As George Graham embarked on his journey down the M1, he left behind a club in desperate need of identity and direction. Enticed by the hypnotic lights of promise and stature offered by Tottenham Hotspur Graham accepted a new challenge in North London.
The former Arsenal manager had guided Leeds United to UEFA Cup qualification for the 98-99 campaign but the Scott felt that he had taken the whites as far as he could, with the squad available.
The feat of European qualification was not an achievement to be overlooked and it would be unfair to disagree with the squad evaluation. Continental participation was a handsome reward but the team needed an overhaul or a revamp in order to push for major honours.
Assistant manager David O’Leary did not share the negative assessment and opted to decline the number two seat at White Hart Lane in favour of the caretaker position at Elland Road.
His first game would be the visit of Leicester City and anticipation surrounded the former defender’s team selection. The temporary manager elected for stability and little disruption to the starting line-up for what he expected to be a short tenure at the helm.
This decision would transpire to be one of heavy regret for the Irishman.
Tony Cottee’s 76th minute winner giving Martin O’Neil’s side a victory that propelled the foxes manager to overwhelming favourite as permanent successor to Graham and left the current Leeds manager with a sense of disappointment and frustration.
The Cambridge English dictionary describes a defining moment as ‘the point at which a situation is clearly seen to start to change.’
The catalytic moment is not always evident during the event and is arguably most prominent in reflection. The defeat to Leicester proved to be a colossal changing point in the future of Leeds United as the West Yorkshire club began a journey towards a Champions League semi-final and a spiral into financial implosion.
O’Leary’s team selection for the midday kick off against Martin O’Neil’s side was a regret that the temporary manager refused to repeat. Determined to stamp his own mark on a team that largely reflected his predecessor’s time at the club.
In his book entitled ‘Leeds United On Trial’ the manager explains his self-condemnation: “I promised myself that next time, if there was a next time, I would be heading home on the coach believing in what I had done that afternoon. I wasn’t going for the safe option again.”
The next game came a fortnight later and there was no permanent appointment at Elland Road, leaving the caretaker manager with an opportunity that he would not pass up. O’Leary explained his position to the players, informing them of his belief that he had let himself down.
Leeds faced Nottingham Forest at the City Ground and the temporary manager was true to his word, making significant changes to the starting eleven. Promising youngsters such as Jonathan Woodgate and Stephen McPhail were preferred to regulars such as Lee Sharpe. Sharpe’s future became uncertain along with that of high profile forward Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink who was heavily criticised by his manager prior to kick off.
The match finished one apiece and left Martin O’Neil as the firm favourite to replace Graham as Whites manager. The Northern Irish manager was expected to bid farewell to Filbert Street two days later as his Leicester City side hosted George Graham’s Spurs. It was a dramatic night full of passion as the foxes fans showed unprecedented support for their outgoing manager, live on television. Boards and placards begged O’Neil to stay in a match settled by a stunning Muzzy Izzet strike to cap an emotive evening in the East Midlands.
As Graham and O’Neil discussed the Leeds United job post-match O’Leary was preparing his side for a trip to Rome in the UEFA Cup, with the Leicester manager expected to be announced upon return from Italy.
Despite a very good performance Leeds were beaten 1-0 and as the final whistle sounded the seemingly departing caretaker manager applauded the fans in a bid of farewell, such was the firm belief in the imminent arrival of O’Neil.
The drama was not over yet and as the Leeds squad and coaches took their seats on the return flight, news emerged of Martin O’Neil signing a new contract at Leicester City. Peter Ridsdale offered O’Leary the permanent position that very same evening in an appointment that would transform the club into one of the most exciting teams in Europe.
The new manager wanted to transform the image of Leeds United; he wanted to build a team with a reputation for attacking intent and attractive football.
“I had a vision of a new Leeds team that would delight real football fans all over the country. I wanted to win over the neutrals. “
The aspiration for the West Yorkshire club was the long-term aim of emulating Keegan’s era at Newcastle United by instilling Leeds as everyone’s second team.
As well as a clear admiration for attacking football, the new manager focussed heavily on youth. During his time as assistant manager O’Leary spent a lot of time familiarising himself with the talented crop of youngsters emerging through the club and believed in their ability to impact the first team.
George Graham and his former assistant had previously disagreed over the potential of tenacious blonde striker Alan Smith who Graham felt was overrated. Convinced by Smith’s hunger, loyalty, team ethic and innate ability to score goals, his manager saw many similarities between the local lad and Mark Hughes.
O’Leary inherited a gifted squad but began the required renovation almost immediately with numerous departures and signings that would shape the side for the foreseeable future, or so it was anticipated.
As expected Sharpe and Hasselbaink departed, deemed surplus to requirements by the new era dawning at Elland Road. Early signings including David Batty (Newcastle £4.4m) and Eirik Bakke (Sogndal £1.75m) formed the foundations of a resolute but expansive squad. The team already boasted the talents of Kewell, Bowyer, Harte and Woodgate who had oozed experience and quality that defied his youthful years and naivety. The squad was strengthened further by the arrival of Michael Bridges who arrived for a fee of £5million from Sunderland. The natural finisher was much coveted across the rest of he Premiership after impressing for his former employers, his form would continue immediately at his new club.
O’Leary’ project and strategy hinged on selling the ‘new Leeds’ to some of Europe’s most admired prospects and marquee additions such as Rio Ferdinand, Mark Viduka and Robbie Keane added unrivalled ability set to impose Leeds United as a title contender for years to come.
Robbie Fowler, Olivier Dacourt and Seth Johnson further improved the depth of the squad with the Irish manager assembling a team that threatened to topple the domestic giants of Manchester United.
By the time that Fowler arrived from Liverpool in November 2000 O’Leary had accomplished his two main objectives of playing attractive and successful football that installed the club as a second team for many football fans in England.
The Whites were considered major title contenders during the Irishman’s charge and spent a large period at the top of the division. The defender, who made 558 appearances for Arsenal was in charge of Leeds United between 1998 and 2002 and orchestrated a staggering rise towards to the top of the league. The vision seen, as the ‘new Leeds’ had been realised, but sustaining it was a whole new challenge.
Despite ultimately falling short of Premier League titles, Leeds would march across Europe in a Champions League run that captured the imagination of the country and won the whites countless admirers across Europe.
O’Leary’s men lost in the semi-final of Europe’s greatest club competition in 00-01 to eventual runners-up Valencia. The Irish manager was sacked in 2002 with Ridsdale replacing the former Arsenal defender with Terry Venables after failure to qualify for the Champions League but the former England manager could not halt the slide of the West Yorkshire club. The European failings forced the club to pay the ultimate price as high stake boardroom gambles and growing debts sent the club into a financial crisis that derailed the rise of the club. Prised assets were sold, as O’Leary’s squad was pulled apart to balance the books with Leeds eventually finding themselves in administration and League One.
When George Graham joined Tottenham, David O’Leary had a dream, a plan that would lead the club to the pinnacle of English football whilst staying true to his attacking intentions and principles. The Irish manager succeeded in constructing a dynamic squad that rivalled that of Keegan’s Newcastle and threatened to upset the balance of English football. Like Keegan, O’Leary fell short but unlike his managerial debut he was left with no regrets, throwing everything into his assignment that ever so nearly built a dynasty at Elland Road.