When David O’Leary goes to church on Sunday, Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa is also part of the congregation. Later, should he call by his favourite restaurant or wine store, he often runs into England’s Gareth Southgate.
Prayer and alcohol, now there is a survival guide to management. Is it any wonder O’Leary has been enjoying a quiet life in rural North Yorkshire for the past decade?
He does appear in the new film Finding Jack Charlton — he famously scored the penalty to take Republic of Ireland to the quarter-finals of Italia 90 — and the premise for his afternoon with Sportsmail, we suggest, could well be Finding David O’Leary.
David O'Leary spoke to Sportsmail ahead of Leeds United's clash against Arsenal on Sunday
The former Leeds boss reflected on his largely successful managerial tenure at Elland Road
‘That’s just the way I like it,’ says the former Leeds manager and Arsenal legend, whose old clubs meet at Elland Road on Sunday.
We find the 62-year-old in the spa town of Harrogate, where he lives with his wife of 40 years, Joy. He buys the coffees at the iconic Bettys Tea Rooms — he has seen Bielsa here, too — and we take a stroll through the tree-lined Montpellier Quarter. A Leeds supporter, pushing a pram, walks past.
‘You did a great job for us,’ says the fan. ‘Thank you,’ replies O’Leary. ‘I’ll sort you out later with that 20 quid I promised.’
Between 1998 and 2002, O’Leary took Leeds to the semi-finals of the Champions League and UEFA Cup. They finished fourth, third, fourth and fifth in the Premier League. His young and exciting side were title contenders. His reward? Sacked by chairman Peter Ridsdale.
However, O'Leary was sacked at the club by chairman Peter Ridsdale (right) in 2002
But goals and games alone do not capture the full story of O’Leary’s tenure. There was the trial of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, accused of assaulting an Asian student. And then there was Ridsdale’s excess, spending camouflaged as ambition but so reckless it would, in time, set the club on a downward spiral. Leeds were front and back page news.
‘It was madness,’ says O’Leary. ‘I was worn out come the end. But do I think I was good for Leeds? Yes, without a doubt. Do I think I was unfairly sacked? Absolutely.
‘Maybe I’m a dreamer, but it reminds me of Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs. He got to a European final. I got to two semi-finals. We both challenged for the league. Yet we won nothing. So close but, in the end, so far.
‘We qualified for Europe on the last day of 2001-02. From what I’m told I was already sacked. But they delayed it when the crowd gave me a good reaction afterwards. I saw Peter before I went on holiday in June. So it was a shock when he said, “David, we’re going to change managers, someone to take us to the next level”. I called my solicitor. “Everything OK?” he said. “No, I’ve just been sacked. Here’s Peter”. I gave him the phone and walked out.
‘Listen, that was their decision, I accepted it. But they couldn’t just get rid of me, they had to spin against me. They told people I’d lost the players, which wasn’t true.
‘That was sad. I’m proud of what I achieved at Leeds and I think fans appreciate that.’
Under O'Leary's management, Leeds reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001. Pictured (back row, left to right) Dominic Matteo, Mark Viduka, Rio Ferdinand, Danny Mills, Nigel Martyn, Ian Harte, (front row (left to right) Erik Bakke, David Batty, Olivier Dacourt, Alan Smith and Harry Kewell
Leeds though would suffer defeat in the semi-final after losing the second leg to Valencia 3-0
During his final season O’Leary wrote a book, Leeds United On Trial, released in the wake of Bowyer’s acquittal and Woodgate’s conviction for affray. The title, in particular, was controversial.
We inform him that, in an interview last year, Ridsdale said the book should have been classed as ‘fiction’ and claimed he was not aware it was being written. O’Leary pauses. Finally, he counters: ‘Typical Peter.’ Another pause. ‘When it’s face to face he’s like a rash around you — “David, it’s great to see you”. It’s quite embarrassing. But that’s one side, and that (his interview) is the other. He’d probably say he never meant to say what he did. Would I want to see him now? Not particularly.’
Would O’Leary write the book now, with hindsight? ‘I probably wouldn’t. But people forget, I did it with someone within the club, not off my own back. It was meant to be about Leeds for the Leeds fans, not something for the whole world, which is what it became.’
It would take another book to chronicle everything from his time at Elland Road and he doesn’t have the appetite for that.
We bump into his daughter, Ciara, walking through the park.
‘I’m glad you’ve shaved,’ she says. ‘He had this beard thing going on yesterday.’
Under O'Leary's tenure players including Harry Kewell (right) became Premier