David O’Leary – A career retrospective

In Genoa, Italy on June 25th 1990 Ireland faced off against Romania in the last 16 of the World Cup.

After 120 minutes the match went to penalties. Both sides scored there first four penalties and then Daniel Timofte had his penalty saved by Packie Bonner.

If Ireland scored their next penalty they would go through, up stepped Ireland’s fifth penalty taker, you know what I let George Hamilton take it from here.

Who’s stepping up to assume the task? David O’Leary of Arsenal. In his 52nd international appearance. David O’Leary is entrusted with the responsibility of taking the penalty that could send Ireland into the quarter finals of the World Cup. This kick can decide it all. The nation holds its breath…yes, we’re there!

Iconic lines from arguably Ireland’s greatest sporting moment, and although David O’Leary was the man to step up that day and score the decisive penalty in Genoa, he has somewhat become the forgotten or rather unmentioned man from that penalty shootout.

Packie Bonner is still a household name in Ireland to this day thank to the penalty save, George Hamilton’s “The nation holds its breath” line is still quoted to this day, even Daniel Timofte, the man who missed the penalty for Romania, seems to be remembered more than David O’Leary the man who scored the winning penalty.

Why is that? Is it because O’Leary had a rocky relationship with Jack Charlton and wasn’t a regular starter in Charlton’s Ireland side? or is it people are still annoyed and disappointed in him for writing a book about Leeds United while he was still the manager?.

Although often forgotten among the countless other memorable moments that surrounded the Irish team during their first World Cup. ITALIA 90 is undoubtedly the highlight of David O’Leary’s playing career, but for a man who spent 20 years at Arsenal and managed the best Leeds United team since the Don Revie era, David O’Leary is much more than one penalty in Genoa on a Monday evening in June 1990, let’s take a look at his extraordinary life and career.

Early life and growing up in Dublin

Due to the poor economic climate in Ireland in the 1950s, many people had to immigrate to England in search of work.  For the parents of David O’Leary this was the situation they were faced with and they moved to London in search of work.

The O’Leary’s settled in the Stoke Newington area of North London, less than a mile from Arsenals’ home ground of Highbury, where their first-born son would go on to become the record appearance holder for the club.

David recalls one of his earliest memories being of his parents looking for a bed and breakfast in London and seeing signs saying ‘No Irish’, and this racism would follow O’Leary throughout his playing career.

The O’Leary family moved back to Dublin in 1961 when David was three years old. They moved into a small flat in Dublin and David’s younger brother and sister were born, Emily and Pierce, who would go on to play for Shamrock Rovers and Celtic and play seven times for the Irish national team in the late 70s/early 80s.

David started playing football from a young age and was playing for Dublin junior side Reds United. O’Leary impressed during his time at Reds United due to calm presence in taking the ball out of defence.

As he grew older and the 70s began O’Leary was beginning to attract the attention of clubs from England and it seemed like a return across the Irish Sea was inevitable.

Back to North London

In 1973 David O’Leary was 14 going on 15 when he was offered a trial at Manchester United. The young O’Leary went to Manchester for a two-week trial in early 1973. With Man United in decline after the departure of Sir Matt Busby, they would be relegated a year later.

In an interview in 2016, O’Leary recalled seeing George Best leave the famous Cliff training ground to the Beatle-like acclaim that went along with Best’s life.

O’Leary didn’t get taken on as an apprentice by United, however, later that year he was signed as an apprentice by Arsenal. O’Leary would now return to North London and the place of his birth 15 years earlier and begin the tough journey that many Irish footballers before him had tried to accomplish, get a professional contract with Arsenal.

To say O’Leary excelled over the next two years would be an understatement, as a player he came on leaps and bounds and one year after signing his apprentice forms he played for the reserves in 1974 at the age of 16 and the following year he made his first team debut for Arsenal against Burnley in August 1975 at the age of 17.

All of this before his 18th birthday and before completing his apprenticeship and signing a professional contract. O’Leary went on to make 30 appearances for Arsenal during the 1975/76 season and finally signed his professional contract at the end of the season.

Taken under the wing of the likes of Alan Ball, Pat Rice and compatriot Liam Brady, O’Leary was seen as the man who could spearhead the Arsenal defence for the next ten years.

An Arsenal Constant

Arsenal were an ageing side in the mid 70s, who were more so flirting with relegation than challenging for league titles, the youthful O’Leary was the perfect antidote to all of this and he gave Arsenal fans hope for the future.

Over nine of the next ten seasons O’Leary would go on to play over 40 games a season for Arsenal as he became their number one centre half. However, O’Leary’s growth as a player didn’t spell success on the pitch as Arsenal struggled for any level of consistency in the early 80s.

David’s calming presence with the ball at his feet as a youngster, transcended into his career at Highbury and David became a cultured and composed player on and off the ball. Affectionately earning the nickname ‘Spider’ due to his grace on the ball and the manner he loped across the pitch.

After the run of cup finals Arsenal reached in the late 70s/early 80s dried up, Arsenal entered a run of inconsistency and Terry Neil was replaced by Don Howe, who in turn was replaced by George Graham as manager. In Graham’s first season in charge O’Leary remained one of the league’s most reliable defenders, and Arsenal won the League Cup against Liverpool at Wembley.

The following season an ankle injury sidelined O’Leary for much of the season and George Graham brought in Steve Bould from Stoke to play alongside Tony Adams. O’Leary was now no longer an automatic starter as the famed Arsenal back four was beginning to take shape.

Although not a regular starter O’Leary would make appearances across the back four and player many games during the title-winning season of 1988/89 at right-back. To no great surprise he slotted in perfectly to any role that manager George Graham gave him, and in doing so earned the respect and admiration of the fans and the club for being so professional about losing his starting place.

Over the next few seasons most of O’Leary’s appearances came from the bench and as a replacement for injured players. After a 20 year association with the club O’Leary left Arsenal in 1993 after helping the club win the FA Cup and as the clubs record appearance holder playing 722 times for the Gunners.

O’Leary joined Leeds United in the summer of 1993 on a free transfer. O’Leary became a first team regular for Leeds. Unfortunately he suffered an Achilles injury shortly into his first season. Although he tried to regain his fitness for the 1994/1995 season O’Leary announced his retirement from the game at the age of 37 in September 1994.

 A Frustrating Time with the Irish Team

Although he was born in England there was no doubt that O’Leary would play for the country that he grew up in. After becoming a regular starter for Arsenal, O’Leary made his debut for the Republic of Ireland at the age of 18 against England in a 1-1 draw at Wembley.

O’Leary would be a regular for Ireland over the next ten years or so playing alongside the likes of Mark Lawrenson and Chris Hughton.

As the Irish team struggled to qualify for tournaments during O’Leary’s time in the international setup, support and hope surrounding the Irish squad was very low in the mid-80s. That was until a certain Geordie took over the side.

O’Leary’s style of play wouldn’t be suited to what Charlton had envisioned for his Irish team, and for the first time since his international debut O’Leary was dropped from the squad for a mini tournament in Iceland in May 1986. However, due to injuries to other defenders Charlton had to call O’Leary and tell him he was back in the squad.

Charlton detailed the exchange years later, as O’Leary refused the call-up telling Charlton he was going on holidays with his family and that he couldn’t back out of it now as he had already paid for it.

This clash resulted in O’Leary being exiled from the international set-up for two and a half years. He eventually made his return to international football in late 1988 and started to make regular appearances under Charlton as Ireland qualified for their first ever World Cup.

O’Leary went to the World Cup in Italy as a substitute and made his only appearance in extra time in the last 16 win over Romania, coming on as substitute for Steve Staunton in the 94th minute and as we all know scoring the winning penalty to send Ireland to the quarter finals of the World Cup.

After the World Cup O’Leary didn’t court the publicity and acclaim that came from Ireland’s achievements at the World Cup, while some players got sponsorship deals and appeared in adverts, O’Leary preferred to concentrate on his career at Arsenal.

For the next qualifying campaign O’Leary became a near constant in the team, as he and Charlton seemed to bury the hatchet over his refusal to join the squad in 1986. O’Leary would make his last appearance for Ireland in 1993, 17 years after his debut at Wembley, finishing with a total of 68 caps and one goal for his country.

Move into management

After finishing his career at Leeds United David didn’t jump straight into management, and it wasn’t until his former manager at Arsenal George Graham took the top job at Leeds in 1996 that O’Leary’s career as a coach began.

Graham asked O’Leary to be his assistant at Leeds and Arsenal’s record appearance maker duly obliged, taking on the role with gusto as he learned from Graham how to get the best out of young players.

O’Leary stayed in this position for two years, until Graham left Leeds to take over at Tottenham. The Irishman stayed on at Leeds as caretaker manager, with Martin O’Neill tipped to take the Elland Road hot seat.

Ultimately Leeds were unsuccessful in tempting O’Neill from Leicester City and instead appointed 40-year-old O’Leary as the clubs permanent manager.

O’Leary invested heavily in youth with Jonathan Woodgate and Stephen McPhail becoming first team regulars. It was the inclusion of another youngster Alan Smith that set Leeds United on an extraordinary journey over the next few years.

Leeds finished fourth in O’Leary’s first season in charge going on an eleven-match unbeaten run.

The following season Leeds brought in the likes of Danny Mills, Darren Huckerby and Michael Bridges, while the likes of Harry Kewell and Ian Harte became first team regulars as Leeds entered the new millennium on top of the Premier League.

At this time Leeds were being viewed as the future of English football due to their mix of home-grown talent and high tempo football impressed many pundits. Leeds finished the 1999/00 season in third position and reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup.

The following season Leeds reached the semi-finals of the Champions League an extraordinary achievement for such a young team. Due to involvement in the Champions League their form in the Premiership dropped and they finished the 2000/01 season in fourth place securing a UEFA Cup spot.

Their run in the Champions League was overshadowed though by an attack involving first teamers Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate in Leeds city centre that ended with the assault and injury of an Asian student.

The incident went to trial with Bowyer being acquitted and Woodgate found guilty and sentenced to community service.

Despite this Leeds began the 2001/02 season in great form and sat atop the table at the turn of the year. During this time O’Leary who in the weeks previous had been touted as the successor to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United released a book titled ‘Leeds United on Trial’.

The book did not go down well with Leeds fans or the club’s chairman Peter Risdale.

O’Leary tried to assure people who the book was well-intentioned, but people seen it as O’Leary cashing in on the controversy surrounding the club in the wake of the Bowyer/Woodgate incident.

After the book’s release in December 2001 Leeds began to struggle and O’Leary’s position in charge was proving to be untenable.

Having spent over £100 million on new players and not winning any trophies, O’Leary was sacked as manager of Leeds in June 2002 after four years in charge.

The departure although disappointing at the time was probably a blessing in disguise for O’Leary as Leeds went into a period of financial difficulty soon after that changed the club forever.

After being sacked by Leeds O’Leary was linked with various managerial roles over the next year, deciding not to take over at Sunderland even though he was heavily linked with the role, David sat out the 2002/03 season.

When Graham Taylor left the hot seat at Aston Villa after a falling out with the board, owner Doug Ellis turned to O’Leary to provide some stability to the Birmingham based club.

At the beginning of O’Leary’s reign Villa struggled and a few months into the 2003/04 season they were hovering just above the relegation zone.

However, an inspiring turnaround in the second half of the season led by the goals of Juan Pablo Angel pushed Villa into the top half of the table, where they finished in sixth and missed out on European qualification on goal difference.

In O’Leary’s second season he brought the likes of Martin Laursen and Carlton Cole to Villa Park, these signings didn’t help Villa improve on the previous season and they ultimately finished 10th in the table.

Villa spent big in O’Leary’s third season in charge, with the likes of Milan Baros, Kevin Phillips and James Milner joining the club. Despite these summer signings Villa struggled early in the season and were hovering above the relegation zone at Christmas.

An improved run of form in the second half of the season was enough to help Villa finish in 16th position in the league.

Despite securing Villa’s Premier League safety, O’Leary’s time at Villa Park was up as his contract was terminated by mutual consent. A few months after owner Doug Ellis sold the club to American Randy Lerner.

After leaving Villa O’Leary took an extended break from the game that was until July 2010 when he was appointed manager of United Arab Emirates club Al-Ahli Dubai. Ten months into his new job in Dubai, O’Leary was sacked by the club after a poor run of results.

In March 2012 O’Leary went to FIFA asking for help in getting compensation from Al-Ahli for early termination of his contract.

In May 2013 FIFA’s player status committee settled the dispute and awarded O’Leary £3.3 million in compensation.

Since April 2011 O’Leary has not worked in management and is now rarely if ever mentioned when it comes to managerial vacancies surrounding clubs in England, surprising when you think that he was once tipped to take over from Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

What is he doing now?

Just last year O’Leary met David Beckham at a Champions League game at the Emirates and the first question the former England captain asked O’Leary was “where have you disappeared to?”.

Good question David, here’s the answer.

Although he is far from retired from football management O’Leary has not courted any managerial positions over the past few years, instead preferring to live a quiet life in Yorkshire with his wife Joy.

In the past year O’Leary has stated that he would love to return to football if the right role was to come up.

However, O’Leary doesn’t have an agent or anyone putting his name out there for vacant managerial positions so don’t expect his return to club football anytime soon.

O’Leary seems to be enjoying life as an ex-pro and has even taken up a position with Arsenal as a club ambassador and now attends games in an official capacity, a fitting role for a man who served the club for 20 years and was one of their classiest players on and off the field.

Author Details

Evan Coughlan
Evan Coughlan

I bloody love football

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