AS David O’Leary embraced the support of the Elland Road faithful after a 1-0 home victory over Middlesbrough at the end of the 2001/02 campaign, securing a fifth-placed finish in the Premier League and European football for a fifth consecutive season, few predicted that he would not be in charge for the beginning of the following season.
Yet on June 27, 2002 – 15 years ago last Tuesday – Leeds decided to part company with the former Arsenal defender.
Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale’s reasons behind O’Leary’s departure were said to include a reluctance on the Irishman’s part to sell star defender Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United, despite the club reportedly making it clear to O’Leary that they had to make a £15million profit in the transfer market that summer.
The club’s now infamous post-millennial spending spree had not paid off and the Whites needed to make cuts as a result of missing out on Champions League football.
Ridsdale also claimed, in his book United We Fall, that O’Leary had caused upset with certain members of the dressing room. Lee Bowyer was reportedly unhappy with the release of O’Leary’s book Leeds United On Trial.
The controversial book documented the trials of Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate relating to an incident in Leeds city centre. Bowyer was cleared in court of any wrong doing.
After O’Leary’s sacking, Bowyer departed to West Ham for a nominal fee in the following January transfer window. The season after O’Leary left the club finished 15th, ten places down on the previous season.
But what might have happened had O’Leary stayed?
How much O’Leary was aware of the desperate need to raise cash at Elland Road is something we may probably never know fully.
What is clear is that Leeds still had a reasonably strong squad of players even after the sales of Ferdinand and Robbie Keane. O’Leary would likely have used effectively those he still had at his disposal, as well as nurturing young academy products such as James Milner and Aaron Lennon.
With O’Leary remaining, there might have been more stability around the club while it tried to manage its debt.
From the debt accumulated, and following player sales, progress was understandably limited.
Perhaps under O’Leary there could have been a period of consolidation, a few seasons in mid-table of the Premier League before the club could properly start rebuilding once the debt had been reduced, thanks to increasing broadcasting money coming in to top-flight clubs.
And had O’Leary remained, the Whites might well not have capitulated as catastrophically as they did.
It is unlikely Leeds would have been challenging for Champions League qualification in the subsequent years, but the club might have had a better chance of retaining their Premier League status, and so could have rebuilt from much higher ground.