David O’Leary had a good record at Anfield. Don Revie’s Leeds only ever won there twice, and got turned over 5-0 in 1966. O’Leary won two of his first three trips, first by letting debutant supersub Alan Smith make his name, ruining Gerard Houllier’s first match after ditching Roy Evans and going solo; the second when Leeds were running hot after beating Deportivo La Coruna in the Champions League.
O’Leary couldn’t, of course, compete with Liverpool. While beating them in April 2001, he was complaining they could name two complete quality teams if they wanted; Leeds had to sell to buy, and when they enquired for some of the players Liverpool were after, the quoted prices were astronomical. “I don’t know where they get their money from,” O’Leary said, as Rio Ferdinand, the world’s most expensive defender, was kept out of sight.
Still, O’Leary wasn’t worried; he was certain Liverpool would beat Leeds to 3rd place and Champions League qualification, but that didn’t matter because, “We have not got a wage bill that demands Champions League football.” Cut to Ferdinand again, looking at chairman Peter Ridsdale and whispering, “Is he okay?”
All that came to pass, as Leeds went into the UEFA Cup by finishing 5th, while Liverpool finished 3rd as well as winning the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup. By October of the next season, though, Liverpool were down in 10th after losing to Bolton and Aston Villa, while Leeds were flying: five wins and two draws put them top of the Premier League, while a 1-0 defeat to Maritimo in the UEFA Cup was put right in the second leg, 3-0, and followed by a handy 6-0 trouncing of Leicester in the League Cup to warm up for Anfield.
Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool were a peculiar bunch. Michael Owen was a few months away from winning the Ballon D’Or but, injured for this game, his place was taken by burly target man Emile Heskey, a switch that pretty much sums the team up. Jari Litmanen was on the bench, a playmaker who had not let failing a trial with Leeds in 1990 stop him becoming world class; alongside Heskey, Robbie Fowler was one of the great strikers of the era. But the badge on their Reebok kits was tiny, the shirts duller than the usual vibrant red, and from outside, something never felt quite right about them: until they lifted yet another bloody trophy.
The Leeds connection went further than Litmanen’s cameo at Fullerton Park, for the uber-scouse axis in midfield — Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Danny Murphy, with honorary scouser and Spice Boy Jamie Redknapp on the bench — was held together by the gleaming dome of ex-Peacock Gary McAllister.
He’d left Leeds aged 31 to wind down his career at Coventry with Gordon Strachan. Five years later he was man of the match for Liverpool against Alaves in the UEFA Cup final, his deflected free-kick winning it 5-4 in extra time; with the UEFA Super Cup and the Charity Shield — where he scored the winner with a penalty — thrown in, he’d added five medals aged 35 to the First Division, Charity Shield and League Cup loser’s medals he’d gathered with Leeds.
He also helped Harry Kewell give Leeds a scruffy lead on this Saturday lunchtime. Rio Ferdinand stuck Ian Harte’s overhit corner back into the box, and McAllister’s stretching header put the ball at Kewell’s feet. What’s more, his backside diverted the ball past Jerzy Dudek as he tried to block Kewell’s shot. Kewell celebrated by blowing out his lips and pointing at people and shouting, and even in a Leeds shirt you kinda wanted to slap him.
The Liverpool players were keener on slapping Danny Mills. Kewell went down apparently injured, and his squealing must have even upset his own teammates, as they slowed to a halt and moved the ball over to the other wing so it could go out and he could receive treatment. Mills had other ideas. Ignoring etiquette and the fact that every player from both teams had stopped, he set off driving for the penalty area until an outraged Gerrard clattered him to the floor and a miniature brawl commenced. Imagine Gerrard, Carragher and Murphy at their highest pitch of outrage, and I’m sure Mills regretted his actions if only for his hearing’s sake. The upshot was a free-kick in prime Harte territory, and he may retrospectively seek a FIFA Fair Play Award for blasting it into the Kop.
In the second half, Fowler engineered an exquisite equaliser. His old mate Dominic Matteo was alongside Ferdinand in defence, and left Fowler enough time to spin and chip Martyn from twenty yards. England’s best keeper was completely beaten, but not the crossbar, so Fowler had to make do with an assist when Murphy headed in the rebound.
Leeds still should have won. Olivier Dacourt, running the game, put his own ritz on with a curling pass to Robbie Keane, who claimed his shot went straight at Dudek because Sami Hyypia pulled his shirt. Then in added time Lee Bowyer had to look for excuses when he half-volleyed Mark Viduka’s knock-down a foot over the bar, the sort of chance that in our imaginations we see him finishing every time.
David O’Leary certainly couldn’t believe it. He screwed up his face in pain, then got up from his seat on the bench and ran into his technical area to do it again, but now with added arm-flinging. It was either an inspiring demonstration of his will to win, or an attention seeking tantrum, depending on pre/post summer 2002 perspective, but he seemed to be taking it harder than was healthy.
Gerard Houllier wasn’t on the touchline with him in the second half, and his health became the story of the match. After giving as much as he could of his half-time team talk, Houllier had retreated to another room so his players wouldn’t be aware until after the match that he’d been taken from there to hospital, complaining of chest pains.
Liverpool were due to travel to Kiev for a Champions League game that Tuesday, and his assistant Phil Thompson said, “It’s highly unlikely he’ll be coming with us — he’ll want to, of course, but even if he gets out of hospital we’ll have to talk him out of it.”
He was not out of hospital by Tuesday, or back in the dugout for another five months. What Houllier had thought was flu was a dissected aorta, requiring emergency surgery that lasted eleven hours and, despite only a 20 per cent change of succeeding, saved his life.
Graeme Souness had a heart bypass operation while managing Liverpool, and his predecessor Kenny Dalglish had quit the job because of stress. At that time Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson observed that if the manager of the best team in the country couldn’t cope, “What hope is there for the rest of us?” Houllier said later that his heart problem was due to a combination of genetics and overworking, not stress or Liverpool related, but at full-time, O’Leary was wondering.
“This is obviously more important than the football result, and everyone at Leeds wishes him well,” he said. “It’s funny, but I was chatting to him before the game and he seemed his usual self. He did say one thing that made me think, though. He said that the job had changed, and that looking after twenty very rich people was bad for your health.
“It’s not an old man’s job anymore,” he continued. “Good luck to Bobby Robson [aged 68, managing Newcastle], but I certainly won’t be doing it at his age.”
It gets forgotten now but, as well as his more-babies-than-Mothercare routine, O’Leary always acted the role of a young manager himself, just learning and dreaming. But by the time of the return fixture with Liverpool at Elland Road, O’Leary had published his book, ‘United On Trial’, and the twenty very rich people in his dressing room were distinctly unhappy about the contents of his newspaper columns. Results had dropped off, and Liverpool, with Phil Thompson still in temporary charge, beat Leeds — and their new striker Robbie Fowler — 4-0. A few weeks later Houllier went back to work, seven months ahead of his doctor’s wishes.
“I always wanted to be like Bobby Robson and I still do,” said Houllier at his first press conference. “I want to have his passion and enthusiasm for the game at that age. When you look at Bobby you want to play for him, when you see his enthusiasm, his passion. It’s not just about tactics, it’s about personality. So long as I’ve got that desire, I’ll go on.”
Liverpool finished 2nd that season — that 4-0 at Leeds was one of thirteen wins in their last fifteen games — qualifying for the Champions League again, where they’d reached the quarter-finals. Leeds finished 5th, fourteen points behind them, 21 away from champions Arsenal. David O’Leary’s work-life balance was about to be taken out of his hands. ◉