Howard Wilkinson celebrated his 70th birthday last week. He goes down in every list of the greatest Leeds United managers at number two, behind the unbeatable Don Revie.
Many people would put David O’Leary at number three. And if we’re talking about the most successful managers then I can’t really argue with that. But one of the greatest? Not for me. Not on the basis of what I saw of him. If you asked me what was best about O’Leary’s reign at Leeds – and I was there for nearly every minute of it – then it would have be his early habit of signing young, hungry players.
David Batty was his first buy but from then on he consistently went for talented prospects who’d achieved nothing in the game. He also had the benefit of a crop of top-class kids coming through from the academy (Robinson, Smith, Woodgate, Kewell, the list goes on) and the drive and desire told in our football.
From the outside O’Leary appeared clever and charming. How many times did you hear him talk about us as inexperienced boys who had so much to learn? It was pretty much the default statement come rain or shine. For a while it was true. But it started to grate when we were around the top of the Premier League and in the semi-finals of the Champions League, or when players headed off for international duty. Some of my England team-mates used to ask ‘what’s all that about?’
Training under him was always high-tempo, the same way we played. But we did very little tactical work, no work on basics and not a lot on set-pieces. When it came to set-pieces, we left them to Ian Harte. Simple. And as for the team talks, we used to chuckle about those. The instructions were written down on a board and the bottom line as O’Leary called it was basically the top line, if you get what I mean.
There were good times, of course, and O’Leary was very much part of them. But the feeling among the squad was that when things went wrong it was our fault. When everything went right, it was down to O’Leary. A blame culture developed – a him-and-us scenario.
Three things in particular got to me. The first was the way O’Leary replaced Eddie Gray (our assistant manager) with Brian Kidd. O’Leary and Eddie were very close but the moment Kiddo came in, Eddie was dropped like a stone. Why? Because in my view, our results at the time were putting O’Leary under pressure and he needed to do something to protect his job. There may have been pressure from above but the way Eddie was treated was still unnecessary, a sign of self-preservation, forget the team.
Eddie was well-liked by the players, some of whom knew him really well. I was a late-comer to Leeds but plenty of the lads had worked with him for years. Seeing him ostracised (and that’s what happened) didn’t go down at all well.
The same goes for Leeds United on Trial, O’Leary’s infamous book which he released after the trial of Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate and others. I don’t believe any other top manager would have done that – publicly slating key players in the way that book did. I never took O’Leary to task about it and I don’t know if anyone else did. But when people say that the squad were seriously unhappy about so much of what was written, they’re not wrong.
The two of us had exchanges about other things – as I did with most managers to be fair – but what sticks with me above all is the build-up to the 2002 World Cup. I’d been chosen by England and I was chuffed to bits. Just before the tournament, I opened a national newspaper to find a two-page spread in which O’Leary was slaughtering me.
The crux of the piece was him saying that if I had another season like the one just gone, he’d get rid of me on a free transfer. Now to be frank, my disciplinary record at the time was a problem. I’d had a bunch of yellow cards and a couple of red cards too and I couldn’t disguise that, but I’d still had a great season.
To be ripped apart like I was on the eve of the biggest game of my life was bewildering. What sort of a manager does that? It seemed to me that it was all about two things – self-publicity and money, a bit like the book. I bumped into him after the World Cup and he had the cheek and audacity to say, “I knew that piece would fire you up, and you’d play well.” I think I did well to just walk away...