From the best to the sack in 12 months
Mary Hannigan tries to make sense of Leeds United's apparently suddendecision to part company with manager David O'Leary
"The only reason David won't be manager of Leeds will be if he walks out, because he and I are in this together and I've told him that - he's the best young manager in the country and we're totally committed," said Leeds United chairman Peter Ridsdale, precisely 12 months ago. At 11.0 yesterday morning Ridsdale summoned O'Leary to Elland Road and told him he was sacked. What's it they say about the value of a chairman's vote of confidence?
So why the change of heart from Ridsdale? Take your pick of the speculation. The most popular theory is that the club's PLC board had had enough upon seeing O'Leary's interview with Sky Sports two days earlier when he was adamant that he didn't want to lose Rio Ferdinand, when the club had already decided, given its dire financial situation, that it had no option but to sell. Even to Manchester United. O'Leary's solo run would do nothing to placate the supporters when the sale was announced and, fatally, he'd neglected to remember his first loyalty was to the PLC, not to the fans.
"I bought Rio Ferdinand for £18 million when people said it was a lot of money and I want to keep him," said O'Leary. "I particularly don't want to sell him to Manchester United. They are a great club and we are trying to build a team here, not make them even greater by selling them probably one of the best defenders in the world."
Having already kick-started the Manchester United renaissance in the 1990s by selling them Eric Cantona for a song the last thing Leeds supporters could stomach would be selling their bitter rivals their latest idol. The PLC needed O'Leary on board to help explain that the sale would be for the long-term good of the club. His Sky Sports interview indicated to them that he was unwilling to comply.
Or? The club decided at the end of last season, when Leeds failed to qualify for the Champions League, that O'Leary's time was up, given that he had spent almost £100 million on players in his four years as manager. His successor was already lined up but would be otherwise engaged at the World Cup, so no moves would be made - hirings or firings - until his team was knocked out. Mick McCarthy or Guus Hiddink? The bookies, if not the FAI, favour the former, PSV Eindhoven hope it's not the latter.
There was talk, too, of Ridsdale's fury at the publication of O'Leary's book, Leeds United on Trial, serialised in the News of the World, at a time when he was attempting to restore what was left of the club's image after the Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate affair.
And further rumours of discontent in the Leeds dressing-room surfaced, not least because of O'Leary's public criticisms of players, including Harry Kewell, Danny Mills and Bowyer.
While the club's initial statement yesterday claimed the parting was "by mutual consent", communications director David Walker later admitted that the manager had, in fact, been sacked. Soon after, O'Leary confirmed the news: "Nothing should shock you in football - I've been sacked, there's not a lot more that I can say."
Ridsdale's glowing comments last summer were prompted by growing speculation that Manchester United wanted O'Leary to succeed Alex Ferguson, who was due to retire at the end of last season, such was his stock in the game at the time. The bitter irony of it all won't be lost on O'Leary when the new season gets under way: he may well be jobless, and Ferguson will start it still at the helm at Old Trafford, very possibly with O'Leary's prized possession, Ferdinand, at the centre of his defence.
While Ray Fell, chairman of the Leeds United Supporters Club, claimed yesterday that Ridsdale had told him O'Leary's departure had nothing to do with Ferdinand's future, it is difficult to believe that it is a
mere coincidence that yesterday's events came just 48 hours after O'Leary publicly pleaded with the club not to sell the England defender.
Leeds' pre-season gets under way in China on July 23rd, less than four weeks away, leaving supporters wondering why the club left it until now to sack O'Leary, when they could have done it at the end of last season, thus giving his successor ample time to prepare for the new campaign.
"After four successful years, the pressures of some of the off-field incidents have resulted in both the company and Mr O'Leary agreeing that it would be of mutual benefit for a change of manager," read the club statement. Those pressures were at their peak at the time of Bowyer and Woodgate's trial, so why should they suddenly prove too much now?
So, were O'Leary's objections to the assumed "imminent" sale of Ferdinand the breaking point? If they were, some might sympathise with him, despite the club's financial problems.
"It shows the ambition and commitment of the club and our support of the manager," Ridsdale had said at the press conference called to announce Ferdinand's signing in November 2000. There followed many promises of a push to match the achievements of that club across the Pennines. Now it appears they are willing to sell them their most prized asset.
O'Leary's detractors, though, will point to the fact that, having spent almost £100 million since taking over from George Graham in 1998, he still hasn't a trophy to his name. Indeed, former Leeds player Peter Lorimer, now a publican, claimed yesterday that O'Leary's departure would be welcomed by many of the club's fans.
Whatever the truth, it has been an extraordinary 12 months in the life of David O'Leary. In that time he's gone from being "the best young manager in the country" to being unemployed. He, one assumes, must be struggling to make sense of it all.