On playing ability alone David O’Leary would still have made this list. Chuck in the small matter of 722 appearances, a Club record, and it is easy to understand why this gentle, unassuming man is held in such high regard at Arsenal.
Of course, adoration for long-serving players is not uncommon, but the London-born defender had plenty more than just longevity in his locker. O’Leary was an imperious centre-half who, despite a slender physique, was deceptively powerful. He had pace too, the kind of speed that was rare in players with a similar six-foot frame.
The Republic of Ireland international (he qualified through parentage) originally signed apprentice forms in 1973 and in the early days of his Arsenal career — he made his debut just three months after his 17th birthday in 1975 — provided a touch of youthful exuberance in an aging, and struggling, side. Terry Mancini, a short-term acquisition from Queens Park Rangers, may have drawn most of the plaudits for plugging a leaky defence, but O’Leary’s role in steering the Gunners clear of relegation is not be underestimated.
David was a cultured and composed player, full of grace both in his use of the ball and the manner he loped across the field; he became affectionately known as ‘Spider’. O’Leary oozed calmness too; only in the most critical of situations would he opt to lump the ball forward, instead choosing to build from the back.
While his countrymen, Messrs Brady and Stapleton, sought pastures new at the start of the 1980s, O’Leary remained a stalwart in the Arsenal rearguard. He had turned from hot prospect to well-rounded centrepiece and attained the captaincy for a period of 18 months early in the new decade. But as the Club hovered in the midst of mediocrity, David needed a lift.
The arrival of George Graham in 1986 bought renewed vigour from the Gunners’ No 5 and he steadily regained his status as one of the League’s most reliable defenders. But the Littlewoods Cup triumph of 1987 proved to be the last season in which O’Leary would command a regular berth. An ankle injury sidelined him for much of the following campaign and his involvement in the title-winning surge in 1989 was sporadic. It came largely at right-back but nevertheless he completed his duties with aplomb.
It earned him further respect and three years later O’Leary was spending more time in the side than out of it. Fittingly for such a loyal servant, his swansong, in his 20th season of association with the Club, was the 1993 FA Cup Final. The Gunners defeated Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley and David, a substitute on the day, hoisted one final piece of silverware. It was a special end to a very special playing career with Arsenal.