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Aug 13, 2009

O'Leary the talk of the Toon

With the obvious exception of Sunderland supporters, Mike Ashley's continued ownership of Newcastle United is benefitting few people. Maligned managers, however, are an exception. Ashley has revived interest in forgotten Anglo-Irish bosses, whose years in London mean they may qualify for membership of his Cockney Mafia. First Joe Kinnear and now, it seems, David O'Leary.

The latest twist on Tyneside this week was the suggestion that the former Leeds and Aston Villa manager would be appointed to try and guide Newcastle back to the Premier League, possibly so Ashley could sell a top-flight outfit for a higher sum. It would be a remarkable appointment for any number of reasons: the chaos at the club, the consensus that Alan Shearer is the most credible candidate with players and supporters alike and because it would catapult O'Leary back into the spotlight.

This is the strange case of David O'Leary. At one stage, he appeared among the outstanding managers of his generation. Yet he has had three years away from football and has barely been missed. Indeed for much of that time, he has rarely been mentioned, apart from a suggestion Celtic wanted him in the summer; instead, they paid compensation to take Tony Mowbray from relegated West Bromwich Albion. O'Leary surfaced in an interview a few weeks ago to announce he has been offered several jobs, without naming them, and suggest that his admirers include both Fabio Capello and Jose Mourinho.

He has never suffered from low self-esteem and absence, it seems, has not made O'Leary any more modest. He also drew an unflattering comparison between Martin O'Neill's record at Villa Park and his own. There was something undignified about O'Leary acting as his own cheerleader, but perhaps the shame is that he needs to mount his own PR campaign.

His reputation was tarnished during Leeds' hasty descent down the divisions. The spendthrift who precipitated administration could not repair his standing at Villa, either. His detractors outnumber his supporters in both West Yorkshire and the West Midlands. Now he can appear a prototype for Phil Brown, initially admired for his media-friendly approach but swiftly ridiculed for his comments. An inability to distinguish charm from smarm meant his platitudes and obvious insincerity riled ever larger numbers of people. A decade on, a mention of "my babies" in a cod Irish accent automatically brings O'Leary to mind.

Yet none of that means he is a poor manager. He has made mistakes - the signings of Robbie Fowler and Seth Johnson, the decision to write a book about the time when Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were in court, and to allow the publishers to title it 'Leeds United On Trial', the one-dimensional tactics that marred his final months at Elland Road, when a reluctance to use substitutes suggested that he was unable to amend his game-plan - but he is not alone in that.

Nor is his perception as a chequebook manager entirely accurate. O'Leary took the side he inherited from George Graham to fourth in the Premier League and then, after a summer when the principal transfer was the sale of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, to third. It should be an endorsement of his management that many of his Leeds charges have struggled to recapture the same form elsewhere, and several of them were players he developed.

In his first year at Villa, he steered them into the top six on limited resources and he has only once, in his final season there, finished outside the top 10 of the Premier League. View in it a certain light and O'Leary's record compares favourably with those of Harry Redknapp, Sam Allardyce or, at Villa Park, O'Neill. And none, of course, can match his European exploits. Leeds are rarely mentioned without the 2001 Champions League semi-finals, partly because it is a reminder how far and how fast they have fallen.

Nevertheless, it was a remarkable achievement at a time when Premier League clubs were not accustomed to progressing that far. Homegrown managers still aren't: the last schooled in England to reach that stage in Europe's premier club competition was Joe Fagan, a quarter of a century ago.

Yet in the three years since O'Leary became the final victim of 'Deadly Doug' Ellis, there has not been a clamour for his appointment anywhere. His image means he is unlikely to become a cause celebre, and the Newcastle United Supporters Club have voiced their opposition to O'Leary. He has won more football matches than popularity contests. Admittedly, some of his players are thought to have taken a dislike to him at both of his former clubs and man-management is an issue to address if he returns to the dug-out, but public approval matters less than results.

In that respect, it might take a man as impervious to received wisdom and as unaware of the views of the masses as Ashley to plump for O'Leary. It is a decision others appear reluctant to take. A select group of friends include Gerard Houllier, Tony Adams and Niall Quinn, but the last has appointed three managers during O'Leary's extended sabbatical. In his most recent interview, O'Leary said, somewhat strangely: "I know Niall too well to work with him. I know the real Niall."

It was a reminder that he has not helped himself, but the real David O'Leary, despite his flaws, is a manager of genuine ability. Quite when and where he will have the opportunity to demonstrate that, however, is part of the mystery of a very unusual career.

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