On July 4th 2010, Dubai based side Al-Ahli announced the signing of former Irish international David O'Leary as their new manager. The move shocked many, as O'Leary had not managed a club since a chaotic spell in charge of Aston Villa four years previously.
O'Leary was one of Ireland's greatest ever defenders, and represented his country 68 times during the 70s, 80s and early 90s. He played for the Republic during the World Cup in Italy in 1990, scoring the winning penalty in a Second-Round shootout with Romania.
At club level he most memorably played for Arsenal, and also for Leeds United. With 6 major medals to his name, he retired in 1995 and became Leeds assistant to George Graham in 1996. Two years later he was promoted to Leeds manager and led the club on a spending spree and European odyssey that saw them play some great football with exciting young talents like Harry Kewell, Alan Smith, Ian Harte and Rio Ferdinand.
In 2001, with his stock high, he was linked with a move to Juventus, where Marcello Lippi saw him as a potential assistant and eventual successor.
However, by 2002 the situation at Leeds had changed, and the club struggled to pay its massive debts. O'Leary was sacked, and United eventually were relegated. He managed Aston Villa for three years, but by 2006 he had been sacked and his stock was very low.
So it was that four years later, he popped up in Dubai, beating Mark Hughes and Sam Allardyce for the lucrative job at Ahli.
The previous year, under the stewardship of Romanian Ioan Andone (whom O'Leary had faced in 1990), the club had finished in a disappointing 9th place, out of 12. So for 2010, the club's British Sporting Director Mark Bell planned for large investment to bring the club to the top.
A few days after O'Leary's appointment, Ahli stunned the footballing world by announcing the signing of Italy's 2006 World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro. O'Leary hired Scottish coach Roy Aitken as his assistant, Tony Coton as goalkeeping coach and Malcolm Thompson as reserve team manager. The squad was mainly made up of domestic players with Cannavaro, former Torino midfielder Pinga, Brazil winger Cesar and Morocco international Karim El Ahmadi the only exceptions.
|O'Leary and Cannavaro|
Pre-season included an Emirati Cup, to which AC Milan were invited. The tournament is best remembered for the dirtiness of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and O'Leary's less than impressed reaction to it.
|Zlatan and O'Leary exchange insults|
|Some blame O7Leary for not adapting|
to life in Arabia
That season Al-Ahli were entered into the Gulf Club Champions League, an annual competition for clubs on the Arab peninsula. Ahli were drawn in Group D along with Kuwait's Al-Arabi and another Al-Ahli from Bahrain. The latter withdrew before a ball was kicked, so Ahli and Arabi would pointlessly contest two qualification berths. The first game took place on March 1st, when O'Leary's charges beat the Kuwaiti side 2-1 away.
On April 2nd 2011, it was rumoured that O'Leary would be sacked after the club's poor run. The news came in the wake of Ahli's shock 5-1 defeat to Al Jazira, with board members reportedly devastated by the result. The Dubliner himself had refused to attend the post-match press conference, adding to the sense of impending closure. To add to the his woes, Cannavaro picked up a serious injury that kept him out of the match.
With the club's owner out of the country, and the board unable to make a decision, O'Leary was still in charge for a few weeks. His last match was a 1-0 away win over Al-Arabi in the GCC on April 20th.
On April 26th the sacking confirmed, and O'Leary bid farewell to the Emirates. However, a two year saga was begun as he claimed compensation for the remaining years left on his contract. Ahli, although originally announcing they had sacked him, attempted to claim the Irishman had abandoned the club. So in May 2013, FIFA ruled in O'Leary's favour and ordered the club to pay him 3.3 million pounds in wages.
"It has taken a long time to deal with this matter but I am pleased that all issues have now been finalised," said O'Leary through the League Managers Association."I hope my case provides reassurance to all managers and coaches working all over the world that there is a formal system in place that provides employment protection."
Ahli ended the 2011 season in 8th, a slight improvement on the previous season's finish. Cannavaro retired that summer after injury had restricted him to just 16 appearances.
As of May 2013, O'Leary remains out of a job. One wonders if he will find one again, or if he needs one.