were uncomfortable parallels with Leeds as a club on the slide; from runners-up in the Premiership 10 years ago and, more relevantly, top in October 2001 before John Gregory's mysterious resignation three months later. A disappointing season under Graham Taylor followed, with the chairman and purse-string holder, Doug Ellis, refusing to push the boat out any further, lest it sank like Ridsdale's.

Ah, Deadly Doug, presiding over a club who have now employed 10 managers in 20 years; this hardly sounded the ideal place for a man who had served only two clubs in 30. It was not difficult to see why O'Leary's friends were wary on his behalf. But the bug had been biting all year. Not for him, at 45, the golf club and television studio.

After the pleasure of beating Leeds in a pre-season tournament in Dublin (where he was warmly received by their supporters), came the reality checks. He sought to buy Paul Robinson, England's No 2 goalkeeper, and the Australian captain, Brett Emerton, but both proved too expensive for Ellis. O'Leary had to make do with the Sunderland pair Thomas Sorensen and Gavin McCann, who could not prevent a morale-sapping defeat by Portsmouth on the opening day.

The manager, ever his own man, made his mark by dropping Olof Mellberg, the central defender who had played every game the previous season, and any Brownie points lost on that one may have been redeemed by bringing back into the fold Alpay and Juan Pablo Angel, two players from whom Taylor failed to bring the best. There are strikers aplenty, and Darius Vassell has just been persuaded to sign a new contract, which Ellis claims as proof of the club's oft-doubted ambition. He is not yet fully fit, but his goals are badly needed: "I don't want to get into what went on last season," O'Leary says, before pointing out that "the scoring record was very, very poor. If we had an Owen or a Shearer it would have been a very different game last week". At Leeds, he would probably have persuaded Ridsdale to bid for them.

This afternoon, the spectre of Owen looms large, as well as that of Harry Kewell, late of West Riding, and O'Leary's great friend Gérard Houllier. They were close even before the October day two years ago when Houllier was taken ill at half-time against Leeds. His life-saving 11-hour operation was successful enough for the Villa man to joke now: "I gave him the heart attack because we were playing them off the park."

Like all managers, O'Leary was made more aware of the profession's dangers by Houllier's collapse. "You don't switch off. You might not be at the ground, but your mobile's going or your brain's going. Every manager in every division has that. It comes with the job."

And every manager wants to beat you, however friendly. So the prospect of meeting Liverpool and then Arsenal over the next four days, having already lost three points at Portsmouth, is hardly a comfortable one. A literate man is not just giving in to managerial cliché when O'Leary says: "Every game will be a tough game this season. The League doesn't lie. This club finished in 16th place."

He has not lost faith in his own ability ("I think I did a good job at Leeds") and - a possibly unacknowledged mistake, this - insists on seeing not so much the big picture as the whole kaleidoscope. The man who "wanted to transform the whole image of Leeds United" no less, is determined not just to finish higher than Birmingham City this season but is now "looking forward to shaping the club over the next few years, having a team eventually that's going to be rated the same as the Arsenals and Liverpools."

May good health and Mr Ellis grant him the chance.