We are going back to the seventies for this week’s Highbury Hero, to look back on a player who had an Arsenal career of remarkable longevity, playing under four different Arsenal managers from Double winning Bertie Mee, through the Terry Neill and Don Howe period and beyond, well into the George Graham reign. Nobody in the history of Arsenal Football Club has made more appearances for Arsenal. It’s our immaculate Irish centre back David O’Leary.
Spider as the Arsenal fans knew him had all the attributes needed to be a top class centre half. He read the game well, had good positional sense. David was strong and great in the tackle. He was deceptively quick, with his long legs eating up the ground. He was an excellent passer, never flustered, calm under pressure and also good in the air. There wasn’t really a flaw in his game.
He was a cultured ball playing centre half of the highest quality. The media and pundits rave over John Stones. Well David O’Leary was not only a better footballer than Stones, but he could actually fulfil the basic requirement of a centre half, which is to be able to defend. Something that Stones hasn’t mastered yet. I dread to think what Manchester City would pay for a young David O’Leary, considering they splashed out £50 million on Stones.
Hard to imagine it now when you hear David O’Leary’s strong Irish accent, but David was born just up the road from Highbury at Stoke Newington, on the 2nd May 1958. David’s father moved the family to England for his work as a carpenter. But the week after David was born the family were forced return to Dublin as David’s grandfather in Ireland had passed away. Strange to think that had the rules not been changed a few years before, so players could qualify to play for the country of their parents’ birthplace, David O’Leary may well have become an England international!
When David was 13 Shay Brennan spotted him playing for Shelbourne Under-14’s, tipped off Manchester United and David was invited over for two weeks training over Easter, at the Cliff, Manchester United’s training ground. They were impressed and tried to tie him down to signing schoolboy forms. But David returned home to school without signing. However United sent their scout in Ireland to try and persuade David’s dad to let David sign forms to give United first option on his future services. David’s father refused them saying if United still wanted him they’d be back. Incidentally Frank Stapleton was also on trial at United at the same time as O’Leary. But after going to Arsenal for further trails he ended up signing for Arsenal.
United missed their chance to sign O’Leary, as a year or so later, David was being watched by Arsenal’s Irish scout Bill Derby, when David was playing for Irish Schoolboys and he recommended him to Arsenal. He went for a week’s trail and at the end of It Gordon Clark; Arsenal’s Chief Scout wanted him to sign for The Arsenal. Gordon Clark went over to Dublin and David signed for Arsenal as an apprentice professional in May 1973, after just turning 15.
The first year David played in the South East Counties League, but for the Cup games O’Leary was left out and the young professionals like Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton, returned from playing for the reserves to play in those games. Behind the dressing rooms at Highbury there was another room, where there was a wall on which all the player’s boots were hung, apprentices at one end, young professionals in the middle and the first team at the other end. You could gauge how your career was going by where your boots were hanging. If you stayed at the far end for too long you were really struggling!
Every six weeks the apprentices were allowed to return home to see their families for a few days. John Murphy a talented fellow Dubliner (pictured below with Brady, Stapleton and O’Leary) who joined Arsenal the same time as David, suffered from home sickness and after one of those breaks, he couldn’t handle it and never came back. David could understand why it was so hard to return to Arsenal after being back home. So David decided eventually not to go home for the breaks anymore.
David was one of the apprentices assigned to cleaning the away dressing room at Highbury after matches and he got to see all the major stars at the time and one man who stood out for him and made a lasting impression was the great Johan Cruyff. He’d come to play for Barcelona in Geordie Armstrong’s testimonial and went out of his way to talk to David saying “How are you enjoying yourself at this great club” and “What are the duties you have to perform as an apprentice professional”.
At 16 David broke into the reserve side and played with the likes of Charlie George, Eddie Kelly and Frank Stapleton. He was in the reserve side for a year. Then in the summer of 1975 was called into the first team for a pre-season tour of Scotland. He was pinching himself at sitting on the coach with Alan Ball, George Armstrong, John Radford, Peter Storey, Pat Rice, Brian Kidd and all the other Arsenal stars at the time.
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Before the first game against Hearts, during the warm up Liam Brady went up to David and whispered to him “You’re good enough son. You can go all the way; you’re not just here to make up the numbers”. How right Liam was as David stayed for the next 18 years with only Ken Friar putting in more appearances at Highbury!
David made his full debut aged just 17 in the opening game of the season, on the 17th August 1975, against Burnley, at Turf Moor in a 0-0 draw. His partner at centre back that day was Terry Mancini, who was brought to Arsenal by Bertie Mee to specifically to help O’Leary to settle into the side. Now while Henry, as he was known, had plenty of experience and was a wonderful character. I think even he’d admit he wasn’t that good a player. Mee let a far better player leave the club in Frank McLintock, who’d have been a brilliant mentor for the young O’Leary for a couple of seasons.
David then had Peter Simpson as his partner. But he was in the twilight of his career and I also think Peter and David were too similar as players. Then Bertie Mee paired O’Leary with another bright young prospect Richie Powling. It was asking too much to have two such inexperienced centre backs together and Arsenal were in serious relegation trouble. Terry Mancini came back into the side to replace O’Leary to steady the ship and although we avoided relegation, we ended up finishing a disappointing 17th in the table.
That was the end of Bertie Mee and the king of the blarney, Terry Neill took over as manager for the 1976-77 season. David started in 33 league games O’Leary’s partners that season were a very average Pat Howard and Peter Simpson again, who had a bit of an Indian Sumer playing 19 league games. But it wasn’t until March 1977, when Arsenal controversially signed Willie Young from bitter rivals Tottenham that Arsenal found O’Leary found the perfect partner. Willie knew his limitations but was superb in the air and loved to attack the ball, perfectly complementing the cultured David O’Leary.
But there were problems as Terry Neill was struggling without a proper coach. After the infamous Australian end of season tour, Terry Neill took a leaf out of Bertie Mee’s book and appointed Don Howe as head coach for the 1977-78 season. He also pulled off another master stroke by signing Pat Jennings from Spurs. Arsenal and Terry Neill were finally getting it right and we reached the first of four major finals in three years. O’Leary played in all four of them, but unfortunately we only won one of them.
We lost to Ipswich 1-0, in the 1978 FA Cup Final, when Brady played despite not being fully fit. But O’Leary won his first major trophy when Arsenal dramatically won the 1979 FA Cup Final 3-2 with a late Alan Sunderland winner.
In 1979-80 the sheer amount of 70 games meant we lost two finals in five days. Losing 1-0 to West Ham in the FA Cup Final. Then after David O’Leary had an outstanding game, marking Valencia’s Argentinian World Cup winner Mario Kempes out the game. O’Leary didn’t let Kempes have a kick of the ball all night. We heartbreakingly lost the Cup Winners Cup in a penalty shootout.
After losing Liam Brady to Juventus and Frank Stapleton to Manchester United in successive seasons Arsenal went into the doldrums. I was bracing myself for David O’Leary seeking pastures new. But to his credit he remained loyal to the club signing a new four year contract, despite interest from other clubs. Liam Brady said to David shortly after going to Italy “You’re as good as any centre half over there. Do you want me to look round for you” but David stayed.
After Terry Neill was sacked and Don Howe was manager David had a meeting with Don about a new contract in May 1985. “They are offering you a new one-year deal, with no more money” said Don. O’Leary was stunned. So this was his reward for staying loyal, when Brady and Stapleton had left for better money. David cast his mind back to when, a month after joining Manchester United Frank Stapleton had commented to David, who’d just signed his four year contract “I hope the club have made it worth your while to stay” David replied “I stayed in the hope that the club would reward me with a testimonial” Stapleton gave a look shook his head and said to David “You’re a mug son”.
Shortly after his meeting with Don Howe, O’Leary was again on international duty where he bumped into Frank Stapleton again. He was as happy as David had ever seen him having just won the FA Cup with Manchester United and Stapleton said “Everything all right with you” There wasn’t a lot David could say to him.
The stalemate came to an end when David had a long talk with his solicitor Michael Kennedy, who was also a friend and a lifelong Arsenal supporter. He said to David “Look this is doing nobody any good. It’s bad for you, it’s bad for the club and the supporters are wondering what the heck is going on”. That reminded David of how fantastic the Arsenal crowd had always been. After Frank Stapleton joined United, David had dozens of letters pleading for him to stay and just as many thanking him when he signed the four year contract. That was an important factor when David signed the one year contract the following day.
At Easter in the 1985-86 season Don Howe left the club, after the club tried to get Terry Venables to take over behind Don’s back. George Graham took over the following season 1986-87 and again David was offered the same one season contract, he stayed and signed another one year contract, which became a four year one and Arsenal were going places again.
That first season under George Graham Arsenal won their first trophy for eight years,winning the Littlewood’s Cup 2-1 against Liverpool. Arsenal’s back four was now Sansom, O’Leary, Adams and Anderson; a formidable early forerunner to the famous back four.
After missing out on retaining the Trophy in 1988, losing 3-2 to Luton Town in the final. George brought in Steve Bould for the 1988-89 campaign. By then the team was looking very different from when George Graham first arrived Mariner, Woodcock, Williams, Nicholas, Anderson and Sansom had all left the club to be replaced by Marwood, Smith, Dixon, Winterburn, Richardson and Bould. But old head David O’Leary remained and survived the cull.
The new faces combined with the hungry young players like Adams, Rocastle, Thomas and Hayes took Arsenal to the brink of Arsenal’s first league title since 1971. In the final game of the season Arsenal needed a 2-0 win against Liverpool at Anfield to win it and George played a blinder, outfoxing Kenny Dalglish by playing three at the back, bringing in David O’Leary to play alongside Tony Adams and Steve Bould. The rest is history.
David used his experience when Alan Smith scored Arsenal’s first goal. As the Liverpool players converged on the referee trying to get the goal chalked off, David the Wiley old professional went straight to the linesman to state our case for the goal to be given, which after the referee consulted with the linesman, was duly given!
The 1989-90 season was memorable for David O’Leary passing Geordie Armstrong’s 621 record appearances for The Arsenal. David thought of Geordie the day he broke Geordie’s record, as straight after Arsenal won the title in 1989, Geordie had written him lovely letter from Kuwait, where Geordie was coaching. The 71 hero and his former team mate congratulated him on finally winning a championship medal and told him that he hoped he would beat his all-time appearance record.
We were playing Norwich City that day and after the two teams applauded David on to the Highbury pitch, David Dein presented David with an expensive piece of Waterford Crystal and an Arsenal shirt with 622 on the front and back.
The game was very controversial. Norwich went in two goals up at half time, but we pulled it back to two all, Norwich then went back in front, only for David O’Leary to score a rare goal to make it 3-3, then right at the death Arsenal were awarded a dubious penalty and Lee Dixon’s penalty was saved, but he put the rebound away for the winner. One of the Norwich players shoved Smudger and mayhem broke out! The FA punished the two clubs. Arsenal were fined £20,000 and Norwich received a £50,000 fine. Not the sort of day David had envisaged!
Arsenal 4 Norwich City 3 1989
By the 1990-91 season David was playing fewer games but comfortably got a second league Winners medal starting 11 league games and coming on as a substitute a further 10 times.
1992-93 was the last season of David O’Leary’s illustrious Arsenal career. He only started 6 league games, with five substitute appearances from the bench. But he played at right back in the League Cup Final, in the 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday, came on as a substitute in the FA Cup Final against Sheffield Wednesday and in his final appearance for the club, came on again in the replay to go out with another FA Cup Winners Medal.
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David finished up winning two League Championships, two FA Cups and two League Cups. Along with Tony Adams, they are the only two Arsenal players to be granted two testimonial matches. David’s were against Celtic, where he played against his brother Pierce and Manchester United.
For Ireland he won 68 caps, winning his first in 1976. It would have been more but Jack Charlton froze him out for two years, which meant him missing Euro 88, after David went on a family holiday, rather than accepting a call up for a tournament in Iceland. But he returned and the highlight of his international career was scoring the decisive penalty at the 1990 World Cup, in the last 16 shoot-out with Romania, to take Ireland through to the quarter finals. He called on all his vast experience and took the responsibility upon himself to take that vital penalty kick. I remember thinking at the time I wish he’d taken that spot kick that Rixy missed against Valencia!
Ireland v Romania penalty shootout
Of course David finished his career at Leeds United and later became their manager when George Graham went to Spurs. Many Arsenal fans think O’Leary tarnished his legacy with Arsenal when he celebrated wildly on the pitch at Elland Road, when Leeds effectively ended our title challenge in 1999, beating us 1-0. He also had a spat with Robert Pires.
But I think you have to admire David O’Leary for staying loyal to Arsenal when he remained, after Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton left us. How can you dislike a man who played 18 seasons for us making a phenomenal 722 appearances and scoring 14 goals, across three decades? If you turn to the first page in David O’Leary’s autobiography it says simply – ‘Dedicated to Arsenal Football Club I owe them everything.’
Once again thanks for reading. It was a long one as David O’Leary made such a huge contribution to Arsenal’s history.