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'If you had said that I'd still be Arsenal's record appearance holder, I’d probably have had you locked up'

Ex-Ireland defender David O’Leary looks back on his two decades at the North London club.

O'Leary played 722 times for Arsenal.
O'Leary played 722 times for Arsenal.
Image: EMPICS Sport

IT MAY BE 25 years since he last donned the red and white of Arsenal, but David O’Leary still holds the club’s all-time record for most appearances.

Between 1975 and 1993, the centre-half lined out for the Gunners 722 times, which puts him 52 games clear of the great Tony Adams in second place.

The ex-Ireland international was also voted 14th by fans in a poll of the North London side’s greatest-ever players, and won two First Division titles, two FA Cups and two League Cups during his time at Highbury.

This evening, O’Leary returns to his hometown of Dublin for Arsenal’s International Champions Cup meeting with fellow Premier League heavyweights Chelsea at the Aviva Stadium (8pm kick-off).

Having managed Leeds United, Aston Villa and Dubai-based Al-Ahli, the 60-year-old these days works as a club ambassador and they arrive in Ireland on the back of a pre-season tour to Singapore.

“It’s an amazing club and it’s as big as any around the world,” O’Leary told The42 this week.

“If someone had said to me that a Dublin lad going over at 15 years of age would be coming back 45 years later I wouldn’t have believed them. I went over there, was badly homesick, but wanted to give it a try.

“If you had said to me that I would get into the team, last 20 years there and still be the record appearance holder, I’d probably have had you locked up.

Here I am now, returning the Arsenal team in an ambassadorial role. I left in economy but I’m coming back on a private plane.”

As a schoolboy, David — who was born in London before moving to Dublin with his family at the age of four — had made a name for himself at Shelbourne.

Picked for the Ireland U15s team, he impressed scouts enough to earn a trial at Arsenal and agreed to join in 1973. Two other Irish players, Frank Stapleton and Liam Brady, were already at the club and the pair were extremely helpful to the teenager — although those first few years were tough.

Soccer - League Division One - Arsenal v Stoke - Highbury O'Leary made his Gunners debut in August 1975, aged 17. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“Frank and Liam were a few years older than me,” he says. “I saw them as two Dublin lads doing well and that helped me. They were two great players in their own right. I came over with a lad called John Murphy, but he lasted about six months. I was thinking ‘Jesus, am I going to stick this out?’

“It was something I really wanted to do. I’m not sure how I did see it through, but I did even though I found it very hard the first year. It took me a couple of years but I got into the team first at 17 and stayed in there from then on. Luckily, I avoided major injuries and played a lot of games over the 20 years.”

After making his debut as a teenager in August 1975, O’Leary would go on to achieve great things at the club. There were far more highs than lows but the moment that stands out is winning the league title for the first time at Anfield in 1989 — thanks to Michael Thomas’ 91st-minute goal.

That was amazing,” he recalls. “Everything about it was great, we had to win by two goals, and then to score in injury-time… It was an amazing match and an amazing feeling to win your first league title.

“I was also on the losing side of a fair few finals. I lost two FA Cup finals, a League Cup final, a European Cup Winners’ Cup final. If you play for 20 years, it’s not going to go all one way, but it certainly went my way a lot over that period.

“I won the FA Cup with them against Sheffield Wednesday and that was a great way to end it in my final game. That was fantastic.”

Soccer - FA Cup Final - Arsenal v Manchester United O'Leary (third from right), Stapleton (second from right) and Brady (bottom left) after winning the FA Cup in 1979. Source: EMPICS Sport

Another man who spent two decades at Arsenal has recently departed. O’Leary was retired by the time Arsene Wenger took over in 1996, but he had many dealings with the Frenchman down through the years and fondly remembers some of the managerial battles they were involved in.

“I relished the games because you were playing against great Arsenal sides with the likes of [Emmanuel] Petit, [Patrick] Vieira, [Robert] Pires, [Freddie] Ljungberg, [Marc] Overmars, [Dennis] Bergkamp and [Thierry] Henry. There were so many.

“He was a bad loser, but that’s what great managers are. I beat him a couple of times and you had to play immensely well to do that, but he is a fantastic man and they were great for each. It was sad knowing that Huddersfield game was his last but I think it was the right decision for everybody.

“He did a brilliant job, but I think it needed a change. Only time will tell if it’s the right change.”

Nottingham Forest v Arsenal - Emirates FA Cup - Third Round - City Ground O'Leary and Wenger earlier this year. Source: EMPICS Sport

Spaniard Unai Emery has been tasked with rebuilding Arsenal into a club who can once again challenge for the Premier League title. Tonight, the ex-Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain boss comes up against fellow newcomer Maurizio Sarri in Dublin with just four days to go until the Blues face Manchester City in the Community Shield.

The manager Arsenal have brought in has a good record, but we’ll see if he is a success in the Premier League.” O’Leary said.

“It’s a tough league but that is where he will be judged. I hope he does really well and it will be an interesting game because they have got a new manager as well. It’s pre-season, yes, and everybody is feeling their way into it but it should be a nice run-out and a good test.”

Seven years have passed since O’Leary last managed, and while there have been offers, none appeared attractive enough to persuade him to return. Although the door hasn’t been closed on a comeback, he is enjoying his current role.

“They’re a brilliant club to still be associated with and I’m really flattered that they wanted me,” he signs off. “Arsenal played a huge part in my life and it’s great to be going back to Dublin with them.”

Arsenal face Chelsea in the International Champions Cup at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin this evening (KO 8pm). Tickets are still available at www.ticketmaster.ie

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About the author:

Ben Blake

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