Al Ahli pair back in tandem

O'Leary, the club's new coach, reveals why he kept his promise to offer Aitken, his No 2, a job.

Roy Aitken, left, and David O'Leary will work with each other for a third time having previously been together at Leeds and Aston Villa.
Powered by automated translation

It is unlikely that many expatriates have landed at Dubai International Airport ahead of a new job in the UAE without at least a few nerves about what lies in store. If it has been four years since the last time you served in the role you have been recruited for, those nerves might be even more pronounced.

And David O'Leary, the former Leeds United and Aston Villa manager who is the new man in charge of Dubai's Al Ahli Club, is hardly rejoining the most secure profession. It has been four seasons since O'Leary's last notable job in football management came to an end. That equates to one season for every coach who kept his seat warm in the Al Ahli dug-out during the last campaign. "Deadly" Doug Ellis, the former Aston Villa chairman with the famously itchy trigger finger, who saw off O'Leary in 2006, had nothing on the UAE Pro League.

However, if O'Leary, 52, is nervous about any aspect of his return to club management, he is doing a good job of disguising it. He has only been on the job for around a month, most of which was spent in a training camp in Austria, but he already seems well-versed in Arab custom. And his Emirati players are clearly grateful, judging by their regular warm embraces around the training ground in Bur Dubai. There is already a lot of love at the Rashid Stadium.

O'Leary is fortunate to have some local knowledge close at hand - especially when it speaks his language. The first thing the Irishman did when he was offered the position at the Rashid Stadium was to call Roy Aitken, his former deputy at Leeds and Villa. O'Leary hoped he could reprise their partnership in Dubai, but his sales pitch was going to have to sing. Aitken was firmly ensconced in a coaching a role with Birmingham City, a club that won plenty of plaudits in the English Premier League last season.

The former Celtic captain was a valued member of Birmingham's staff, where he was the right-hand man to Alex McLeish, whom he also assisted during his stint in charge of the Scottish national team in 2007. The ties were strong for Aitken, but the lure of a return to the Middle East, and the chance to be reacquainted with O'Leary, forced his hand. "It was a very difficult decision because I was leaving a side in the best league in the world," said the 51-year-old Aitken.

"The chance to work again with David swayed my decision. Having worked with him before at Leeds and Villa, that was a big pull." As was the chance of a return to Dubai, 11 years after he last held a post here. In 1998, after leaving his role as manager of Aberdeen, Aitken took up a position as a youth team coach with Al Shabab, Ahli's nearest geographical rivals. The footballing landscape has changed much in the past 11 years, but perhaps not quite as much as that of Dubai.

Aitken lived in Barsha, during his one-season spell at Shabab. There was no ski-slope there back then. No Mall of the Emirates. No metro. Indeed, there were little more than "a few villas", according to Aitken. The chance to see what had become of the place in the sun they briefly called home prompted the former Scotland captain's family to encourage him to take up O'Leary's offer. "I knew what I was coming to in terms of the culture in this part of the world," Aitken said.

"David has a big challenge at the club, and we are all here to assist him with that challenge." Judging by the way they interact, O'Leary and Aitken could have been founder members of the Mutual Appreciation Society. However, despite their kinship, O'Leary confessed he was not overly hopeful that his trusty lieutenant would follow him to the UAE. "I think Roy is the best No 2 any manager can have," said O'Leary. "When I left him, I said, 'Look, I don't know when I will come back into football. It could be in a few months, or whenever, but when I do I will ring you and give you that opportunity'.

"When I decided I would take the job, I did what I promised Roy I would do, which was ring him. I didn't want to see him a few years down the line and have him say to me, 'What about that thing you said you would do?' "I made the call, when I got back to England, but I didn't know what he would say. It was 50-50, but I thought I had to offer him the opportunity. I gave him 24 hours to think about it, and I am delighted by his decision."