By Les Crang: Senior Old Players Correspondent
David O’Leary. To many a fan, the ultimate Arsenal hero. A man who started under the tutelage of Bertie Mee, then Terry Neill, followed by Don Howe and then George Graham. A player that has the most appearances for Arsenal, 772 over a 20 year period (1973-93). A player rated 14th in our all time greatest list on the Arsenal website. A player who won two league titles, two F.A cups and two League Cups at Arsenal. A player who captained the team in the early 1980’s. A player, unlike Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton, who stayed at Arsenal. A player who was a local, in that he was born in Stoke Newington¹, just up the road from Arsenal (he returned to Ireland with his family when he was 3 years old). So. Why does he get on my nerves? Simple. Leeds United. But more of that later.
David O’leary, joined as a mere 15 year old, coming over from Dublin and living in digs was difficult at first. Fortunately, David was surrounded by fellow Irish youngsters such as Frank Stapleton, Liam Brady and a good friend of his, John Murphy.²
(left to right John Murphy, David O’Leary, Frank Stapleton & Liam Brady)
Most fans would feel that joining a club like Arsenal is the best thing ever. But not for everyone and John Murphy is a case in point. O’Leary wrote in his biography My Story wrote about the homesickness some of the Irish players suffered, saying :-
John Murphy…couldn’t cope. He went home one weekend and didn’t come back. It was homesickness. After John quit, there were times when I wondered whether I would follow.
John Murphy quit football at 18, going on to play Rugby Union in Ireland, representing them Internationally, being a part of the Triple Crown team in 1984 and captaining them. Recently, the Irish broadcaster RTE made a documentary entitled ‘Who’s That Standing Beside John Murphy?’ [see above picture].
Anyhow, David O’Leary, or ‘Spider’ due to his thin, tall legs as the fans would later call him. David Tossell in his excellent autobiography on Bertie Mee said of him:-
Dubliner David O’Leary, whose gangly limbs created an ungainly first impression that was quickly replaced by respect for his awareness and composure on the ball.
O’Leary would make his debut in August 1975 against Burnley. His second game would be a 3-1 victory over Sheffield United at Highbury. Unfortunately, his home debut would mean his giving away a penalty for the United goal. Mee’s last season though was full of in fighting and spite. Bob McNab had left, telling Bertie Mee what he thought of him before leaving, Eddie Kelly had been made captain and then had it been given back to Alan Ball causing much upset. Alan Ball was trying to get the team to select Bobby Campbell as Mee’s replacement. Plus Mee had first replaced club legend, Frank McLintock with Jeff Blockley. After Blockley had failed he bought a player many older fans shudder at. Terry Mancini.
Terry Mancini (or ‘Henry’ as the fans called him), was a cheap buy from QPR after Blockley failed. A man with more wit and vivacity than style and speed. Many fans who saw him play often look skyward and shake their head in disbelief. Ironically, in the season of 1975-6, a season in which we would flirt with relegation (ending a disappointing 17th) O’leary would come to the fore with two other young Irish lads in Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton. But who did O’Leary say helped him out? Terry Mancini of whom he said :-
I have rarely come across a player with a better attitude. ‘Henry’s’ ability might have been limited but the size of his heart was unbelievable.
He didn’t have a lot of pace and strikers who were a bit quick troubled him. But during my uncertain early days as an Arsenal first-team player he helped me enormously.
After the nightmare of 1975-6 season, Bertie Mee left and was replaced by Terry Neill. With Neill entering as manager, Arsenal were often seen as an Irish team with Sammy Nelson, Pat Rice and (in 1977) Pat Jennings from Northern Ireland and Brady, O’Leary and Stapleton from the Republic, it might look that way. Unfortunately, this was not totally true as Jon Spurling has pointed out in his new book Red Letter Day who quotes O’Leary saying:-
Frank, Liam and I never socialised together at all. Frank was teetotal and kept himself to himself, Liam’s best mate at the club was Graham Rix, and I was good pals with Pat Jennings. The ‘London Irish’ thing mattered more I think to outsiders than it did to any of us.
Anyhow, under Terry Neill, Arsenal started to entertain, with a young striker like Stapleton up front, ably supported by the ever greedy Malcolm Macdonald, Liam Brady at his best and O’Leary excelling at the back. But for any centre-back you need a pair. O’leary could carry the ball, often looking so elegant moving forward with the ball out of defence. In the 1970’s if you had one cultured centre-half, you needed a mean one. So our mean one was Willie Young. Willie Young was a ginger haired Scot we had brought from Tottenham after he had been sent off against us in a London Derby. Big, Tall and fearsome was Willie’s way. But alongside O’leary they were fantastic. With O’leary saying:-
Willie was a hard living Scot. Put a lager in his hand and anything could happen. But when you were going to battle there wasn’t a better or braver man to have beside you… He was particularly strong in the air. It allowed me the freedom to go forward.
In this period Arsenal would make three consecutive F.A Cup finals from 1978-1980. They would also make the European Cup Winners Cup Final in 1980. Of the four finals, Arsenal would win just one, the 1979 F.A Cup final against Manchester United:-
In the challenge for the European Cup Winners Cup in 1980, O’leary would have an unforgettable time. In the first leg of the semi-final O’leary was stretchered off after a horrendous challenge by Roberto Bettega. O’Leary later called it ‘criminal’. Terry Neill went further after the match saying ‘We had to take the studs out of O’Leary’, adding to his hyperbole prior to the second leg in Rome to the Italian press:-
You must be ashamed. It must be difficult admitting you are Italian tonight.
O’leary, although injured played in the second Leg. A game Arsenal had to win (and did so) with a late winner from Paul Vaessen.
Again, Arsenal would lose the final. This time to Valencia on penalties. O’leary, although still nursing an injury, he was still able to keep a firm eye on World Cup Final scorer Mario Kempes plus have the only meaningful effort on goal in the game.³
After four finals in 3 years O’leary would remain with the club whilst first Liam Brady and then the following year, Frank Stapleton departed. The period of 1980 to 1986 was full of lows and lowers. The only constant quality we generally had was David O’Leary, Kenny Sansom and Stewart Robson. With an occasional good game from Tony Woodcock and Charlie Nicholas. For O’leary it was one in which he was often in attendance. For example in his first ten years at the club he averaged 40 games a season, except in season 1980-81 when he suffered a knee injury and still played 27 games. Terry Neill then made him Captain from 1980-83. O’Leary later said in his biography that it was something he never really enjoyed.
At least internationally things were going well for O’Leary, though on international trips Stapleton would point out he was wasted at Arsenal (unfortunately, true) and that he should look at better paid opportunities. Again, O’Leary, in the early and mid 1980’s was arguably the best centre half in the country (along with Alan Hansen at Liverpool, Kevin Ratcliffe at Everton). O’Leary was approached by Bayern Munich he says in his biography but turned them down. This alone made many fans thankful to O’Leary’s loyalty. Also, by the mid 1980’s O’Leary’s wages were not increased for the first time in his career. Then when George Graham came in, O’Leary went to see him about a new contract and pay rise. George sat down a 30 year old O’Leary and said he’d offer him a one year rolling contract but no pay rise. But George Graham being George sold him on a future that would bring David O’Leary less games but more success. True to his word, O’Leary would win 2 League Cups, two League titles and another FA Cup medal.
Three stand out matches come to mind in O’Leary’s rarer appearances in these years. The first is easy. It has to be May 26th 1989. Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2.
For many its Mickey’s goal or perhaps George on the sidelines telling everyone to calm down after taking a 2-0 lead. No, I think it is the final whistle and the camera pans on O’Leary, jubilant. The commentator pans to David O’Leary who goes up to console his international team mate, John Aldridge. Aldridge ungracefully shrugs O’Leary’s kind words away. What is it they say about The Arsenal? ‘Remember who you are and who you represent.’ How true. O’Leary had stayed with us through the grimmest of years after Brady and Stapleton had departed and he was the only one to win a League title in England.
The second game has to be the home game against Norwich in November 1989. O’Leary would break the Arsenal appearance record in this game and also score. Better still, Arsenal came back from 3-2 down to win 4-3. But better still there was a brawl between the players at full-time.
George Graham and whole team, including O’Leary bought into that, going toe to toe with Norwich. That Arsenal fracas meant that when it happened again at Old Trafford a year later, Arsenal would be docked two points by the FA (and we all know where we told them to shove them to):-
The third game has to be one that David O’Leary did not actually play in. Injury meant that O’Leary was injured for the League Cup final of 1988 and in came poor Gus Caesar and we all know what happened there:-
David O’Leary would make his last appearance for Arsenal in the FA Cup final of 1993 when he came on as a substitute to win his second FA cup winners medal with a 14 year gap:-
O’Leary would then go onto play a final season at Leeds United after making 722 appearances at Arsenal. After George Graham left Leeds United as manager, O’Leary (as his assistant) would take over at Leeds United. This, is where my adulation turns to fury for O’Leary. Firstly, it was Leeds, a team in the 60’s and 70s caused us to lose a league cup final and FA cup final. They were also a team full of skilled players but incredibly dirty team. Norman Hunter, Jack Charlton, Allan Clarke, Billy Bremner and John Giles. All fantastic players but dirty:-
So, that was a minor irritant, but what annoyed me was two events whilst managing Leeds United. First up, was the season of 1998-9 when Arsenal were going for the title. To me, that team was probably Wenger’s best (Emmanuel Petit was at his magnificent best as was Anelka and a new striker called Kanu). All we had to do was not lose. Which of course we did in the last three minutes:-
Prior to the game, O’Leary had said:-
It’s going to be some night. This will be a great way to finish off our home programme and we shall be going all out to beat them. It won’t be difficult for me, trying to beat my old club, even when I know there is so much at stake for them, because it’s almost five years since I left Highbury and a lot of things have changed there in the meantime.
When he danced after the final whistle just stuck in the claw. Ok. O’Leary was no longer at Arsenal, but he could have kept it for the dressing room. That we had lost the title due to that defeat just irks me more every time I think of it.
Two local radio reporters had been interviewing O’Leary in the players’ entrance, more than an hour after the match, when Pires walked past with Thierry Henry and muttered something in French. O’Leary responded by blowing a kiss in their direction and saying “au revoir”. And with that all hell broke loose.
Pires had to be restrained by Henry as he attempted to confront O’Leary, with witnesses claiming he was repeatedly screaming “putain ” – French slang for whore. O’Leary, in turn, was heard shouting to Henry: “Get him out of here, get him out of here.” The Leeds manager then turned to his interviewers: “You’re the proof. What have I done? What have I done?”
Henry eventually led his compatriot to Arsenal’s team coach but not before turning to O’Leary and rebuking him for his behaviour: “It is not a nice way for a coach to behave.”
Totally no need for it to be honest. It was also hard to have much respect for O’Leary when he stood by Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer after a racist attack on a young asian student in Leeds City centre. Then released a book called Leeds United On Trial: The Inside Story of an Astonishing Year. It all seemed so. Tacky.
Anyhow, O’Leary was a great player when we had none. An amazing servant to the club and one who always speaks fondly of his time at Arsenal. Shame he had to go Leeds though.
¹Back then, Stoke Newington was a bastion of Irish people and Irish bars. Not the double buggies with Tristan and Isolde sat there, pushed by their media savvy mum and dad, who feel the pavement was made for them to take up, that now seems to be Stoke Newington.
²Picture via Reg³
Information via Gary Lawrence