David O’Leary: ‘Johan Cruyff told me my Leeds team were like football rock and roll – great to watch and a bit mad’ - The Athletic 8 May 2021
“I honestly can’t believe it’s been 20 years,” David O’Leary says. “I’m wondering where the time has gone.”
He is casting his mind back to May 8, 2001, a day that dragged on interminably as he and his young Leeds United team prepared for a date with destiny in Valencia. They were 90 minutes away from the Champions League final, so close they could almost touch it.
“I had played in many semi-finals as a player and I got to a few different ones as a manager, but a Champions League semi-final is something else,” he says. “The press conference the day before, the number of people there, the focus, it all builds up and it’s so nerve-racking because you know you’re so close to something really special.
“It was just the longest day. From the moment we got up, kick-off seemed so far away. We went for a walk with the players, came back, had a meal together, went back to our rooms. I remember sitting in my room for ages, looking at my notes, going over it in my mind.”
There was the short journey through the packed streets to Mestalla, where the colour and the noise were an assault on the senses. “An incredible atmosphere,” O’Leary says. “That stadium, where the crowd is packed in so tight and it feels like it’s on top of you.”
The longest of seasons, the longest of days… and then it was all over in a flash. Valencia, inspired by the wonderful Gaizka Mendieta, were too strong. “So near yet so far,” he says.
O’Leary said something after that game about how, after the heartbreak of losing a UEFA Cup semi-final and a Champions League semi-final, he and his players would be stronger and wiser for the experience next time. It would, he said, be third time lucky. But, as every Leeds fan knows all too well, there was not a next time. From living the dream — the infamous phrase of their chairman Peter Ridsdale — the club was plunged into a nightmare, from which it has only recently begun to emerge.
Rather than the prelude to something special, that night in Valencia came to be seen as the ultimate false dawn, the beginning of the end. Those “living the dream” years became tainted. But perhaps now, 20 years on, with the club’s fortunes revived by Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds’ supporters can look back with fondness rather than through the prism of everything that followed. They were, undeniably, good times.
The story begins on the west coast of Sweden, where Leeds staged a pre-season training camp in July 2000. There was an extra intensity to their preparations because they were due to play the first leg of a Champions League qualifying tie on August 9, 10 days before the Premier League season began. Still, they were seeded in the draw. Looking down the list of possible opponents, such as Herfolge, Dunaferr, Zimbru Chisinau and Inter Bratislava, there was not too much to fear.
“I was gutted when we were drawn against 1860 Munich,” he says. “Everyone was celebrating qualifying for the Champions League at the end of the previous season, but we hadn’t. We still had a qualifying round to play and there weren’t many tougher teams in that draw than 1860 Munich. We knew it was going to be very tough.”
On top of that, Leeds’ pre-season preparations were dogged by injuries. By the time the first leg at home came around, they were without six of their leading players, including Jonathan Woodgate, David Batty and Harry Kewell. They took a 2-0 lead, but then Olivier Dacourt and Eirik Bakke were sent off for second bookable offences — “a joke”, O’Leary called it at the time — and the German team pulled a goal back in the final minute.
O’Leary was downbeat in his post-match press conference, asking how he was going to be able to field a team, particularly a midfield, now that he would be another two midfielders down for the second leg. “I’m not being defeatist,” he told reporters. “I’m just being realistic.”
Leeds lined up in the Olympic Stadium with full-back Gary Kelly on the right-hand side of midfield, and Lee Bowyer, usually right-sided, on the left. At the heart of midfield were Lucas Radebe, the veteran central defender, and Matthew Jones, a teenager who would be sold to Leicester City a few months later. The odds were against Leeds, but almost as soon as the second period began, Nigel Martyn pumped a ball upfield and Mark Viduka won a tussle with two opposition defenders before teeing up Alan Smith, who calmly put Leeds 3-1 up on aggregate.
“And that,” O’Leary says, “was where the adventure started.”
Smith was the perfect symbol of that young Leeds team. He had just passed his 18th birthday when O’Leary, who had just taken over as manager from George Graham, threw him in at the deep end as a substitute against Liverpool at Anfield in November 1998. Three minutes into his Premier League debut, Smith scored, an early illustration of his fearlessness and his refusal to be daunted, whatever the opposition, wherever the venue.
Another was Woodgate, who, like Smith, was unexpectedly elevated to the first team as an 18-year-old after O’Leary’s appointment. By the end of that 1998-99 season, his first at senior level, he would be playing for England. A period of stagnation had followed Leeds’ league title success in 1992, but suddenly, with homegrown players such as Woodgate, Kewell, Smith, Ian Harte and Stephen McPhail thriving under O’Leary, a vibrant, exciting, young team was emerging.
O’Leary found himself derided for constantly emphasising how young they were — “my babies”, he liked to call them. But the accent on youth was genuine. Beyond the experienced trio of Martyn, Radebe and Batty, the majority of the squad was 24 or under when the season began. Kewell was 21 and Woodgate and McPhail were 20, as was goalkeeper Paul Robinson, who would make some significant contributions to the Champions League campaign. When reinforcements arrived a few months into the season, they were Rio Ferdinand, 21, in an £18 million move from West Ham United and Robbie Keane, 20, on loan from Inter Milan.
“I tried to answer honestly by saying it was a young team,” O’Leary says. “That helped us a little bit. I remember when I got into the Arsenal team as a young player, going to all these places, I loved it. They were the same. Alan Smith was a wonderful lad. A young player, but a fearless player. Lee Bowyer was excellent all through that campaign. It was a group of players who, wherever we went, whoever we played against, they would never be fazed by anything.”
Not even that resounding 4-0 defeat by a Rivaldo-inspired Barcelona in the opening group game? “That was a tough night,” he says. “We had a lot of injuries that season. I thought to myself, ‘Is it me? Is it something we’re doing in training?’ But we had six players missing for that game and, to be honest, I went down to Barcelona fearing for my life because I knew how good they were and I knew there would be no hiding place there. I feared we would get a good hiding that night. And we did.”
The Independent called it “a torrid initiation” to the Champions League. The BBC called it a “painful lesson”. It was both of things. Three days later, Leeds lost at home to Ipswich Town. By the time AC Milan rolled into town the following week, O’Leary and his youngsters were up against it.
📅 | #OnThisNight in 2000, #LUFC defeated @acmilan 1-0 in the Champions League. 35,000 watched Lee Bowyer score the decisive goal at Elland Road pic.twitter.com/0rKZy8PqS4— Leeds United (@LUFC) September 19, 2019
The names roll off the tongue. Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Demetrio Albertini, Oliver Bierhoff, Andriy Shevchenko. At that time, Milan were the great aristocrats of European football. But on a night when the rain lashed down at Elland Road, in an atmosphere that is recalled as one of the loudest and most partisan the old place has witnessed in several decades, they were taken far from their comfort zone — the conditions, the noise and the sheer intensity of Leeds’ performance.
“I had played against Paolo Maldini in the past,” O’Leary says. “He came up to me at half-time and saying, ‘David, what are you feeding your players on? They’re mad, the way they charge around’.
“We liked to play at a high tempo, similar to how the Leeds team play now. We didn’t go man-to-man, the way Marcelo’s team does, but it was the same high tempo in training every day. We trained hard. There were people who said, ‘You can’t train at that intensity. You won’t be able to keep it up’. I think you can if you have the right players. We had players like Alan Smith and Mark Viduka, who were our first line of defence, Lee Bowyer non-stop in midfield.
“I had a simple message for the players: win the ball back as quickly and go and express yourselves. We had a way. I believe in a way of pressing from the front, getting in your faces. I don’t think the teams we played that year enjoyed that. Top players don’t like it when you get in their face.”
The memories come flooding back for O’Leary: Smith giving Maldini such a rough time much that the great Italian defender, usually so impeccable, was shown the yellow card for dragging him to the ground; Danny Mills sliding across the turf to produce a perfect tackle to deny Shevchenko what looked like a certain goal; and the noise that reached a crescendo late on when Bowyer’s shot squirmed through Dida’s grasp to give Leeds a precious victory.
With that, they were up and running. They thrashed Besiktas 6-0 before a tense 0-0 draw on their return to Istanbul, where two Leeds supporters, Kevin Speight and Christopher Loftus, were fatally stabbed the night before the UEFA Cup semi-final against Galatasaray earlier that year. All the focus in the build-up to that game was about security and the behaviour of both sets of supporters, including the 138 who had travelled from West Yorkshire. The match passed peacefully and, in the circumstances, that mattered far more than the point Leeds gained on a night when eight of their starters, including Robinson and midfielder Jacob Burns, were aged 23 or under.
In the return game against Barcelona, Rivaldo and his team-mates saw a very different Leeds to the one that had collapsed at Nou Camp just six weeks earlier. O’Leary’s team took an early lead from Bowyer’s free kick and, chasing a victory that would have taken them through to the second group stage at Barcelona’s expense, they hung on defiantly until the fourth minute of stoppage time when the outstanding Robinson was finally beaten by Rivaldo.
And so to Milan for the final group game in one of the great cathedrals of European football. “They were a group of players who, wherever we went — Barcelona, Istanbul, Milan, Rome, Madrid — we would go out onto the pitch and have a look around the night before and they would say, ‘Yeah, I like the look of this’,” O’Leary says. “It wasn’t just the younger players. Mark Viduka was similar. If you were playing AC Milan, you knew you would get a great performance from Mark. If it was Middlesbrough, you couldn’t be sure. But the whole team, really, they were never in awe of anyone. They just wanted to go out and enjoy the occasion.”
👏 "A prestige goal, in a prestige match for Leeds United!" https://t.co/ujRMELRKpq pic.twitter.com/6wEndc7tYO— Leeds United (@LUFC) March 22, 2020
They certainly enjoyed it at San Siro, where, as Leeds’ fans still like to sing, Dominic Matteo scored “a f***ing great goal” to earn a 1-1 draw that took them through with Milan, leaving Barcelona to drop down into the UEFA Cup. “It was a great night,” O’Leary says. “Both Milan games were really great nights. Their coaches called us in afterwards and we chinked beer bottles with them. I think they were pleased we had got through and Barcelona hadn’t. They probably felt Barcelona were contenders to win it and we weren’t.”
The scenes after the final whistle, as Leeds’ players enjoyed a singalong with their supporters on the pitch, will live long in the memory. O’Leary’s “babies” had come of age.
The Champions League campaign alone made for a rich storyline. But there was so much more going on at Leeds at that time. That included the case involving Woodgate and Bowyer, who were charged with causing grievous bodily harm with intent and affray following an incident near a Leeds nightclub in January 2000, in which an Asian student, Sarfraz Najeib, was left with severe injuries.
That unedifying story was revisited extensively by The Athletic in 2019. Woodgate was given 100 hours of community service after being found guilty of affray at Hull Crown Court in December 2001. Bowyer was cleared of all charges but later agreed a £170,000 out-of-court settlement of a civil action for damages brought by Najeib and his brother, who was also injured in the assault. Paul Clifford, a friend of Woodgate’s, was jailed for six years after being found guilty of grievous bodily harm.
The internal and external damage done by the Bowyer-Woodgate trial would come to be regarded as significant factors in the unravelling that followed, but in the short term Leeds — Bowyer in particular — seemed unaffected by the negative publicity. In O’Leary’s book Leeds United on Trial he describes Bowyer’s performances throughout that period, particularly during the trial, as phenomenal.
Despite the dark cloud hanging over the club and over himself and Woodgate in particular, Bowyer continued to inspire Leeds in the second group stage. They were beaten 2-0 at home by Real Madrid, but bounced back with a 1-0 victory in Rome over Lazio, whose coach Sven-Goran Eriksson was about to become England’s first overseas manager.
When the tournament resumed in February, they beat Anderlecht home and away, the latter a terrific 4-1 win. Once more Smith was among the goals, his fourth and fifth of the Champions League campaign. Once more Bowyer was outstanding. The off-the-field scrutiny was increasing by the week, but with two games still to play in the group, Leeds had clinched their place in the quarter-finals.
On April 4, 2001, in the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Deportivo La Coruna, Leeds produced a performance that is regarded as one of the finest since the club’s heyday under Don Revie in the 1960s and 1970s. As they toyed with their opponents, like a champion matador with a tiring bull, the crowd started to taunt the Spanish champions — ole, ole, ole — before a new chant took hold. “Three-nil to the weakest link,” to the tune of Go West.
The weakest link? That is how Victor, the Deportivo forward, had referred to Leeds after the quarter-final draw. “We were very pleased when we heard Leeds would be our opponents,” he said. “They are the weakest team in the competition. When you compare them to the others, we have got the easiest draw.”
📅 | #OnThisDay in 2001, #LUFC defeated Deportivo de La Coruna 3-0 at Elland Road in the Champions League Quarter Finals pic.twitter.com/r8JsbIeCxq— Leeds United (@LUFC) April 4, 2019
And yet here Deportivo were, 3-0 down and being dominated in midfield by Dacourt, tormented by Kewell and dragged this way and that by the ebullient Smith. “I would have to say that was our best performance,” O’Leary says. “Every player, from one to XI, was nine out of 10 on the night. It was a wonderful performance against a really strong team.
“I said I was delighted we got three because I knew how difficult it was going to be for us in the second leg. Everyone probably thought, ‘There goes David, talking them down again’, but I’d seen a lot of tapes of them and I knew they were a really good team. We were poor in the second leg. They scored twice and we just about hung on to reach the semi-finals. If someone had predicted that back in August, I think they would have been locked up.”
The semi-final first leg against Valencia was on O’Leary’s 43rd birthday. “I got a cake and everyone was making a fuss,” he says. “My dad came over for the game, bless him. Again, the atmosphere at Elland Road that night was amazing. Valencia had a wise old coach, Hector Cuper. He wasn’t the friendliest, but he had a really good team. We were a bit disappointed with 0-0 because we would have liked to score, but we hadn’t conceded an away goal. That was important, we felt. Looking at our record that season, I felt we could go there and score an away goal. I kept saying that. ‘Keep it tight. And if we score one goal…’”
In the space of seven days, Leeds faced Valencia at home, Arsenal away in an important Premier League match and then Valencia away. It was while holed up in the Sopwell House hotel in Hertfordshire after a 2-1 defeat at Highbury, a blow to their hopes of qualifying for the following season’s Champions League, that their players had the bright idea of shaving their heads. The only exceptions were Bowyer and Woodgate, who were advised not to go for that shaven-headed look with a court case looming, and Harte, who decided he would rather have a full head of hair when his wedding photos were taken a few weeks later.
O’Leary was not impressed by the shaven heads. “I didn’t like it,” he says. “I thought it was them being young and stupid. I went absolutely mad with them. They were young boys and they thought, ‘Let’s look lean and mean going into battle’. I’m not sure about that. I didn’t approve. They thought I was an old prude.”
Beyond that, O’Leary felt that it played towards a certain unwelcome narrative. In the build-up to the second leg, the Spanish media portrayed Leeds, an increasingly familiar and increasingly bullish opponent, as thugs. A few eyebrows were raised in the Leeds camp at one particular report which suggested that Ferdinand and Matteo were notorious for being two of the dirtiest players in the Premier League. Maybe it was just propaganda.
There was, though, another twist the day before the second leg when Leeds learned that UEFA’s disciplinary body had suspended Bowyer for three matches — which would also include the final if they got there — after appearing to stamp on Juan Sanchez during the game at Elland Road. “That was a massive blow for us,” O’Leary us. “It was a right kick in the teeth. Lee was such an important player for us.”
And so to the longest day — the pre-match walk, the pre-match meal, back to his hotel room to read and then re-read his notes. O’Leary had made a point of saying in his pre-match press conference the night before that his players had to seize the moment. He talked of how, as a young player at Arsenal, he played in three FA Cup finals by the time age of 22. When Arsenal lost the third of those finals to Ipswich, he took it for granted there would be another one before long. There wasn’t. By the time he reached another FA Cup final, he was 35.
He kept telling his players to enjoy the moment, but to seize the moment. They had done that all the way from Munich via Milan, Rome, Brussels and, in a roundabout way, A Coruna, showing absolutely no fear, but now, at Mestalla, came a different type of test. The pressure was on now. The stakes were so high.
It was a bridge too far. Valencia ran out comfortable 3-0 winners. Might it have been different if referee Urs Meier had spotted that Sanchez appeared to use his arm to convert Mendieta’s cross for the opener? “I didn’t want to mention that,” O’Leary says, not entirely convincingly. “Did it change the result? Look, the better team won. I said to the players afterwards, ‘You should be really proud of what you’ve done this season’.”
He could not contain his frustration, though, when it came to Smith, who at 3-0 down was sent off for a wild lunge at Vicente. Smith was in tears when O’Leary came into the dressing room, but the manager was not in forgiving mood. Looking back, O’Leary is inclined to blame himself. “I probably made a poor man-management decision there,” he says. “We were losing and we could see he was getting frustrated. I should have taken him off at that point. Sometimes aggression got the better of Alan. But he was a winner.”
A bad night got worse when the team’s police escort to the airport didn’t arrive. They had to wait on their bus outside the stadium while Valencia’s supporters celebrated all around them. Talk about adding insult to injury. “Have a look at what you could have won,” as they used to say on Bullseye. And now, despite seeing a huge improvement in their Premier League form since the turn of the year, Leeds were fighting a losing battle to make sure they were back in the Champions League the following season.
Two days after Leeds were beaten 2-0 at Elland Road by Real Madrid, in their opening game of the second group stage in November 2000, the club agreed to break the British transfer record by signing Ferdinand from West Ham in a deal worth £18 million. It was a deal, according to Ridsdale, that signalled confirmation of Leeds’ status as a serious emerging force in English and European football.
O’Leary was conspicuous by his absence from the press conference to parade the new signing. He was delighted the club had signed Ferdinand, whom he had recommended to the board that summer as the ideal long-term replacement for Radebe, but he was shocked and alarmed by the size of the fee — so much so that, according to Ridsdale, the manager refused to attend the press conference because he “called it obscene and said he wasn’t prepared to be part of it. As an employee of a PLC, when we had just spent a world record fee (for a defender) to get him a player he wanted, that was not appropriate.”
There is no love lost between O’Leary and Ridsdale, whose manager-chairman relationship soured and has never healed. As Leeds descended into financial meltdown over the years that followed, Ridsdale pointed the finger at O’Leary for requesting signings such as Ferdinand, Dacourt, Viduka, Keane and, later, Robbie Fowler and Seth Johnson as the club gambled more and more money in pursuit of Champions League qualification. O’Leary portrays the situation rather differently.
“They asked me to recommend players,” he says. “We had a great defender and captain in Lucas Radebe — a great player and just a fantastic man — but he was playing on one knee at times. He was willingly playing on one knee because that’s the kind of man he is. They asked me for a long-term scenario to recommend three players. The one I put at the top of my list was Rio Ferdinand. I said it would probably cost £10 million to get him from West Ham.
“There was a lot of negativity around Rio at the time. A lot of people said he was too casual and made mistakes. But David O’Leary knows a bit about centre-backs and I said that if money was no object going forward, Rio was going to be a top-class player and he would be top of my list. I didn’t think we had the money to go that way. It dragged on for months — so much so that I was convinced Manchester United would come in and whisk him away — and then I was told one day we had done a deal. When I was told it was £18 million, I was in shock. I’m glad they didn’t ask me if I was prepared to spend £18 million on him. If they had, my bottle would have gone.”
This does not mean O’Leary was in any way unhappy that Leeds signed Ferdinand. He says he was delighted and that the defender, “a great player and a really good lad with it”, exceeded his high expectations. But at the end of a truly memorable season, Leeds came fourth in the Premier League — two points behind second-placed Arsenal, one point behind third-placed Liverpool — and missed out on Champions League qualification on the final day of the campaign.
The following season, which was overshadowed by the Bowyer-Woodgate trial, they finished fifth and narrowly missed out again. And it was then that the extent of Leeds’ financial difficulties began to emerge. By the end of the 2001-02 the club’s debt had soared to £78 million, with the club taking out a £60 million loan secured against future season ticket sales, O’Leary says he had no idea of the extent of the gamble that Ridsdale and the board took out with every big-name signing added to the squad — not to mention the £20 a month spent on an aquarium for the chairman’s office.
“I swear on my mum’s bible, I did not have a clue about the finances,” O’Leary says. “I never felt I was under pressure to get into the Champions League because I never knew about the gamble the club had taken,” O’Leary says. “They never said anything to me about needing to get into the top three or the top four and qualify for the Champions League. The last game of the (2001-02) we beat Middlesbrough to finish above Chelsea and qualify for the UEFA Cup and everyone seemed happy. Nobody ever said to me, ‘Yes, but we’re not in the Champions League’.
“The shock came to me when I got the sack (in the summer of 2002) and things started to come out in the wash. I was astounded when people told me what people were earning at the club. Nothing was ever hidden from me — I could have gone and asked — but I was astounded. I played no part in any of that. My part was the way I described it with Rio.”
With no Champions League revenue to help pay the bills and ease their debt burden, Leeds faced meltdown. O’Leary was sacked; the club initially announced he had departed by mutual consent, but then issued another statement, later that day, saying he had been sacked. The line that came out of the club at the time was that O’Leary had lost the dressing room, notably with the publication of that book and with his observations on the Bowyer-Woodgate case, after which he said “it would have made it easier (for the club) if they had both gone inside.”
Mills, notably, has been scathing about O’Leary over the years, criticising his tactics and man-management. “Some players might be against you because they’re not playing or they haven’t got the contract they want,” O’Leary says. “That’s normal. But the fans never bought into the cheap shots about losing the dressing room. That was sickening, the way they (the club) tried to peddle that. You would be amazed how many of those players called up afterwards to say how disappointed they were.”
By the time O’Leary returned to Elland Road as Aston Villa manager on Boxing Day 2003, Ferdinand, Woodgate, Keane, Fowler, Bowyer, Kewell, Dacourt and Martyn had been sold as the club cleared the decks. Terry Venables, who succeeded O’Leary as manager, had been sacked, as had Peter Reid, who came next. Even Ridsdale had gone. Leeds were hurtling towards relegation.
“It was sad to see from a distance,” O’Leary says. “I remember going back with Villa and everyone in the stadium coming to greet you, but you’re trying to beat them because you’ve got a job to do. I couldn’t believe they were going down. I remember later in the season reading a newspaper article by Patrick Collins about the state of things at Leeds, how bad it had got, and I was shocked reading it. I remember Villa had a game at Southampton at the end of that season. We were challenging for Europe and on that same day Leeds were relegated. It was very sad to see.”
O’Leary’s short-lived managerial career is a curiosity. The way that Leeds team came together in the late 1990s and early 2000s — yes, that young team, his “babies” — was impressive. It was fiercely competitive at the top of the Premier League around that time, up against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool, Gianluca Vialli’s (and later Claudio Ranieri’s) Chelsea and Sir Bobby Robson’s Newcastle United. To get into Europe took some doing. To reach UEFA Cup and Champions League semi-finals in consecutive years was highly impressive.
He admits he made mistakes at Leeds. He feels he was a better, wiser manager at Villa, whom he led to sixth place in the Premier League in his first season, but that the ambitions were thwarted by financial constraints as Doug Ellis prepared to sell the Midlands club. He never imagined when he was sacked by Villa in the summer of 2006, at the age of 48, that he would never manage in the Premier League again. His only managerial job in the past 15 years was a season at Al-Ahli in the UAE Pro League. These days he is an ambassador and adviser at Arsenal (something he prefers not to go into in an interview looking back at that Champions League campaign 20 years ago).
He turned 63 last week and, if there were times when he expected to return to management in the Premier League, he suspects that ship has sailed. “I never had an agent,” he said. “By the time I left Villa things had changed in football and it had started to be all about agents being in with chief executives, pushing your name. I never had that. I probably should have. But you don’t have four years at Leeds, got to two European semi-finals, if you’re not doing something right. You don’t manage three years at Villa under Doug Ellis if you’re not doing something right.”
There is one job that got away. He was interviewed by Newcastle in the summer of 2009, after their relegation, and while his gut feeling told him it wasn’t the right job, he does occasionally wonder what might have been. “It didn’t feel right, but I probably should have taken it,” he says. “It was probably a mistake. It’s a big club, another one-club city like Leeds, great support. That would have been a good job.”
O’Leary still lives in Harrogate, north of Leeds, and, while Arsenal was his first love, he retains great affection for the club where he enjoyed his best years as a manager. “I go there when Arsenal aren’t playing,” he says. “I fell in love with the club, the people, the area. It’s a one-club city. Everything is about that club. The way it builds up through the week, you feel that pressure. I enjoyed that pressure.”
The pressure of managing Leeds proved overwhelming for some of the managers who came and went during the wilderness years that followed his departure. For years there was dysfunction, disconnect and disappointment after disappointment. And then, in the summer of 2018, came Bielsa.
“The club seems to be run the right way now,” O’Leary says. “That’s the impression I have of the people behind the scenes. And they have a really good manager. He’s at the perfect club, where they let him do what he wants to do and he has a group of players who do what he wants them to do. He does it his way. They’re a perfect fit for each other. It’s a great fit for the Premier League.
“I never had any doubt they would do well this year. I did an interview with BBC at the end of last season and I said this manager isn’t going into the Premier League just to survive. They’ve been excellent, the football they play. Stuart Dallas has been a revelation. Raphinha has been an absolutely fantastic signing. Patrick Bamford speaks so well and has done so well this season. I feel maybe there’s a bit of pressure taken off him without the fans there. I’m delighted for him. I thought he might struggle to take chances, but they’ve taken their chances.”
O’Leary hesitates. “I nearly ran him down the other day, you know,” he says
“No, Marcelo! I was going through Wetherby. I nearly ran him down. I gave him a beep and he shouted back at me.
“We go to the same church. I wouldn’t say I know him, but it’s amazing he has ended up at Leeds because, funnily enough, I went to Argentina many years ago when he was coaching their national team. I was introduced to him then. I always admired him. I always tried to play a similar way to how he plays. High-octane, in-your-face football.”
O’Leary is proud of that Leeds team 20 years ago. He regrets that they did not win a trophy — he feels maybe they should have tried harder for an FA Cup or a League Cup — but he looks back fondly on those times and on a team who, by upsetting the establishment and ruffling so many feathers, came so close to doing something truly extraordinary.
“I remember playing golf out in Girona with Johan Cruyff, great man, and he told me we were like ‘football rock and roll’,” he says. “We are great to watch and we were a bit mad with it. We had a style of play that was completely different to the way others were playing at that time.”
And he still sometimes finds himself reflecting on that night 20 years ago when Leeds really did find themselves “living the dream”. It was so close, only to slip through their fingers, never to return. “I went back to Valencia with Arsenal two seasons ago,” he says. I was sitting with the chairman, Sir Chips Keswick, before the game and I must have just been very quiet looking around at the stadium. He said to me, ‘David, are you alright?’ And I was just reminiscing. They were great times.”