O'Leary's chance to rebuild a battered reputation

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The Independent Online

It is both ironic and a coincidence that David O'Leary should have re-entered management on the very day that Leeds United's new chairman was publishing details of the grotesque and frivolous spending that was authorised when he ruled Elland Road.

Although it is Peter Ridsdale, the chairman with whom O'Leary enjoyed a treacly close relationship before the acrimony that accompanied his sacking in June, who bore most of the criticism, he will find that Aston Villa do not run a fleet of 70 cars, do not spend £70,000 a year on private jets and Doug Ellis does not pay £20 a month to stock his office with goldfish.

A lot has happened to finance and football in the 11 months since O'Leary, about to depart on a holiday to Sardinia, was called to a meeting with Ridsdale, a man he had dedicated his book to, and was told that his services were no longer required.

In that time, his reputation has been trashed, which is a little surprising for someone who at his first attempt at Premiership management never finished lower than fifth and took Leeds further in the European Cup than Arsenal have ever gone. The decline under Terry Venables underlines the scale of the Irishman's achievements and it is no coincidence that when Peter Reid took over, almost his first act was to discard the players bought by Venables and put his trust in what remained of O'Leary's team.

There are many reasons why he has not been given his due and why it has taken so long for him to find another club. There was the feeling that O'Leary was never entirely sincere, that he told people what they wished to hear. When he was dismissed, the board implied he manager had been in favour of selling Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United, but had condemned it in public. He will probably never quite escape the withering judgement of his Ireland team-mate, Tony Cascarino.

"O'Leary would win few popularity contests in football," he wrote. "He was the kind of guy who would call you 'top man', put the phone down and probably hammer you afterwards. If there was someone more important than you in the room, he'd almost certainly make a beeline for them."

Tony Adams recalls the time when in 1990 he was jailed for drunk-driving. Everyone at Highbury sent him letters, but O'Leary's was to ask if he had sorted the players' payments for a tournament in Singapore. It could be O'Leary looking after himself, or it could be looking after the younger players.

Like everything at Elland Road, his position was undermined by the events of January 2000, when Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, part of the exciting, swashbuckling brand of young English talent he had assembled in Yorkshire, were arrested after an Asian student was left a bloodied mess outside a Leeds nightclub.

No manager in recent times had to endure this kind of publicity, there was no blueprint for dealing with it, and O'Leary did not handle it well. On the one hand, he tried, naturally, to defend Bowyer and Woodgate in public, then he gave an interview in which he said it would have been better for Leeds had they both gone to prison. When he published his abysmally-titled book Leeds United on Trial two days after the verdicts were given, Leeds were top of the Premiership, and it can be no coincidence that the spiral which ensured they failed to qualify for the Champions' League, a competition upon whose riches Leeds, financially overstretched by O'Leary's spending, needed desperately, began then.

There were claims that he had lost the dressing-room. One of his players refused to sign a photo on which his manager appeared, another's agent bluntly informed Ridsdale that if O'Leary was still at Elland Road for the start of the 2002-3 season, his client would not be trying especially hard.

O'Leary utterly refutes this. Earlier this month he said: "There were a few sour players for sure, a few who would be glad to see me sacked, but not the majority."

In his defence, he may have spent heavily, but he did so on mainly young British players, who not only created the most exciting side seen in this corner of Yorkshire since Don Revie's day, but who also had a high resale value. Ridsdale was responsible for the broad economics at Leeds, although O'Leary's claim that he had no idea of the scale of the debt either shows astonishing naivety or a remarkable lack of curiosity.

He will find a very different club at Aston Villa to the one he took over at Leeds in October 1998. There is no grand flow of players from the youth teams, no chairman who wants to "live the dream", but one whose internal politicking has been roundly condemned by his predecessor, Graham Taylor. And no transfer budget to speak of. When asked recently if he wanted to go back to management, O'Leary said: "It doesn't have to be a club with huge amounts of money." In Aston Villa, he has got precisely what he asked for.

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