Peter Ridsdale’s choice was Martin O’Neill. A lot of Premiership chairmen liked O’Neill. A manager who had punched at a high weight with Leicester City, he was permanently on the cusp of a bigger, more lucrative job.
Ridsdale decided that Leeds United would offer O’Neill that job when George Graham walked out of Elland Road and took charge of Tottenham in October 1998. A three-week dance with Leicester ensued – and by the end of it, the door had opened for David O’Leary.
From the outset there was no willingness on Leicester’s part to bow to the inevitable with O’Neill. Leeds asked to speak to him but were refused permission by the board at Filbert Street. Privately, O’Neill was said to be receptive to United’s advances but reluctant to break his contract. He gave Leeds an impressive demonstration of his managerial ability by inflicting a 1-0 defeat on them three days after Graham’s defection to Spurs.
O’Leary, Graham’s assistant at Elland Road, was in caretaker charge for that fixture and kept hold of the squad while Leeds attempted to court O’Neill. A draw with Nottingham Forest preceded a UEFA Cup defeat to Roma – a spell which encouraged Ridsdale and his directors to hasten a permanent appointment – and the pursuit of O’Neill came to a head when a frustrated Ridsdale announced that the chase was off.
Leicester held a press conference the following day, confirming that O’Neill would be staying at Filbert Street, and the former Northern Ireland international conceded as much after Leicester beat Tottenham 2-1 on October 19.
“The alternative of walking out on a contract was not too palatable,” O’Neill said. “But the reaction of the crowd was very influential and the players played a part in it too.”
Waiting quietly in the background, O’Leary unexpectedly moved into the frame. With O’Neill ruled out Leeds decided to appoint O’Leary on a permanent basis the following week. But during that process the club discovered the self-assured, single-minded approach that would come to define the Irishman’s reign.
United anticipated that someone with no prior experience in management and who devoted only a short part of his playing career to Leeds would jump on their offer. But at the last minute O’Leary asked for “financial assurances” about his contract and the club’s ability to fund new signings.
Having planned to unveil O’Leary on October 22, Ridsdale was forced to delay for 24 hours. “It’s not as if we’re talking about fundamental issues,” Ridsdale said. “If David truly wants the job, I believe there has to be a way and means that we can resolve any outstanding issues.”
But O’Leary was not prepared to be railroaded into the post. “I’ve been offered the job at Elland Road,” O’Leary said. “But I’ve said to the chairman ‘what does the package entail?’
“I’m going to play it straight but I’m not going to rush into it. I was expecting coming off the plane (from Rome) that Martin O’Neill would be here and it would be ‘thanks very much, bye bye.’
“It’s not my fault that the club has taken three weeks on the Martin O’Neill issue. I promise I won’t take three weeks to decide.”
Before long, a deal was done and the O’Leary era began. Howard Wilkinson gave the perfect insight into the years that followed, saying: “It’s a terrific set-up at Leeds now, from the top to the bottom. There are lots of good kids playing up there.”
Those kids would be the spirit behind O’Leary’s success.