O'Leary's strange celebration of underachievement

Click to follow
The Independent Football

David O'Leary took it upon himself to thank as many Leeds fans as he could for their support over the season just ended, setting off on a lap of the Elland Road pitch after the final whistle, dispensing handshakes and high fives along the length of the perimeter wall.

He looked more like a politician than a football coach, flanked by security staff, anxious-looking aides hovering in the background. A few feet away stood the club's director of communications – ready to intervene, one supposed, if a supporter should choose an inappropriate line of questioning. Judging by the brevity of his press conference shortly afterwards, O'Leary was in no mood for questions of any kind, tough or otherwise.

Yet, given that Leeds's finishing position is their lowest since O'Leary took over from George Graham as manager in 1998, the reception for the Irishman appeared benign, even warm. While fifth place might be the envy of the majority in the Premiership, it would not have been considered a satisfactory outcome for Leeds when the season began. By all unbiased assessments, it is an underachievement.

O'Leary, though, will hear no talk of that nature. His view, which always makes reference to the Woodgate-Bowyer court case, paints a picture more of triumph over adversity. "It has been difficult from start to finish with far too many headlines that weren't about football," he wrote in Saturday's programme notes. "This season has tested us much more [than past years] and I think we have done well to get a place in the Uefa Cup."

It might have been more illuminating to learn how many of his squad he expects still to be at Elland Road next season.

After spending £100m, O'Leary is under orders to sell before he buys again and one can suppose the income required is more than Michael Duberry or Stephen McPhail is likely to generate.

Which leads naturally to speculation that Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Olivier Dacourt, Lee Bowyer and Robbie Keane must be ripe for plucking away. Only on Saturday, new reports linked Kewell with Internazionale, while another story suggested he was simultaneously learning Italian and Spanish, the clever lad.

The only clues offered by O'Leary, however, are cryptic ones. "I don't want people living on reputations," those programme notes revealed, in a reference to unnamed players whose performances lacked consistency. "If they are not going to do it, they will be out of the team." Judge for yourself who he means.

Alan Smith can be safely excluded. The England Under-21 striker was singled out for O'Leary's praise before and afterwards and repaid the compliments by scoring the only goal, although the role of Keane, evidently eager to be noticed after the absence of Robbie Fowler allowed him only his fourth start this year, was also important. The Irishman flicked the ball over his head into his team-mate's path, allowing Smith to control the ball on his chest and shoot past Mark Schwarzer.

Boro ended the season as they began, with four straight defeats. "I've learned more about the team in the last four games than at any stage," Steve McClaren, the manager, said. "They have highlighted our weaknesses and where we need to improve."

Leeds United 1 Middlesbrough 0

Goal: Smith (63) 1-0.

Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn 7; Kelly 5, Ferdinand 7, Matteo 6, Harte 5; Bowyer 6, Bakke 7, Johnson 5, Kewell 6 (Wilcox, 90); Smith 8, Keane 7. Substitutes not used: Robinson (gk), McPhail, Duberry, Batty.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer 7; Stockdale 5, Ehiogu 4, Southgate 5, Cooper 6 (Murphy, 84); Greening 7 (Debeve, 76), Ince 4, Mustoe 6, Downing 5 (Windass 7, 66); Nemeth 6, Whelan 5. Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Johnston.

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield) 7.

Bookings: Leeds: Matteo, Martyn.

Man of the match: Smith.

Attendance: 40,218.