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Rogues Gallery #50: David O’Leary

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.

It was not much helped the two years later at Elland Road, when O’Leary couldn’t resist poking fun at Robert Pires. The Guardian reported the incident thus:-

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

Tony Pulis pontificates on the meaning of referees in the Premier League

Instant Replay Officiating: Be Careful What You Wish For

By Tim Todd: Senior Diaby Researcher

With a twinkle in their eyes, as if they have been struck with genius, nearly every single television commentator, writer, blogger, and fan of the game has decided two things: referees are suddenly the worst they have ever been and that the only way to solve the problem with referees getting calls wrong is… instant replay refereeing. Well, first, I haven’t seen a significant change in refereeing since I’ve been following the game. They have always been awful and random. And second, be careful what you wish for.

I am not a football traditionalist. I don’t think instant replay will “slow the game down”, I don’t worry about how they will stop the game to review the play, and I’m not one of these boring people who worries about how they will implement the system. I’m worried about how instant replay will change the game.

Instant replay will not slow the game down. A typical football match already has a variety of events which result in stoppages: fouls, head injuries, fake injuries, offsides, throw-ins, Chelsea players surrounding the referee every five minutes, and playing a match against Stoke City or West Ham. Instant replay will, at worst, result in a few seconds of extra stoppage time being added on to the game.

I also don’t worry about how they will stop and start the game in order to review a play. The game already has precedent for arbitrary stoppages whenever there is an injury. The referee sees a player down, he stops play (sometimes), the physios jog out, the player is sprayed with Magic Spray, the player is revived, and another sports miracle is witnessed. Play is restarted when sometimes a drop kick is awarded and other times the ball is simply kicked to the other team. This happens in every match, multiple times. And you can’t see how instant replay will be administered?

Or how about the king of arbitrary stoppages, intentional fouling. Any time the opposition is on a fast break, the opponent will look to foul to stop the play. Sometimes the official will call the play dead and force a restart with a free kick and other times, he will award an “advantage” and let play go on. This advantage rule is one of the worst rules in the game. I’ve seen Santi Cazorla get kicked in the Arsenal defensive third, the official play an “advantage”, and then Cazorla gets kicked again and the official decides it’s not a foul, so Cazorla turns the ball over in a dangerous area and the opposition scores. It’s completely arbitrary when the referees stop play.

And I don’t care how they implement the system. Some have suggested managers get challenges, I’m ok with that. So what if Sam Allardyce throws a challenge late in a game in order to waste time or stop a counter attack? Is that any different than his players intentionally fouling in order to stop a play? And before you say “yeah, but they get a yellow card for that” I can show you dozens of fouls every weekend which are done to kill a fast break and aren’t given a yellow card.

The facts are clear that the referees are well out of their depth and have been for some time. This weekend alone there was another case of mistaken identity and the wrong player was assigned a red card. That seems like a mistake that a referee should never make, yet that was the second time in two years.

For several months now I have championed having two referees on the pitch: one in front of the play, one behind the play. I think this will work wonders because right now, the referee only sees the game from the one angle and many times instant replay’s main power is that it sees the incident from the front. Had there been two referees on the pitch this weekend in the Man City v. West Brom match, I can guarantee you that the referees wouldn’t have given the wrong player a red card.

But I don’t think the two official system is going to happen because the game is primed for instant replay. The fans want it and the managers want it. Instead of a second referee on the pitch, they want a second referee in a room somewhere to watch the match and review the plays. Hell, that video replay official doesn’t even have to be at the stadium. He could be in a sound proof room in Guam. With all the people banging the drum instant replay officiating is inevitable.

I have watched the evolution of instant replay refereeing from the inside and I have to tell you, it’s weird. It’s so weird over here in America that when you watch an NFL game and there is an instant replay, the broadcasters call in their “rules analyst” to comment on the instant replay. The reason they do this is because the rules have become so byzantine and bogged down in minutiae that we need to have them explained to us by a lawyer. What was it that Shakespeare said about lawyers?

This is what happens when you introduce instant replay. By slowing the action down you get to see finer details and once you see those finer details, you have to adjust the rules to cover those finer details. For example, one of the main rules people would like to see reviewed is the offside call. And if you do that, you will need to add to the rules an interpretation of when the ball is played forward. Is it a forward pass when the ball is first touched or when the ball clears the player’s toes? Or at the middle-point of the kick? This matters because there are fractional offsides calls already happening and once we slow down the action we now get to see finer details about where the attacker was relative to the exact moment when the ball was kicked.

Notice I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I’m just saying that as a sport moves toward technology assisted refereeing, the technology itself starts to drive the officiating.

The other problem with video referees is that I don’t think two people can watch the same play and make the same call. Take the gif below:

That's a stonewall dive and the minimal contact happens outside the box anyway

Is that a foul or a dive? Koscielny certainly touches N’Zogbia but N’Zogbia certainly dives. Is “any contact” now a foul? I don’t think so, because if that was true then there would be a penalty awarded on every single corner kick. But even beyond my example of corners (since we clearly have two sets of rules: one for the penalty area and one for the field) there is a push among the fans that any contact absolves the player of guilt for a dive. And I’ve had this argument over that very gif above.

There are people who say that is not a dive, that it’s a penalty. For those folks, it doesn’t matter that N’Zogbia goes to plant his right foot and then picks it up and does a perfectly executed judo roll. Koscielny touched him, they say, it’s a foul. And for me? That is a stonewall dive.

What video replay will have to do is clarify this call above. Is any contact now a foul? How much force is required to be a foul? Can we have both foul and simulation? Should N’Zogbia get a card for diving, Koscielny get called for the foul, and the free kick be awarded outside the penalty box? Did anyone else notice the mythical Diaby in the gif? He’s there, folks. He’s there.

Maybe that’s the one question instant replay officiating can answer definitively: does Diaby exist? Until then, the mysteries of the universe, the offside rule, and whether Koscielny fouled N’Zogbia, will remain unanswered. Instant replay isn’t the panacea that many think it will be. It will simply add another layer of interpretation, it’s own layer which is bogged down in tiny details, to an already jumbled mess of rules that govern football.

If you want to fix refereeing the first thing you need to do is fix the laws of the game. Because it seems to me like the real problem isn’t that the refs aren’t seeing things properly it’s that too many of the Laws of the Game are intentionally vague and require judgement of “intent”. It’s also a problem that too many people don’t understand the laws and how officials make decisions because much of what officials decide is clouded in mystery. As if some secret cabal of black cloaked wizards are sitting in their ivory towers sending out proclamations onto the people. Until you fix those problems of interpretation and secrecy  video replay officiating won’t solve anything. In fact, it could make things worse. Much worse.


Arsene knows

Arsenal win sixth straight: people complain about Chambo and Rambo

There was much discussion in my By the Numbers column about Chambers’ stats for the match yesterday. The fact is that Chambers was targeted by Newcastle. They dribbled down his side of the pitch 14 times (12 times down the other side) and Chambers ended the game making 9/13 tackles. Chambers was also 2nd on the Arsenal team in final third passes, 3rd on Arsenal overall in passes completed, and was even 3/4 in dribbles. Writing this brought out the usual “stats don’t tell the whole story”, “lies damn lies and stats”, and my new favorite “I trust my own eyes over stats”¹.

All these stats prove is that Chambers was highly active in this match both on offense and defense. They also prove that he won a high percentage of his duels. Winning a high percentage of your duels, especially when you attempt a large number of duels, shows a player (in my opinion) who is talented and unafraid to take on his opponent.

What has everyone so upset is that he failed 4 tackles. I read the comment “how many times did the opposition blow by him??” or a variant more times than I care to count. The truth is that he was “blown by” 4 times and 3 of those were either in or around the 18 yard box. This is what people mean when they say “I trust my own eyes over stats” because where the missed tackles occur counts as much as how many. People watching the game panicked when he missed that tackle in the box, but thankfully, Newcastle didn’t score off that play. That panic stuck with them more than the 9 times that Chambers tackled well.

In fact, Newcastle actually scored off a missed tackle down the left, the side that Nacho Monreal was on. But it was actually a missed tackle by Aaron Ramsey which set up the chance for their goal. A goal that they scored on the other side of the pitch, mind you.

Chambers could miss one tackle of 100 and if his man went on to score a goal, people would say that the rest of the stats don’t matter. That is just another way of saying “the only stat that matters is the final score.” This is essentially what people are saying when they discount the 9 tackles Chambers made: none of them mattered really, it’s the one that he missed that really matters, because that’s the one that I remember seeing with my own eyes. But if that’s your argument, shouldn’t you just be happy that Arsenal won 2-1?

For me, the stats show that Chambers was targeted and he stood up to the challenge. Had he simply let guys go by him 14 times I suspect Arsenal would have lost that match. He did miss a few tackles (as you would) and whenever a fullback misses a tackle it’s panic stations (as it is because he’s last man!). But critically, he also made 9 tackles and the result is that Newcastle didn’t score on his side of the pitch. They scored on the other side.

I’ve been doing this stats thing for a long time and it’s always funny to me how people hate to have their biases challenged. Right now, the dominant narrative is that Chambers is slow or not a good right back — that Bellerin is the preferred choice. But Wenger selected Chambers intentionally for this match, probably because of his size and commitment. It was the right choice, even if he did miss a tackle.

In the end, Arsenal won their 6th straight match. It’s a tremendous run of form for the Gunners and so far we are closing the season on a real high note. It’s a huge turnaround from the start of the season where Arsenal looked, frankly, lost. In case you forgot, Arsenal started the season winning just 3 times in their first 10 matches — the worst start in Wenger’s career. This prompted some of us, myself included, to wonder if Wenger had run out of ideas.

What it looks like is that instead of being out of ideas, Wenger was trying to mold the team into something new and it was taking a long time to gel. I still don’t think this Arsenal side have a solid identity as a ball control team or as a counter attacking or counter pressing team — they look to be trying on many different styles at the moment. But they are playing some top football and are really clicking at the moment and it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Credit for that must go to the players and to the manager, one Arsène Wenger.


¹Little known fact: stats are collected with eyes and I trust a third party’s eyes, using widely agreed upon definitions, to collect those stats over your stupid eyes any day.