David O'Leary joined Arsenal as a 15 year old from Dublin junior side Reds United with success coming early in a career that was to see him eventually win 68 international caps - the highlight being the winning penalty in the shoot-out victory against Romania in Genoa at the Italia '90 World Cup finals.
Strength in the air allied with a superb positional sense, O'Leary was deceptively quick even though he often appeared to be moving more slowly than his opponent. Then he would open his stride and cruise ahead to avert danger with those typical clawing tackles.
O'Leary preferred to pass the ball out of defence with either foot and it was that passing ability with either foot that set him apart from other central defenders of the era. While captain of the Ireland schoolboy team he started his apprenticeship at Highbury under then Arsenal manager Bertie Mee.
Making his first team debut as a 17 year old against Burnley as partner to Terry Mancini in August 1975, it was to be the first of a record 558 League appearances for the Gunners during which time he was to win every major honour in the English game.
International recognition also came early in his career with then boss Johnny Giles awarding him his first cap as an 18 year old in the 1-1 draw with England at Wembley on September 6, 1976. O'Leary did not disappoint and gave a mature display keeping Kevin Keegan on the short lead. England had opened the scoring on 45 minutes through Stuart Pearson only for Gerry Daly (Derby) to equalise with a penalty on 56 minutes.
It was a performance that would earn the young Arsenal man a regular place in the Ireland team under Giles and later his successor, Eoin Hand. Giles liked to see his team play the ball from the back and for him the perfect central defensive partnership was that of O'Leary and Mark Lawrenson.
Hand, although less committed to this style of play, also used O'Leary when available. After making 40 international appearances between 1976 and 1986, O'Leary became embroiled in a dispute with new boss Jack Charlton which ultimately would cost him the honour of becoming the country's most capped player.
By the time he returned after a two and a half year exile including missing the European Championship finals in West Germany in 1988, Kevin Moran and Mick McCarthy had established themselves as the first choice central defenders. The differences between O'Leary and Charlton were eventually happily resolved with the Arsenal man coming on as a substitute for Steve Staunton to take his place in folklore with that penalty kick in the shoot-out against Romania at Italia '90.
O'Leary remained in the squad for the next three years and in 1993 contributed to his fifth World Cup qualifying campaign. That same year he signed off his Arsenal career with winners' medals in both English domestic Cup competitions and a total of 722 Cup and Championship appearances in two decades at the club. Then followed a brief period as a player at Leeds United where he eventually took over as manager from George Graham helping the club to qualify for the Champions League latter stages in 2000/2001.