The bright side of O'Leary

Embattled manager stays upbeat in bid to beat blues
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The Independent Football

Where Midlands football is concerned, gallows humour is the only laugh on offer these days as the region's three remaining Premiership clubs battle to be the least bad team in a season which struggles even to qualify as dire.

Very possibly it is the Irish in him, but the Aston Villa manager David O'Leary's chirpy outlook provides a cheerful lining to the unrelenting gloom, even when, in the wake of Birmingham City's 7-0 hammering by Liverpool, a local poll revealed that O'Leary was more heavily tipped for the sack than City's Steve Bruce.

Eric Idle would be proud of the manner O'Leary always manages to look on the bright side of life, and he was at it again at Villa's training ground on Friday, telling one and all in his media audience with a smile, "You need to be lucky in life". As far as his team and fans are concerned, being lucky this afternoon in the derby with Birmingham at Villa Park is paramount. Should Bruce's resurgent side get a result, that poll finding might be swiftly implemented.

Considering what is involved, local bragging rights as well as precious points, a classic is not on the cards. As the Villa captain, Gareth Barry, observed, "There's never a lot of Brazilian football played in this one." However, he was aware of what is involved in view of O'Leary's embattled state: "We are all playing for him and we want to get the fans off his back. We are the ones who have to do the job for him."

Nevertheless, his manager was not in heavy mood. "It is brilliant we have a match like this in this city. Anyway, these derbies are great because there is less travelling." Perhaps the only way to travel would be down and out should Villa mess this one up, as they frequently manage to do against their neighbours.

As is the custom with managers, praise for success is pitched ridiculously high while the flak for failure is unremitting. O'Leary dismisses that as "part and parcel of the game", adding (with a smile, of course): "I can't give you any smart lines about it, but having been in the game 30 years you get to know what is coming your way.

"I take life day by day. The worst thing that can happen is that you get the sack and somebody else comes in to face the same problems. If you want a smooth life, don't come into management."

As well as arguing that clubs are entitled to make changes, O'Leary does not see why they need to alert managers in advance, citing what happened when Leeds United sacked him in 2002. "Peter Ridsdale [the then chairman] called me in. He was very polite, very friendly. He said I had established the club in the top four and qualified for Europe again, but they needed somebody to take them to the next level. That was it. That's the way it's done.

"You can't control that," he added. "That's life. Anybody who buys a house or a football club is entitled to do what they want with it. Since I have been here, Colombians, and others, have been reported to be taking over. If someone like the Glazers or a Russian wants to come in and instal their own man, what can you do about that?"

Next month marks the third anniversary of his arrival at Villa, when he was told by the chairman, Doug Ellis: "We want to be top dogs in the city". As O'Leary pointed out: "That's what I have been trying to do since the day I got here. I have done it for them every season and I am trying to do it again. But both of us know we should be doing better than we are. I don't like where I am and I know where I want to go. I don't want to have a good season followed by a dodgy one. I want to be doing it season in, season out."

Looking on the bright side rather than over his shoulder where today's game is concerned, O'Leary continued: "If we win, we go 10 points ahead of them [Birmingham] and there is a chance of hauling in those ahead of us."

But what about when the season is over? "Look, I just don't know what is happening this summer, really don't. I have got plans, but it's whether you can implement them, whether I've got two bob or two million. You just have to keep going."

When he was offered the Villa job, O'Leary was famously told not to touch it with a bargepole, but he embraced it then and continues to do so. "I like this club," he said. "I want to be the one who cracks it here. Somebody has got to do it.

"You get people reminding you we won the European Cup 24 years ago. I have to point out to them that Nottingham Forest won it twice, and look where they are now.

"I know all about the traditions and expectations of this club and I know where I want to take it. But it is hard. It does wear you down, it is frustrating.

"I know other managers have walked out of here, but I am a stubborn Irish son of a bitch. Somebody has got to do it, and if you are the one who manages it, people will say you've done a really good job, because they know what that job entails."

Then, being Irish, O'Leary fell to musing about a perfect world "where none of us had to get relegated or sacked". However, as he acknowledged, even with a smile: "It is a cutthroat business."