History: The legendary David O’Leary – Arsenal’s record appearance holder

David O’Leary- Arsenal’s record appearance holder

In 1958 legendary Arsenal defender and all-time record appearance holder was born.

Two weeks after being on trial at Manchester United, Arsenal picked up the defender as an apprentice in 1973. He pulled on the famous shirt later that year in mid August versus Burnley in a 3-3 draw and with age on his side he impressively played in a further 30 occasions that season.

The following year O’Leary agreed to professional terms, for the next decade he featured in over 40 games in each campaign, apart from 1980/81 due to injury seeing him play only 27.

A relaxed and well thought out centre back, O’ Leary was remembered for his phenomenal positioning and lush style of play. He secured his first major trophy with The Gunners during the 1979 3-2 FA Cup triumph over Manchester United. He also featured in the 1978 and 1980 finales which Arsenal faced defeat in, on top of that a 1980 Cup Winners Cup defeat to Valencia on penalties.

After already nearly ten years at Highbury, O’Leary pulled on the captain’s armband in 1982 but handed it over to Graham Rix later on for 18 months.

The declaration of 1981 witnessed O’Leary turn down a transfer to Manchester United and instead signed an additional four year stay at The Gunners. Unfortunately the defender suffered an Achilles tendon injury which put him out of the 1988 League Cup Final.

The Irishman claimed 400 games to his name whilst still only 26 after being the youngest player at Arsenal to reach 100 and 200 matches at Highbury.  In 1989 he overtook George Armstrong’s accolade of 621 games. However, by this point O’ Leary had lost his regular spot in the first team after youngsters Tony Adams and Steve Bould were preferred in the back line. Although he still made 20 matches during the First Division winning campaign of 1988/89, which saw Arsenal win the championship on the final day of the season away to Liverpool after needing to grab two goals against Liverpool which they achieved.

In 1991 O’Leary clinched a second league title and an FA Cups winner medal in 1993, however by this stage he had regularly become teammates with the bench. To this day he holds the record of 722 first team matches after 20 years with Arsenal.

O’Leary soon enough transferred to Leeds United in 1993 retiring two years later after a second Achilles injury, after having only played in 12 matches at Elland Road.

O’Leary was never handed the red card throughout his playing days.

He was called up for his country as a teenager in a 1-1 stalemate for Republic of Ireland versus England in September 1976. Once Jack Charlton was hired as manager, O’Leary lost his space in the team for the next two years. After being out of the squad for a small tournament in Iceland in the summer of 1986 O’Leary set his sights for a family holiday, which he decided not to postpone however this led to him being recalled for his country. O’Leary never played for Ireland though till November 1988 after not making Euro 88.

The standout point of his 68 game international career occurred in the 1990 World Cup. In a penalty shootout against Romania, Packie Bonner denied Daniel Timofte’s final penalty. O’Leary then stroke home the much needed winning strike in a 5-4 penalty victory, seeing Republic of Ireland gaining access to the quarter-finals. Since then his effort has been recorded as the most successful moment in Irish footballing folklore.

In October 1990 O’Leary grabbed his only goal for Republic of Ireland in a 5-0 thrashing of Turkey in a Euro 92 qualifier. O’Leary skippered in his last game for his country in February 1993 but became injured in the starting minutes in a 2-1 friendly victory versus Wales.

After once Arsenal manager George Graham became in charge at Leeds United in September 1996 O’Leary was chosen as his right hand man. He retained this slot for two years.

In late September 1998 in Graham’s final game at Elland Road, O’Leary was finally sent off after arguing with match officials in a UEFA Cup first round tie at C.C Maritimo which Leeds just about won on penalties. In October Graham departed for Spurs and O’leary commenced his role as interim manager which saw Un,ited lose 1-0 to Leicester City with their boss Martin O’ Neil connected to the job opening. After a static 0-0 home draw with Chelsea O’Leary was handed the job for two and a half years on a salary of £600,000, one of the greatest incomes for a manager in England at the time.

O’Leary would take Leeds to fourth in the Premier League during the 1998/99 season witnessing the side reach the UEFA Cup. Their ambitious 1999/2000 UEFA Cup run came to defeat in the semi-final versus Galatasaray. Despite this Leeds ventured onto third in the Premiership, gaining access to the Champions League which the club hadn’t featured in since 1982 when it was previously called the European Cup. In the summer of 2000 O’Leary signed a six year contract at Elland Road worth £10 million!

United ran into the semi-finals of the Champions League during 2000/01 losing to eventual winners Valencia who had managed to haunt the Irishman for the second time in his career.

Come June 2002 O’Leary had purchased £100 million worth of players without securing any wanted silverware at Leeds. Nevertheless he never failed to guide United out of the top five whilst in the Premier League during his time at the club. Within a year he had been sacked from Elland Road. This wouldn’t be an easy departure for O’Leary who was sued for compensation after the club stated he had left due to mutual consent. He sat down with the club taking £2 million and legal costs in 2003.

O’leary would move to Villa Park in 2003. He stayed at with Aston Villa in the Premier League for three years struggling to emulate the success he had pulled off at Leeds United, before leaving in 2006.

Fast forward four years and O Leary was back in management in July 2020 for United Arab Emirates side Al-Ahli Dubai where World Cup-winning hero Fabio Cannavaro was brought in and made captain.

In April 2011 O’Leary was let go of his position after a 5-1 hammering against Al Jazira with two years left on his contract.  In 2012 he went to FIFA for help where they managed to win him a compensation of £3.34 million. The financial dilemma was resolved thanks to FIFA’s player’s status committee. The Dubai club declared that O’Leary had abandoned his position despite admitting he had been displaced. In 15 matches he won six.

To this day age 65 O’Leary remains an ambassador at Arsenal but will anyone beat his 722 appearances for The Gunners?

liam Harding

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