O'Leary ready to hop on the managerial treadmill once more after a three-year hiatus
28 June 2009 10:13
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It's just after midday and David O'Leary is running late, almost 12.15 when he arrives in reception at the Royal York Hotel clutching his Blackberry. The Irish hero of Italia '90 is all apologies, looking lean and tanned, blaming the Yorkshire traffic. His three years away from the game appear to have been good to him.
The former Leeds boss is popular in these parts. Hence the banter with hotel staff who know him well. He later reveals he hasn't ruled out a dramatic return to Elland Road but rarely frequents his old workplace, partly due to the constant enquiries as to his future intentions and whether Leeds United actually figures among them.
He holds the area dear, though, and retained his Yorkshire home during his stint in the Midlands with Aston Villa and lives there still with his wife and their two grown-up children (John 25 and Ciara 23). 'I can't feckin' get rid of them,' he jokes. 'Can't kick them out, can't marry them off.'
They've seen the world together since the 51-year-old's dramatic departure from Villa Park three years ago next month.
'I've travelled loads and done things that I probably wasn't able to do. I've gone to tennis all around the world, from Melbourne to New York, Wimbledon and Paris which I've always liked. Funny, in all the times I'd been to Paris I'd never been up the Eiffel Tower or anything. It was always airport to hotel to football ground.'
But still there's a nagging. Football's all he's known, really. Outwardly, he's only mildly enthusiastic at the thoughts of day-to-day involvement. You can sense he'd jump at the chance, though.
'I've had requests to go back into football and it's not me bigging myself up or thinking I deserve a bigger job but I just felt that the jobs weren't right in any way. I've had lots of offers mainly from abroad and I think that can only come from people remembering Leeds in the Champions League.
'Some with loads and loads of dollars. Jose Mourinho was very good and recommended me for a really big job but I just felt I couldn't live where it was with the family really. That was about six or seven months ago.'
His phone rings. He takes the call, finishes quickly, apologises, takes a sip of coffee and eyes the prawn sandwiches on the table. Roy Keane wouldn't be impressed.
'Oh Jesus. How is he? Is he alive? Has he been seen?' he laughs. 'He rang me up a couple of years back, which is quite an honour to get a call from Roy. He wanted my opinion on a few players. I gave him my view, which he mustn't have liked because he went and bought them. I haven't heard from him since.
'I saw Sunderland play Bolton last season to make my own judgments and they lost. I was thinking Roy was in trouble. It shocked me that he went but it didn't surprise me. 'Did his old colleague Niall Quinn give him a call about taking over? Would he have welcomed it?
'No. No thank you on that one. I know Niall too well to work with him. Tony Adams and Niall - they were like Little and Large although they were the same height. I see both of them talking so eloquently now compared to what I know about them and what they are. I know the real two people.
'I said to Tony when he went to Portsmouth that they couldn't give as*** about this European eloquence, that they just want to stay in the Premier Division. I don't know whether he's swallowed the book of Arsene Wenger. Arsene is a very intelligent man and Tony ain't an Arsene Wenger. If he's trying to do the same, he needs to get out of it.
'Coming off the drink must have changed him as well. That's just an honest opinion. Tony is a nice person. What kind of worried me was a good journalist went to see him at one point and Tony only wanted to speak to his dog.'
He's not prepared to say himself, but he's been offered jobs in(among others) Greece and an international position in the Middle East. Closer to home, he's been touted with the (regular) vacancy at Newcastle, Celtic and the Irish national team.
Celtic was never an option. The spectre of sectarianism and exposing himself and his family to the vitriol of the Old Firm means he'll never take charge at Celtic Park.
'I was sounded out for that job many moons ago alright on a few(occasions), but I wouldn't be interested. I go up and play golf in Loch Lomond and it's the friendliest and nicest place. But I honestly wouldn't like to get involved with what goes on up there.
'I've never come across it anywhere else in football, the what side of the fence you're on. I married a girl, fell in love with her, still am 30 years on. She's not a Catholic but I didn't judge her on that part. I definitely wouldn't want to live in Scotland under those circumstances.'
Newcastle doesn't really figure either for a variety of reasons although he's not for talking on that one. Suffice to say, he's not been short of suitors or admirers. If he does require a reference, he can count on the respect of the 'Special One' and that of England coach Fabio Capello.
'We're not friends but Jose has always kind of rated me if you know what I mean. He was asked a question to recommend somebody for something or put them up and I was very grateful that he did it. When I thanked him he said, 'David, I wasn't doing you a favour even though I like you, it's because I rate you' and that's his attitude.
'I saw Capello at the soccer writers' function the other week and he came down from the top table and said 'when are you bloody getting back in the game?' It was nice getting that from Capello. A lot of them know that you're too good to be out of it. That's not me trying to big myself up. People in the game know how difficult Doug Ellis and Aston Villa was.'
Ah, Aston Villa Park. When he arrived at Villa Park after Graham Taylor in 2003, O'Leary was projected as the ideal man to awaken a sleeping giant. He was 45 at the time while his chairman was 79 and battling prostate cancer. But they were hardly ideal bedfellows and O'Leary had his work cut out dealing with the thrifty veteran.
'I came in thinking Doug Ellis would go and I'd be the lucky one that Martin O'Neill is now. I gave honest opinions at the end of that year (2005/ 06) saying we need investment here. I was hoping I would be the one that was there when Randy Lerner came in.
'I read people now and they like Martin. He's media savvy and he's saying he's dealing with a young, small squad. Yet, when I said that it was 'Oh, he's making excuses'. I said the club needed investment to keep it alive. Why did Martin need £50 million this summer?
'At the end of the day, Martin, for all the money he has spent over three years - and they're raving about him - hasn't finished any higher than what I finished. Those are the facts.'
In his three years since walking away from top flight football the Ireland job has been available twice, yet he says he has never been approached for an interview by the FAI.'I would love to manage my country. I never fancied it this time round.I wasn't interested because I thought the way they were doing it was a joke, a complete and utter joke.
'The panel interview just summed the FAI up. The way it ran through England was laughable. People doing interviews and how it was dragging on. It was a typical shambolic shambles.
'At the moment I would say no. It's probably a long-term goal for me. I have some misgivings on it.'
To say he was shocked when the job went to former international colleague Steve Staunton, though, would be something of an understatement. They were never close off the field and it was O'Leary, upon taking the reins at Villa Park in '03 that called time on Staunton's top flight career.
He admits Staunton left 'with a bit of coolness' and the two didn't speak until Stan showed up in the Villa canteen shortly after getting the Ireland job but before it was announced.
'I was told he was waiting for me in the canteen when I arrived one morning so I went in and sat down. It was the first time I had seen him since and the thing that shocked me was I didn't know what he had cometo see me for. The last thing I thought was that he got the Irish job. I had to keep a straight face. I was thinking 'you're the manager?' which I couldn't believe.
'The part that hit me as a professional was that Steve hadn't even taken his kid's schoolboy team or anything. That's what shook meal though I always got the impression with Stan that he felt that he could do it.
'When I spoke to him after I got the Villa job he felt what I was doing was easy. Tell you what, I used to think it was easy before I went over to the other side. One thing I had was three years under George Graham, which was the greatest apprenticeship you could ever have.'
Despite reservations over Staunton's coaching ability, O'Leary was glad that an Irishman had gotten the job.
'I wanted him to succeed because somebody from home had got the job but just because you are Irish doesn't mean you should get the job for the sake of it. I thought it was disgraceful what happened with the press when his Dad wasn't well. That was disgusting.'
On the pitch Villa punched above their weight in O'Leary's first season (2003-04) to finish equal fifth with Newcastle United but missed out in Europe due to Millwall reaching the FA Cup Final. With little money to spend, the coach was told to consider players from the academy whom the chairman, he claimed, said were 'world beaters'.
'The great scenario for me at Villa was that anybody who was showingpotential in the reserves, Doug Ellis was saying they are going to be great players, which meant I don't have to give you money to spend.
'I'm all for young players and I'd blood them at 16 or 17. There were players whom I was credited with but they were only getting into the team because we had nobody else. Once they were in, they were found out. Why has Martin sold them all? The only one that came through was Gabriel Agbonlahor. Doug Ellis was convinced they were all going to be world-beaters.
'Some of things make me laugh. We had James Milner on loan for a year and they wouldn't give me £3m to buy him. Villa bought him for£12m eventually. Steve Sidwell was another, I wanted to buy him but was told we had young Steven Davis who was destined to play for Man Utd.
'Doug Ellis was a nightmare to deal with. He'd ring you up all the time. When I left Villa I never answered the phone because I was convinced it was him. He'd ring you every 10 minutes and be on for two hours. He'd ring up and say 'David I noticed there was a lot of broccoli left over at the training ground'.
'I have faxes still where he would ask me to check all the lights were turned off. He became that Scrooge character. I remember him getting on the coach on Christmas night because we were playing Chelsea the next day. He'd be asking the price of the hotel which I wouldn't know. That's not my job.
'I said to him on the coach to London, 'Did you have a nice day, chairman?' He said:
'Oh I had no time for that. I had two boiled eggs and brought so much work from the club to do back home'. He had nowhere else to go. I don't want to slag the man. These are the facts.
'The coach we used to travel on was old and used to break down. The boys called it the Dehli belly! We didn't know if we would get to the match some days. Doug came on the coach one day and it was another nightmare. We were delighted because the heating was broken and Doug sat up the front with his hat, scarf and coat. That summed up the skinflint mentality. It didn't bother him. We didn't have to buy a new coach but at least a decent second hand one.
'We went to Gothenburg for pre-season but we went from Manchester instead of Birmingham because we were saving 20 quid a head. This was a Premier League club! I came back from holiday that summer (2006) and he told me there would be no team doctor that year and he said 'Bill Shankly never had a team doctor'. I told him this is now but he said that would save 30 rooms overnight a year. He was getting worse as he got older. It's a disease.'
The Dubliner's final two seasons weren't quite as impressive as his first, though. Denied money to buy Chris Sutton who eventually went to bitter rivals Birmingham in January 2006, O'Leary was starting to lose patience with Ellis. The chairman, the fans and local media, however, were also losing faith in the manager who was accused of peddling excuses when things went wrong.
O'Leary said he had his best night's sleep in years on the night he left Villa and says he's not resentful that he missed the Lerner gravy train.
'I wasn't resentful and one thing I've had to say about Doug Ellis was that he was very honourable about what I was owed. He asked if he could pay me six months' straight away, and the next six on the following January 1. I trusted him and on the date the money went in. That was him, honourable. He was true to his word. For all that Scrooge stuff there was an honourable gentleman there too.'
He wouldn't be quite as complimentary of former Leeds chairman Peter Risdale who accused him in his book of taking bungs, a claim O'Leary strenuously denies.
'Anybody that knows David O'Leary, knows that I've never taken a penny. As I got to know Peter, I saw him as a Jekyll and Hyde character. Avery nice man but you'd see the other side of him which I thought he had.
'His life had been littered with bankruptcies all the way through. I just saw his company in Cardiff went bankrupt. I always felt if I had20 quid I wouldn't want Peter Risdale looking after it.
'He was very generous, polite and loved the publicity side of it. But when people are desperate it's amazing what they will do. The problem was we looked at it to go after him for defamation. It took us three weeks to get the book.
'We went through it and there were so many wrongs in it. I was always told you should sue someone who has money but we couldn't find the book cause it was a nothing seller. It was a one headline wonder for a few days attacking Martin O'Neill or Terry Venables and I think they all came to the same conclusion which was(suing Risdale) would have given him more publicity.'
Yorkshire has been the O'Leary's home since David became George Graham's number two at Leeds in 1996 and it's clear that he adores his surroundings. Gazing out the window, he raves about the countryside and the quality of life. It's comfortable. He can live without the stress of managing though he points out he would move tomorrow if he took up one of the many jobs he's been linked with. Going back to Leeds isn't out of the question either.
'I wouldn't rule that out. Most of the city would love it to happen and what would give it every chance is Risdale is not involved anymore. We'd have to wait and see on that. My last memory of Leeds is of 40,000people applauding me as I walked around the pitch. I left them in the top five in the country.'
Since walking away from the game, O'Leary has been as far afield as Qatar and Barbados doing public relations work and coaching clinics. He's close friends with golfer Lee Westwood and likes to follow the European Tour. A keen golfer himself he plays off a handicap of 10,which he confesses has lowered since he stopped managing.
'I get asked to do coaching clinics all over the world. I do ambassadorial work for the League Managers Association because they want a high profile figure to entertain their big clients. Some weeks you can be so busy and other weeks you can have sod all doing.'
Following in the footsteps of the likes of George Best and Rodney Marsh on the after dinner speaking circuit cracking one liners about the 'good old days' isn't a runner to fill in the blanks though.
'I get offered lots of speeches, but standing up and telling all that s*** doesn't interest me. Me sitting down in a big hall, wearing a dickie bow waiting for everyone to get pissed wouldn't be for me.'
What the future holds, he still doesn't know. Despite being linked with dozens of football jobs in the past three years, he hasn't applied for a single position. There's only so far down the league he'd go, preferably no lower than the Championship (as long as it's the right job). To go below that 'would have to be something very, very special'.
He's never actually applied for a job, though, and never had an agent, relying instead on solicitor Michael Kennedy for advice. He misses the buzz of Saturday football but accepts he may not yearn for it enough to actually apply for a job and get back on the sideline.
'I was shredded after Doug, just with all the politics of it. Ideally I'd love to get back into the day-to-day stuff. I'm a worker. I'd take a Championship job definitely if it was the right one. Dave O'Leary needs to be working. Dave O'Leary doesn't want to be playing golf.
'My wife isn't anxious for me to get back in football due to all the rubbish that comes with it. I've learned a lot by travelling. For all football was great to me it was never everything because of the family I had outside of it. I'm the kind of person who can live without it.
'I'm a Catholic and go to Mass but there are lots of things that you ask why do you go? I was thinking about when the plane crashed at Stansted with Leeds in 1998, nothing flashed in front of me or thinking I would never see my family. I just think what will be will be.'
Asked if he would be haunted if he ever stood a sideline again, O'Leary's answer is assured and to the point.
'It won't haunt me. There was always a life for me outside football and yes if I was offered the right job tomorrow I would take it. If you asked me would I go to my grave bitter and twisted without taking another job then the answer would be no. I've got more perspective now.'
David O'Leary has learned a lot during his break. As well as gaining perspective and humility he's learned to enjoy a new hobby too.
'I learned how to swim, which was a big achievement for me. I'd been round the world with Arsenal many times and had to sit by the pool when the lads were diving in. I thought it was about time to get lessons and I did it. Mind you I wouldn't fancy being out in the deep sea!'