David O'Leary reflects on his exit as Leeds boss

‘My time as Leeds boss was madness… do I think I was good for the club? Yes. Do I think I was unfairly sacked? Absolutely!’: David O’Leary gives rare interview to reflect on Leeds rollercoaster, his love for Arsenal – and being the hero in a plane crash!

  • David O’Leary enjoyed an excellent four-year spell as Leeds United manager
  • But he was sacked a year after guiding them to a Champions League semi-final
  • He compared his time at Elland Road to Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham
  • O’Leary also believes his former club Arsenal were wrong to hire Unai Emery
  • A career regret includes not taking the Newcastle United job in 2009 

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 League stars

‘I only shaved because you told me to,’ he says. It is a snapshot of O’Leary’s happiness here and helps to explain why his last job was in 2011, in Dubai.

‘They grow up so quick. I missed a lot during my career. It’s lovely having that time now around my son and daughter. I’m so grateful.’

Such sentiment takes O’Leary back to one night in March 1998. After a 3-0 defeat at West Ham, the aircraft carrying the Leeds team crashed shortly after take-off from Stansted Airport. It had climbed to 150 feet when an engine exploded. An investigation later revealed that the pilot’s actions — he aborted the take-off rather than continuing the ascent — saved the lives of all on board.

But O’Leary was also hailed as a hero. ‘I was next to the emergency door,’ he recalls. ‘Just as we lifted off there was an explosion, this awful shudder. We crashed back down and slid across a field. It felt like everything behind was coming forward on to you.

‘The engine was on fire. We had to get out pretty quick. People later said, “David O’Leary did great, he kicked the door open”. But let’s be straight — the other side was on fire, my side wasn’t. I didn’t have too many options!’

O’Leary played a hero’s role in helping many escape from a plane crash at Stansted in 1998

O’Leary injured his shoulder forcing open the door, scrambling along the wing and dropping to safety. ‘We were stood in a muddy field, all the fire engines racing towards us. I’ll never forget one of the crew asking Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink if he was OK. “Am I OK? You call that a f***ing take-off?”. It made us laugh but we were lucky. If we’d been at Heathrow we would have been on the M25. At Leeds-Bradford, already in the hills.

‘My daughter saw the news on TV before I’d had a chance to call home. She was shook up. A few years ago I went to see the film Sully with her (about a plane landing on the Hudson River in New York) and she was crying. It reminded her of what happened. It brought home how lucky we were.’

O’Leary considers himself very fortunate to be back involved with Arsenal, where he is now a club ambassador and, before Covid-19, travelled with the team.

‘I don’t get paid. I don’t impact anything but, if asked, I can give an opinion,’ he says.

OK, then, what is his opinion?

‘I was on the flight home from Olympiacos in February when Mikel Arteta got on the plane. I felt like the boss was in the building. There is a fear, respect. I never got that with Unai Emery. He seemed overwhelmed. I saw it spinning out of control a mile off. Now, I think they’re on the right track. Arteta should have replaced Arsene Wenger.’

As well as Leeds, O’Leary is fondly remembered at Arsenal where he holds the record appearances of 722 over a span of 18 years. He is now a club ambassador at the Emirates

O’Leary won two First Division titles (above with Tony Adams in 1991) as well as two FA Cups and two League Cups during his playing days at Highbury

O’Leary’s 722 appearances are an Arsenal record. He won two First Division titles, two FA Cups and two League Cups over 18 years. But his relationship with supporters became strained during his time at Leeds.

‘We beat them 1-0 in 1999 to deny them the title. Who did I want to win the league? Arsenal. They’re my team. I understand there was a rivalry but that has gone.

‘I go down to London now and if it’s an Arsenal cabbie they’ll flick the doors to locked, in a nice way, and we’ll set the world to rights.’

One story he enjoys telling is of his relationship with fellow centre back and room-mate Tony Adams. ‘I would nag him all the time about drinking. But he could run it off, put a plastic bag on and sweat it out.

‘He said I was grown-up too soon. He was cheeky. “You’re always stretching,” he’d say. I had a text from him the other day. He’s very deep now. But beneath it all is a very decent bloke. He got dog’s abuse after Euro 88 with England. But I told George Graham (Arsenal manager), “If you leave him out now, it could sink him”. George listened and then read out the team. Tony was playing… and I’m dropped. I was fuming. He was meant to leave out Steve Bould!’

According to O’Leary, Arsenal should have replaced Arsene Wenger with Mikel Arteta (above)

Come their title decider at Liverpool in May of 1989, all three centre backs played. Arsenal got the 2-0 win they needed in the 91st minute. ‘Do you know what I enjoyed most? After years of listening to Pat Rice (coach and ex player) talking about how his Arsenal side went to Spurs and won the title, this finally shut him up!’

After close to 10 years in the shadows of this sedate parish, are there any regrets?

‘I should have taken the Newcastle job in 2009. I’ve always loved the fans there. It reminds me of Leeds. I loved the Friday night in Newcastle before the game, the banter they had about them. So yes, that is my one regret.

‘I would have loved to speak to Mike Ashley and make an opinion of him. I didn’t know if Derek Llambias (managing director) was telling me everything about Mike. Something just didn’t add up.’

And now?

‘For the right offer, then yes, I’d go back in. But I haven’t got an agent pushing me and the offers have long since stopped. But that’s fine. I’m happy. I’m still going to games and I’ll be at Elland Road tomorrow. I’m lucky.’

Church, football, family and fine wine, O’Leary won’t be giving up those Sundays in a hurry.

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