Part 1 - Part
2 - Part 3
Leeds United Football Club experienced an extraordinary close
season in 2002, during which the lack of success in the previous
season cost their manager his job, and a big name successor replaced
him. The story is told in two major features by The Sunday Times.
David Walsh: How O'Leary lost the plot
As David O'Leary drove his silver Mercedes from his home in
Harrogate last Thursday morning, he believed it was just another
day at the office. An 11 o'clock meeting with club chairman Peter
Ridsdale at Elland Road, a few other loose ends to tie up, and
the next day he and his wife, Joy, would be on their way to Sardinia.
Two weeks when the world of football could go to hell.
If there was one quality that defined O'Leary's life in the game,
it was an ability to dodge the bullets. He survived 20 years as
a player at Arsenal, and though management had been more precarious,
he had come through. Didn't he always? 722 first-team games for
Arsenal: know what that takes? Things at Leeds, though, were not
good. Only two days earlier he had met Dick Wright at the training
ground at Thorp Arch. Wright worked for the club's media department.
"Morning, Dick, how are things?" "Haven't you heard?" "Heard
what?" "I've been made redundant. Finished two weeks ago. I'm
in to collect some things."
Wright had worked for eight years at Leeds. O'Leary offered his
sympathy and carried on. Poor Dick; nobody was safe any more.
What could the chairman want? Something about Rio, probably.
O'Leary had suggested the club should not sell Rio Ferdinand,
and the plc was getting touchy about any hint of dissent. If this
was Ridsdale's problem, he would argue that his comments were
only going to push up Rio's price. Surely the chairman would understand
that. People didn't realise how many balls a manager had to juggle.
As his Mercedes headed for Elland Road, the sky was blue and
the sun was shining: so brightly that O'Leary never saw the train
coming. And was it travelling! There was no preamble, no small
talk. Ridsdale simply told O'Leary of the board's decision to
fire him. There were no tears, no histrionics; just the brutal
reality of dismissal and
a vague agreement to present the decision as an agreed separation.
Ridsdale said he would speak to O'Leary's adviser, Michael Kennedy,
O'Leary had once described Ridsdale as "the best chairman in
the game"; Ridsdale had called O'Leary "the best young manager
in the Premiership". Like so much of what was said at Leeds over
the past three seasons, the compliments were written in sand.
Now two men, who could have talked for their respective countries,
had nothing to say.
Less than three minutes after entering, O'Leary left Ridsdale's
office. Leeds issued a statement saying their manager had departed
from the club "by mutual consent". Ridsdale then telephoned Kennedy
and briefed him on what had taken place.
"What do you mean, 'mutual consent?'," asked Kennedy. "You sacked
"But the statement has already been released."
"Well, you're going to have put out another statement," said
Leeds issued a second statement, this time telling what had truly
taken place. The first shots in the battle for compensation had
On the way back to Harrogate, O'Leary stopped off at the club's
training ground near Wetherby, cleared his office and said his
goodbyes. Sad day, but that's how it goes. The man who was bullet-proof
had taken the biggest hit of his football life.
In charting his subsequent fall, there is a piece of advice he
offered to his players that could now be inscribed on his own
tombstone. "The sad thing in football today," he said more than
three years ago, "is that people who earn a lot think they have
to change. They get arrogant, even though they've done nothing.
They lose touch with their friends and inherit the so-called 'in
people'. In-crap. These people, I wouldn't call them friends,
they like you for what you are today but tomorrow they'll drop
But it was O'Leary himself who seemed most vulnerable to the
temptations he warned his players about. When he went to the US
Open at Southern Hills Country Club, he travelled with Lee Westwood.
At the Formula One grand prix in Monaco, he fraternised with Eddie
Jordan. He spoke also of his close friendship with Leeds's deputy
chairman and most influential director, Allan Leighton. But without
realising it, O'Leary was losing the respect of those who could
have saved his skin - his own players.
The difficulties came with defeats. Prepared to accept credit
when things were going well, the manager couldn't stop himself
publicly criticising players on the bad days. Woodgate was castigated
for a performance against Leicester in December 2000; Smith was
often scolded for a lack of discipline, Harry Kewell for lack
of form. Mills, too, got the treatment.
At first, there were pockets of disaffection. Respected senior
players and former England internationals, Batty and Jason Wilcox,
were not impressed. The disaffection spread until it was rampant.
Even a player as easy to manage and as much in love with the game
as Gary Kelly became demoralised under O'Leary. It was clear,
too, that Kewell had lost his zest for the game.
What the players saw was a manager who said one thing and did
another. At the end of the Woodgate/Bowyer trial, he warned them
against speaking publicly. Not a word, he said. The chairman would
speak for the club. That was Saturday morning. On the very next
day, the News of the World carried exclusive extracts from O'Leary's
book, Leeds United On
Trial, and the Sunday People carried O'Leary's exclusive column.
Both contributions were given over to the trial of Woodgate and
Bowyer. For both, O'Leary was paid.
Other inconsistencies were noted. O'Leary spoke about the need
for discipline but was unconvincing when it came to dealing with
outbreaks of indiscipline. The players wondered what would happen
when the substituted Robbie Keane was caught on camera mouthing
"f****** w*****" at his manager as he walked from the pitch. Next
day at training, O'Leary told Keane that with so many cameras
at games, he needed to be more careful.
Towards the end of the season, tension between O'Leary and Mills
manifested itself in a fierce training-ground row. Such was the
ferocity of the full back's reaction to O'Leary's criticism, that
the players expected Mills to face disciplinary action. Instead,
the manager tried to placate him.
When O'Leary complained publicly about big-name players not performing,
they remembered that when they were training at Thorp Arch on
the day before the home game with Arsenal, he was in Dublin signing
copies of Leeds United On Trial. He could say what he liked in
public, but they knew what was happening in private. Towards the
end of the season, Dacourt said: "If I play for the reserves on
Thursday, I am not going to play for the first team on Sunday."
He got the weekend off.
In the circumstances, it was no surprise the team under performed.
Fifth in the Premiership was wretched for a team that had cost
£66m to bring together. Failure to qualify for the Champions League
was catastrophic for the plc that Leeds had become. Non-executive
directors Leighton and Richard North began to look more closely
at the running of the club and they were unnerved by what they
found. They discovered the relationship between Ridsdale and O'Leary
had broken down, they sensed disharmony between O'Leary and his
players, and they decided something had to be done.
The initial plan was to give the chairman and manager the first
two months of the new season to improve things, but events overtook
that strategy. Now watching more closely, the board was annoyed
by O'Leary's criticism of Mills in his Sunday People column. At
the World Cup, Mills could be a liability, said O'Leary.
Asked for his reaction, Mills was measured but damning. Sir Alex
Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, he said, made their criticisms in-house.
Elaborating, he asked: "Would anyone be happy if the boss walked
into the middle of the office and had a go?" Referring to a specific
criticism that O'Leary had made of the Leeds team, Mills said:
"Sometimes saying the hunger has gone is an easy way to paper
over the cracks. Sometimes you have to look deeper."
By the time the World Cup began, the Leeds board was doing just
that. Such was the growing disunity, the directors felt change
could not be stalled until early in the new season. They were
helped by O'Leary's failure to recognise the perilous nature of
his own position. Advised by Ridsdale that he should toe the company
line on any proposed transfers, the manager went public and said
he was against selling the team's principal asset, Ferdinand.
That act of minor defiance cut the final thread that held the
sword over O'Leary. It was not the reason he was fired, rather
it was an excuse to get rid of him. Before Ridsdale delivered
the board's verdict on Thursday morning, Leeds had sounded out
Celtic about Martin O'Neill's availability and made other enquiries
about the possibility of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy accepting
In Japan, David Beckham and Paul Scholes talked to Ferdinand
of how life at Old Trafford was good. Leeds are adamant that Ferdinand
will not leave. Inside the club, it is speculated that the £35m
Leeds need to ease financial pressures will be raised through
the transfers of Dacourt, Bowyer, Keane, Kelly and Ian Harte.
O'Neill remains Leeds's first choice, but they are unlikely to
prise him away from Celtic Park. A source close to O'Neill insists
he will not take the job. From the moment he was sacked, O'Leary
sensed Leeds had already agreed to replace him with McCarthy.
This is far from certain, and Middlesbrough's Steve McClaren may
yet emerge as a candidate. O'Leary believed McCarthy's friendship
with Leeds's media director, David Walker, could help his case.
It was Walker who ghost-wrote Leeds United On Trial for O'Leary,
and it seemed that their friendship would endure. There is now
no guarantee of that. Not surprisingly, O'Leary has changed his
opinion of Ridsdale. Another casualty has been the once-admired
Leighton, who was a key player in the ending of a beautiful affair.
It would be easy for O'Leary to blame his former friends. He
took Leeds from dull, mid-table anonymity to within touching distance
of glory; then, after the first setback, he got the sack. But
the deposed manager should not blame anybody else. Rather he should
recall the words of his old sparring partner, Mills: "It is easy
to paper over the cracks. Sometimes you have to look deeper."
O'Leary has never been a bad fellow. In the end he just could
not see there was a bullet with his name on it. The £1m-plus compensation
will help his recovery, and after his family holiday he intends
to try to get back into football. He was 15 when he
left Dublin and returned to London. For 29 years, football has
been all that he has known. As a player, he won two championship
medals, two FA Cup medals, two League Cup medals and 67 international
caps for Ireland. When he passed Geordie Armstrong's coveted record
of 621 appearances for Arsenal, his wife, Joy, asked what he would
do next. "Break 700," he said. He did. As an individual player,
he could control his life. He never understood how different management
O'Leary once talked about a golfing trip in Ireland where he
would play with his son John, dad Christy and brother Pierce.
Just the four of them: he and Pierce against John and the lad's
granddad. He can now find more time to spend with his immediate
family. The breathing space offered by unemployment could be what
he needs. For it would be a time to work out where it all went
wrong. But like all former managers, he will be conscious of the
danger of being out of the game for too long.
The greater danger is that he will come back too soon.
Following the departure of O'Leary there were several days of
media speculation over who would replace the Irishman, with Celtic
manager Martin O'Neill thought to head up a short list of three
which also included World Cup managers Mick McCarthy of Ireland
and South Korea's Guus Hiddink. Middlesbrough boss Steve McClaren
was also reported to be ready to be installed, but in the end
it was an outside bet who became the new incumbent in the manager's
Hugh McIlvanney of the Sunday Times on July
14: Return of the Messiah
It seems to be the professional destiny of Terry Venables to
cut a far larger figure in the lore of football than in its record
books. Many of
us who admire his unquestionable gifts as a coach, and feel they
are unfairly represented by the brief list of practical achievements
against his name, naturally have hopes that he will be able to
adjust the balance during the managerial contract he has just
entered with Leeds United. But the continuing effects of the recent
turmoil at Elland Road should discourage towering expectations.
Rather than a glorious late chapter, we would perhaps be more
realistic if we anticipated a spirited, characteristically entertaining
postscript to his career.
Of course, though Venables will turn 60 halfway through the first
season of the two-year tenure he has agreed with Leeds, it may
be premature to see his spell there as the last major assignment
he will undertake in football. Now that he has rediscovered his
appetite for first-hand involvement, the hunger could conceivably
persist beyond whatever happens in Yorkshire.
There is, however, a clear sense that this will probably be his
final opportunity to thrust himself into the trophy-winning elite
of Premiership managers (he won a Second Division title with Crystal
Palace in 1979 and his FA Cup triumph with Tottenham came in 1991,
before today's top league was formed).
Age can hardly be considered a handicap at a time when appreciation
of hard-earned experience is reflected in the conspicuous maturity
of the men in charge of clubs who have lately been leading contenders
for domestic honours. Arsène Wenger at Arsenal and Gerard Houllier
at Liverpool are both in their fifties, Sir Alex Ferguson did
not let the passing of his 60th birthday dissuade him from extending
his reign at Old Trafford and Sir Bobby Robson, at 69, shows no
sign of any waning of his zest for managing Newcastle United.
The years sit lightly on Venables, as is certain to be demonstrated
at Leeds by his infectiously enthusiastic presence on the training
ground. It is not his age but how he has led his football life
that may make the new challenge particularly
demanding for him.
His career has been nomadic, littered with comparatively short-term
engagements and punctuated by sporadic diversions into other areas
of interest, from fiction writing to club owning, to television
punditry and various versions of often ill-fated entrepreneurialism.
Nobody should be foolish enough to deny that, running through
these diverse strands of activity, there has been a powerful commitment
to the world he knows best. He has never, for a moment, ceased
to be an out-and-out football man. But the flirtations and infatuations
have suggested a reluctance to marry his substantial talents totally
to the game.
What should be regarded as a given is that he will bring genuine
inspirational qualities to the task of reviving the Leeds squad's
combative vigour and belief in themselves in the wake of David
O'Leary's disruptive departure. There is a distasteful eagerness
among Venables' more insistent critics to try to twist the lack
of big-occasion accomplishments on his CV, and the discreditable
baggage accumulated by his commercial ducking and diving, into
a case for declaring counterfeit his huge reputation as a coach.
They are spitting their venom into the wind. All the professionals
who have worked closely with him, and they cover a wide spectrum
of generations and backgrounds, come together in a unanimous salute
to the creativity and effectiveness of his instructional and nurturing
Their testimony tells us he has a deep understanding of the traditional
imperatives of football (as opposed to the jargon-laden theories
that impersonate profundity among less valid practitioners) and
consistently enriches it with original, innovative tactical thinking
and a cunning eye for specific ploys that will unhinge the opposition.
Confronted with so much eulogising from players and coaches who
express gratitude for his improving influence, it is scarcely
appropriate for a reporter to toss in his tiny endorsement, but
countless conversations with some of the liveliest minds ever
focused on football in Britain at least entitle me to imagine
I can recognise the right stuff when I hear it. And I heard it
for sure throughout two or three hours spent one-to-one with Venables
in a Barcelona hotel in the mid-Eighties (his feat of taking the
great Catalan club to their first Spanish championship for 11
years in 1985, and then on to a European Cup final, is still his
supreme achievement). When we parted that day, I felt, accents
apart, as if I might almost have been talking to Jock Stein. There
is no higher compliment I can pay.
The most virulent of Venables' denigrators use words that are
liable to send a shudder through anybody who hasn't met him. To
me, their picture
is a bitter, indefensible distortion. I like him a great deal.
More to the point, he has effortlessly kept the friendship and
esteem over 40-odd years of men whose solidity of character and
all-round integrity make me count it a privilege to know them.
So, for all the worries about his conduct of his financial affairs,
in terms of human relationships he plainly has quite a lot going
But can he lift Leeds into real, to-the-wire contention for the
league title? Anything less could not be seen as improvement on
O'Leary's regime, during which they finished fourth, third, fourth
and then (amid last season's gathering problems) fifth in the
Premiership, and reached the semi-finals of both the UEFA Cup
and the European Cup. The notion that Venables merely has to take
over the baton and quicken the club's stride is ridiculously simplistic,
as is the suggestion that he can instantly advance his cause by
recapturing the faith of the dressing room that his predecessor
so crucially lost. For a start, there is alarming uncertainty
about who will be in the dressing room. Lee Bowyer is poised to
move to Liverpool, there is a widespread assumption that Olivier
Dacourt will join Juventus and a meeting scheduled for today with
Rio Ferdinand, the centre back who could reasonably be designated
the most exciting young footballer in the country, threatens to
result in a transfer request meant to facilitate relocation at
Manchester United. The incoming manager may find that his immediate
concern is to avoid losing ground rather than seeking confidently
to gain it.
His endeavours are bound to be inhibited by the harsh lessons
about budgeting that have had to be absorbed at Elland Road. Leeds's
monetary affairs have apparently been irrationally affected in
the past by a willingness to gamble beyond their means on qualifying
for the bonanza provided by the Champions League. Stricter monitoring
of expenditure on players will reduce flexibility when he turns
his thoughts to recruiting personnel capable of reinforcing the
squad to emphasise his own priorities on the pitch. Venables will
have to produce something thoroughly remarkable if he is to free
himself from the predicament of being richer in golden opinions
than in silverware.
Part 1 - Part
2 - Part 3