The end of the line – David O’Leary

Dave Collett goes back to July 2006 and uses the ‘f’ word.

One of the last services that Graham Taylor provided for Aston Villa was to refuse the usual hush money offered to managers as they make their way out of a club. No money also meant no gagging clause, leaving Taylor free to express his views about the club and to pose questions as to which staff were working in the interests of Villa or those of chairman Doug Ellis.

Once these weighty words had been spoken, the chairman was left with the task of appointing Taylor’s replacement. Not for the first time under Ellis’s leadership, the question could be asked: “Who would want the job?” With a lot having been spent during the Gregory years, not all to good effect, there wasn’t a great deal in the kitty. The collapse of ITV Digital had left many Championship sides on their uppers, so there was no easy way to move on the dead wood that had accumulated over the last few bosses. Things weren’t going well on the pitch, an impression confirmed when Villa had only avoided relegation with a narrow victory over Sunderland in the last home game of the season.

It soon became clear that the new appointee was to be David O’Leary. The news inspired a mixed response. Some remembered O’Leary taking his Leeds side to the Champions’ League semi-final and wondered whether he might have a similar impact here. Others recalled that his achievements were based on a huge spending spree borrowed on the assumption that Leeds would be benefiting from Champions League funding for years to come. When O’Leary made the mistake of only finishing fifth, the balloon immediately burst and chairman/CEO Peter Ridsdale, in time-honoured manner, blamed the manager for his own wildly irresponsible spending policy and duly sacked him.

There was certainly no question of O’Leary being given such spending power under Ellis. In fact, the small amount at his disposal all headed in the direction of the north-east. Sunderland had fallen into the pit that Villa had just about avoided and no doubt needed to remove a few expensive items from the wage bill while giving their own boss some transfer funds to spend. Thus, midfielder Gavin McCann and goalkeeper Thomas Sorenson made their way down to Brum. Rumour had it that had even a little more cash been available, striker Kevin Phillips would have made it a Mackem-Villa trio but the Ellis purse strings were now pulled tighter than ever.

The first half of the season suggested that the new broom had merely redistributed the dirt, as an uninspiring Villa side fell into the relegation places. The turning point was a narrow 3-2 win against fellow-strugglers Wolves that kick-started a run into the new year which nearly took Villa into the European spots. Chairman Ellis was so taken by this success that he allowed O’Leary to bring in Newcastle winger Nolberto Solano for a cut-price fee in January -the money to be deducted from the manager’s summer transfer budget, of course.

Although so narrowly missing out on Europe was disappointing, the improvement on the previous season was marked and few had cause for complaint. This was soon to change. Already operating on a small squad, the efforts of the summer transfer window did little to suggest any improvement in this regard. Martin Laursen came in as the centre-back replacement for Ronnie
Jonsen, who many considered unlucky not to have his deal extended. Not that Laursen looked an inferior player; his season-ending injury after just two games made it impossible to assess his worth. Happily, time put this issue to rest.

Up front, Carlton Cole was brought in on loan from Chelsea to boost the striking options. To make room, Peter Crouch was allowed to leave for Southampton for a measly £2m million. This seemed like a bargain for the Saints, to say the least. As Crouch proceeded to move for eight-figure fees to Liverpool and Spurs, the transfer increasingly took on the appearance of a sick joke – at our expense.

Still, there was a good start to the season and as winter approached, Villa settled into fifth place after a stunning Solano goal proved the winner against Spurs. This was when things started to go wrong. Cole’s lack of enthusiasm for things Birmingham seemed evident in his performances before he joined the injured list. Juan Pablo Angel, so prolific earlier in the year had picked up an injury which had to be managed and was making nothing like the same impact. Darius Vassell was also struggling with his fitness so it became impossible for the manager to field a frontline that could cope for ninety minutes. The only boost to the squad in January was the arrival of Eric DJemba-DJemba. Let’s be kind and say it didn’t quite work out.

Villa bumbled along in the new year, marking up enough wins to achieve a mid-table finish. Fans hoping for better in O’Leary’s third season were dismayed when Vassell was allowed to join Manchester City for another lowball fee – £2.5 million. This was another example of O’Leary’s failure to ‘take the temperature’ regarding a sale. Vassell had come through the Villa youth system to being a regular goalscorer for England. To sell a popular player for little more than a pittance seemed perverse.

Ron Saunders had the same disregard for what fans might think regarding his transfer policy; the difference was that one of these bosses was at the top of his profession, the other one wasn’t. Coming the other way was Milan Baros, recently a part of a Liverpool side that had won the Champions League on a Memorable Night in Istanbul. Him coming to Villa seemed a bit odd but at least it gave us some hope for the new season.

Players come and go but the manager stayed the same. To say that O’Leary was never really liked at Villa may be pushing it, but he certainly didn’t do himself any favours by regularly harking back to his time at Leeds United. Talking of how he had “unfinished business” at Elland Road was another irritant. Having been bequeathed some fine youth players who had won the FA Youth Cup, O’Leary poured cold water on Villa’s youngsters, pointing out they were nowhere near as good as the “young lahds” he’d had at Leeds. And if you find it irritating when folk regularly refer to themselves in the third person, you would have marked O’Leary down for that, too.

They reckon when you’re in a hole, it’s a good idea to stop digging. Not for our David. 3-1 down at half-time to Wycombe in the League Cup the travelling support were more than a bit disgruntled. After the break Villa ran riot, scoring no fewer than seven goals without reply. It would hardly surprise your average football buff that the fans would be rather happier at the final whistle than they had been earlier.

Most managers would have had the sense to celebrate a memorable win while acknowledging the flaws in the performance. O’Leary tried a different approach. He denounced the fans as ‘fickle’ referring to them as “sugarbags”. At least with this manager you got a more interesting type of slagging off, even when not too many fully understood the nature of the abuse.

Villa’s disappointing form continued, though a rare win at Sty Andrew’s (how long ago it all seems) helped to keep the fans off his back, as wins against the locals have often done. This was followed by a two-goal defeat at home to Wigan Athletic, leaving us back when we started. There was little in the way of money to spend at this time, but at least O’Leary was able to bring in Eirik Bakke on loan from Leeds. Manager and player would have been familiar with each other, so the deal had no problems. Bakke was hardly likely to feature in anyone’s line-up of all-time Villa greats but he made us more solid in the middle and that coincided with slightly better form and the team being harder to beat.

It was assumed, with the player making a good contribution, that the deal would be made permanent in January. With Leeds eager to cash in, it came as something of a slap in the face when the chairman refused to sanction the deal, or indeed any other while this window was open. As mentioned before, Bakke was no world-beater. The fact that we could not afford a nominal fee for a journeyman footballer gave out a strong impression that Villa were now nothing more than a small-time outfit.

If this was the first real sign that the Ellis game was up, O’Leary seemed to find new energy at the news. Regardless of results, the manager never missed a trick in using every post-match interview to pronounce to the world how his side couldn’t be expected “to compete with the likes of Charlton” after a goalless draw at the Valley, as “I wasn’t allowed to spend a single penny in the last transfer window.”

The same speech, or variants of it, would be rolled out even after a particularly brilliant win. Middlesbrough were on a good European run but Villa went there with a young side and trounced them four-nil. You might have expected the manager to focus on praising his players, especially the tyro Luke Moore who had just become the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the Prem. But no, it was the usual serial moan about lack of resources/financing. Give a footballer an excuse and he’ll run a mile with it. O’Leary’s comments could have been designed to achieve exactly that (As a contrast, consider the current incumbent of the manager’s office at Villa Park. It seems that there are no excuses for anything; the players have to play).

All this arse-covering is just about tolerable if results are looking up. In the early part of 2006, this wasn’t a problem with a few wins dragging the team up to near halfway. Once injuries kicked in, the excuses made it seem like the manager was saying there was nothing he could do to arrest the slide. After a particularly bad day at Everton (1-4), with injuries and illness badly reducing the side, Ellis and Steve Stride had a conversation with the manager regarding this issue; apparently it was made crystal clear to the boss that he was responsible for results and performances and constantly referring back to the last transfer window wasn’t helping the situation.

After this ‘friendly’ chat the O’Leary upper lip stiffened a bit and he got down to the task of preserving the club’s top-level status. This wasn’t as straightforward as it should have been with several players missing. The youth cup-winning side, disparaged by the manager just eighteen months before, came to the rescue to an extent. Stephen Davis was the most consistent player, Liam Ridgewell was a regular at centre-back and there was a run of games for Gary Cahill and Gabriel Agbonlahor, too. Self-declared Villa loyalist Craig Gardner also enjoyed a look-in.

There were a few desperate draws to keep the points total ticking over but, despite a vital win in the derby game against the Small Heath bruisers, we still relied on other results to ensure safety. Some of the football was enough to send you to sleep, as indeed seemed to the case with the boss, as he slouched against the dug-out, as if wondering how he had ended up here. Survival meant the last home game of the season, at home to already-relegated Sunderland, was something of a free hit, a chance to at least send the home fans away for the summer with a smile on their faces.

The Mackems had their former redoubtable midfield battler Kevin Ball in place as caretaker manager. Mick McCarthy having left the club by March in a very poor season where they had accumulated only sixteen points, one fewer than us ten years later. Despite the poor fare that had been on offer all season for the home side, a crowd of almost thirty-four thousand turned up, suggesting that perhaps they weren’t quite as fickle as their own manager had suggested back in the autumn.

Ollie Melberg and Milan Baros were both rested, presumably as preparation for their forthcoming summer World Cup efforts. The estimable James Milner was playing the last game of his loan spell before returning to Newcastle United. This, along with the fact that there was nothing on the game, might have made some players row back a little. Not James Milner. He was soon at the heart of the action, crossing the ball, causing Danny Collins to play a bit of pinball with his own post. Steven Davis, one of the few bright lights of the season, was prompting and passing as well as he had been doing all year. Barry and Milner set up a chance for him but the young midfielder could only hit the post. Still, the first goal was a long time coming. Just before the break, the outstanding talent of the side, Gareth Barry, applied the finishing touch to another move that had opened up the visiting defence.

A better side than Villa would have added further goals in the second half but this team had not learnt how to enjoy easy victories. A penalty award, after substitute Agbonlahor’s pace had been too much for the Sunderland defence, promised a stronger lead but Kelvin Davis kept out Barry’s spot-kick. It took until about ten minutes from the end before Villa effectively settled matters. Liam Ridgewell, surprisingly good in the air for a shortish centre-back, won the header from a corner and that should have been that. A dodgy tackle from Garry Brean meant that Milner had to leave the field, but of course, the link and the flood of admiration that went with it, would be renewed in time. Then out of nowhere, Dean Whitehead’s corner found the head of Danny Collins and Tommy Sorensen’s clean sheet was ruined.

That was the last of the action. Villa fans could console themselves that at least they had signed off with a win (only the tenth of that season), the players could wave farewell for the summer, get rested and we would see everybody again come August. It didn’t quite work out that way, though it’s interesting to speculate whether it would have done had the chairman not sold some bits of the property he had been accumulating around Villa Park over the last decade or so. When he was asked about this by the local press, the reasonable question was put forward as to whether the money from the sale would go to the manager’s transfer budget for the forthcoming summer. Doug Ellis’s reply was in the negative; the incoming money would be used to top up cash balances.

This, unsurprisingly, lead to much speculation as to the immediate future prospects for the club. The manager having nothing to spend in the summer transfer window could only be taken as a forewarning of another season of struggle. Rumours began to circulate that Gareth Barry, hoping to work his way back into the England squad, would hardly regard a perennially relegation-battling club as the ideal base from which to launch his ambitions. Then, what of the manager? Was he to be left with no bargaining power whatsoever? It seemed clear that the penny-pinching of previous years had now become a full-blown crisis under this chairman.

This looked like the setting for an especially miserable summer but then someone rode to the rescue of the Ellis administration. Step forward, David O’Leary. O’Leary had, allegedly, come up with the clever idea that if some members of the first-team could put forward their discontent at the state of the club to the odd friendly journalist, that might persuade the chairman to at least loosen the purse-strings. If this was the intention, the cunning plan went the way of most of Baldrick’s. Ellis, outraged at being publicly undermined, conducted an investigation and the upshot was that O’Leary was invited to discuss the severance terms of his contract.

There weren’t exactly mass street mournings for the departure of one of the less attractive personalities to ever manage our club. Nevertheless, there were misgivings regarding the immediate future. Who was the new manager likely to be? Who would come if the transfer cupboard was bare? Would disgruntled players change their minds and stay?

All these issues were dealt with as the summer went on as it became apparent that Villa had a prospective new owner, American billionaire Randy Lerner. Lerner’s money made Villa an attractive proposition again, enough for Martin O’Neill to return from nursing his wife through her illness and come back to the big stage. In hindsight, there’s a discussion to be had as to whether an owner with no money is better/worse than one who has loads of the stuff but doesn’t know what he’s doing with it. But at least David O’Leary was gone so the story had a happy ending of sorts.