23rd November 1990
There was probably a spring in his step when he returned to Arsenal following what was arguably his most enjoyable summer in a footballing sense. A member of Ireland’s Italia ’90 World Cup squad, It left us with one of the funniest football-related film moments:
Lurking in the background during the celebrations, you can see Tony Cascarino in a Romanian shirt. Knowing his tenuous grip on nationality, it was probably enough for him to claim 20 caps for the eastern Europeans.
The previous season had seen O’Leary pass George Armstrong’s record for first team appearances. He was closing in on 650 by the time that the new season began. He wasn’t however, first choice when George Graham opted for a 4-4-2 formation.
Steve Bould’s arrival in June 1988 led to the establishment of one of the club’s most enduring central defensive partnerships, with Tony Adams. O’Leary found himself on the bench, covering or used as the third centre back if Graham wanted to play 5-3-2. It seemed the writing was on the wall for the Irishman when Andy Linighan arrived in July 1990 for a fee of £1.2m.
Speculation immediately began about his future with Derby and Manchester City both having bids rebuffed early in the season. A week earlier, Southampton had been flattened 4 – 0 at Highbury, prompting their manager Chris Nicholl to admit that he had tried to sign O’Leary but Graham was having none of it.
Frustrated, Nicholl understood. “There are so few quality players around that managers are obliged to hold on to them,” he said, before adding, “Managers would rather have an excellent player at their disposal than have money in the bank and no-one to spend it on.”
Maybe that does apply to Graham, I’m not sure. Parsimony became his middle name over the years, losing out on a number of players with low-balled bids.
Not that this was the first time that he had been linked with a move away. When Brady and Stapleton jumped ship, O’Leary was involved in tense negotiations with the club over his new contract. His head wasn’t quite turned enough by Manchester United at the time and he remained at Arsenal.
Now, 32, he was in the twilight of his career. He would make 28 appearances for the club this season, although half of them were from the bench. He also scored his first goal for a couple of years in the 4 – 0 win over Crystal Palace in February. After the defeat to Chelsea, he started the next nine matches as Graham sought to steady the ship ahead of Tony Adams return to the side but when that happened, it was Linighan who immediately dropped out, not O’Leary.
Times were changing away from football as well. In the late 70s, being criticised by Geoffrey Howe was compared to “being savaged by a dead sheep”, according to Denis Healey. Margaret Thatcher would contradict that as his Howe’s resignation speech provided the impetus for her downfall. On this day in 1990, she announced her resignation as British prime minister.
Football wasn’t the only one heaving a sigh of relief.