A Fox in the Henhouse; Leicester’s amazing five years under Martin O’Neill
Leicester City (1996-2000)
With Emile Heskey earning the distinction of being this blog’s inaugural Player of the Week, it seemed fitting the first team to warrant a closer inspection for the segment we’ve (imaginatively) christened Cult Premier League Teams, is the Leicester City side where the destructive striker first made his name.
Martin O’Neill’s plucky Blues exuded gusto and self-belief in abundance, battling their way to successive top-half finishes (a still unbettered 8th in 2000 being the high mark) and won a commendable two League Cups (reaching the final of a third). Here we aim to briefly dissect this four-year period of unheralded success and ask: What made The Foxes tick? Who were the movers and shakers in this period of prosperity? And what precipitated the team’s crumble? Surely all the answers can’t begin and end with Martin O’Neill? But maybe that’s the best place to start…
The Beginning of the O’Neill Era
Leicester fans have Yorkshirean steamroller Dean Windass to thank for O’Neill’s appointment as The Foxes’ manager in December 1995. Or, more accurately, they have Norwich City chairman Robert Chase to thank for not sanctioning Windass’ £750,000 move to the Canaries much to O’Neill’s chagrin.
This refusal, the latest in a long line of squabbles between chairman and manager, drove the Northern Irishman into Leicester City’s welcoming embrace (the club had a vacancy after previous manager Mark McGhee had up-and-left The Foxes for fellow dog-like mammals Wolves). Up until this point the front-runner for manager’s post had been ex-Norwich City manager Mike Walker who stood motionless as O’Neill usurped a job the press had promised all-but had Walker’s name on it. Leicester made up for this by putting Walker’s name on their stadium instead a few years later in the greatest ‘no-hard-feelings’ gesture of all time.
Upon O’Neill’s appointment success would prove instantaneous as he courageously took the East Midlands go-getters from the doldrums of 1st in Division One to an awe-inspiring finish of 5th and promotion via the play-offs. A fine achievement indeed, however it was in the Premiership that the fiery manager would really make his name.
Arrival in the Premier League
Leicester’s return to England’s top flight was greeted with trepidation as pundits tripped over one another to predict the Foxes’ stay would be a short one. Certainly their transfer dealings seemed to leave a lot to be desired with Kasey Keller joining from Millwall, Ian Marshall from Ipswich and later Matt Elliott from Oxford and Steve Guppy from Port Vale. These were different times in which the Premier League had not yet felt the full force of foreign imports, but even so many were doubting the ability of these lower-league pretenders to foxtrot their way to Premiership survival. As it happened, they managed it with ease.
9th was where Leicester City finished. Seven points from relegation and top of the ‘Best of the Rest’ league constituted by an 8 point gap separating 9th and 19th. Add to that an impressive cup win (we’ll get to that later) and admirable victories over Premier League heavyweights Tottenham, Villa and Newcastle and suddenly people were sitting up and taking notice. ‘How?’ preseason naysayers presumably asked whilst hiding in their foxholes of shame.
Well, as we now understand to be typical of an O’Neill side, Leicester played with a mix of industry, ingenuity, guile and a rare cunning befitting some kind of crafty woodland creature. They knew their strengths and how best to use them as evidenced by their hard-fought win away at Tottenham early in the season, masterminded by the marauding inside forward runs of a young Heskey and the speedy wing play of Neil Lennon and Scott Taylor. With strength and power through the centre all the Foxes needed were semi-accurate balls routinely fired into the box and one of Steve Claridge, Ian Marshall or Heskey himself would be there to get on the end of them.
But to condense their success to playing to their strengths and working with what they had would do them a disservice; several members of the Foxes’ squad were capable of the sublime too when the chance presented itself. Fuzzy multilingual monster, Muzzy Izzet, was a spark-plug in midfield capable of igniting a match with a scorching goal or wonder touch while equally adept at the more physical side of the game when the situation called.
Heskey too, still experimenting with his forward role, was fearless, relentless and, at times, unrecognizable when compared to his modern incarnation as he waged a one-man war on lackadaisical defending. Witness Izzet’s goal and Heskey’s self-made chance in the clip below (approx. 2:30 in) to see a rare example of an elegant coolness rarely associated with the side as the Blues dish out more nutmegs than a spiced goods sale.
Top Half Consolidation
Later seasons saw Leicester solidify their position as a deserving and, at times, imposing Premier League force. The Foxes managed subsequent finishes of 10th, 10th and 8th in the top flight racking up points totals of 53, 49 and 55 respectively. They enjoyed wins over Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea, not to mention winning five out of seven league games against Spurs and drawing the other two. They contested fantastic clashes of sporting magic; the 3-3 against Arsenal in which Dennis Bergkamp scored a magnificent hat-trick (see below), a opening day 2-2 against Manchester United where David Beckham scored a last minute freekick and a 4-3 defeat to Newcastle in which Alan Shearer scored a match-turning hat-trick in the last 14.
As well as providing plenty of excitement O’Neill’s team were actively improving. The manager himself took exception to being branded a long-ball team and certainly Leicester’s build-up play had become more comfortable over the years with less reliance on set-pieces and corners. Their strategy had become more possession-centric, no longer solely dependent on the pace of their wingers and strikers (although Heskey, Lennon and company’s runs remained a powerful weapon). Their formation as a whole had now morphed into a more attacking unit with an impregnable back three shielded by a flexible five-man midfield. As well as overseeing marked improvements in many of the team which initially won promotion, new signings such as Robbie Savage and Theodoros Zagorakis added extra bite and quality to an already diverse squad. O’Neill himself considered the pinnacle of his Leicester City career to be a 5-2 demolition of a (then) strong Sunderland side late into the Northern Irishman’s final season at the club. The game saw new recruit Stan Collymore relish in a role alongside Emile Heskey as the two shared four goals between them in a devilishly devastating performance.
However, these searches for glimpses of genius among “good old-fashioned English fundamentals” suggests a need to validate this team, to bring them into the modern day where every middling club is a Bastard-child of Barcelona, but that sort of misses the point doesn’t it? Where in this modern definition of ‘beautiful football’ do you account for the beauty inherent in the doughty arrogance of Steve Claridge, who dared plunder Premier League defences for 12 goals over the course of Leicester’s debut season? Or the eye-watering magnificence of Captain Fantastic Steve ‘Walshie’ Walsh who was clearly birthed head-first into a penalty box, instinctively contesting 50-50 balls and strangling strikers with his umbilical chord?. Or the sucker-punch brilliance of the disgustingly-named Steve Guppy who in spite of his failings (of which there were many), was for a brief period in the 98′-99′ season, quite possibly the greatest player in the world? That statement may not make any logical sense or have any practical evidence supporting it but, much like the mystical sense animals get before an earthquake starts, everyone was just sort of aware it was happening and accepted it to be true.
Although (as we’ve endeared to show) Leicester were by no means the long ball merchants they are sometimes (mis)remembered as, what made the team so brilliant was the sense of adventure they brought with them to every game; the freedom of spirit that enraptured and encouraged all they touched to turn to gold. It wasn’t just about what Leicester actually were, it is what they represented. This team should not have worked but through self-belief and sheer force of will the archetypal plucky underdogs ignited the Premier League for four glorious seasons and more than that they won silverware.
The League Cup
Four years. Three finals. Two wins. A remarkable record for a team Leicester’s size in any era. Taken now, their success seems refreshing; for a newly promoted side to treat the competition with such reverence and passion rather than pushing it to one side to concentrate on Premier League survival is admirable; to actually dominate it for a sustained period is fantastic.
Yes, bigger clubs tend to play weakened teams for their fixtures in the much maligned cup and yes, second string sides are now considered much stronger than they were then (football has undoubtedly evolved from an eleven-aside game to a squad game in the last ten years) but do not let this take away from Leicester’s accomplishments. The Blues saw the League Cup for what it was; silverware, a tangible piece of history that could be pointed to in years to come as an artifact of success. It is their pursuit of trophies that raises them above similarly overachieving counterparts of the time (ram it Derby). They did more than punch above their weight; they were bonafide winners, gaining glory in tandem with their league success (as opposed to recent cup winners Birmingham and Wigan whose wins proved detrimental to league form).
It is in these cup runs you can best glimpse the nature of this team painted in broad scruffy brushstrokes. Valiant and determined in victories over United in ’96 and Leeds in their unsuccessful run of ’99. Never-say-die in the drawn final of ’97 (in which Heskey equalised in the 118th minute) and a quarter final victory over Fulham in ’99 (fighting back from 2-0 and then 3-2 down). Utterly unshakable, with self-motivation in abundance as numerous penalty shoot-out wins and 2000’s cup final (in particular) attests to.
They were a band of likable every-men never predestined for success, never gifted with extraordinary talent; even their aforementioned most skillful players seemed flawed, misshapen, unfashionable. Everything they got they toiled for, every last accolade and achievement was earned. These players, most of them Football League journeymen, deserved their success. Having crawled through Shawshank Redemption levels of filth to get this far they were damn sure taking their chance when it presented itself. Then, just for the hell of it, they were going to take it again.
So here’s to Leicester, a ramshackle team of poachers, blunt instruments and indeterminate genius, held together by the desire to win and the brilliance and resourcefulness of their fiery manager.
The aforementioned self-appointed high point of Martin O’Neill’s era- the 5-2 victory over Sunderland – showed us a glimpse of what could have been (or continued to be). Five days later Heskey was sold to Liverpool for £10 million and the Foxes’ strikeforce lost most of its potency. At the end of the season O’Neill too would be gone, tempted by the infamous Celtic sirens who sing songs of a league with minimal competition and guaranteed trophies. In his place came Peter Taylor, brought in to steady the ship which he did by pulling it apart piece by piece (out went Walsh, Lennon, Collymore, Cottee) and rebuilding it in his own image (in came an ageing Roberto Mancini?!?). Initially, Taylor’s unorthodox ship maintenance appeared to have worked as the early season saw the Foxes’ ascend to the top of the league for the first time since 1963. Unfortunately the basic fundamentals of watercraft construction tells us that a boat resembling Peter Taylor would lack the necessary buoyancy to keep afloat and the Foxes’ soon fell, hard. They would spend the next five years ping-ponging between the bottom of the Premiership and the top of Division 1. Since 2004 The Foxes have been mired in the lower divisions, eventually, after much labour and finance, regaining a much-welcomed promotion this year.
Perhaps somewhere in a parallel universe East Yorkshire’s finest battering-ram, Dean Windass, moved to Carrow Road meaning O’Neill stayed at Norwich City allowing Mike Walker’s unstoppable Leicester City side to wrench Premier League supremacy from Alex Ferguson’s cold, dead hands. As it is we’ll have to make do with the O’Neill legacy, but that too, is quite something to behold.
Leicester City 3 Arsenal 3 (27th August 1997)
Not their best display, but one indicative of everything The Foxes stood for from their never-say-die attitude to moments of inspired ingenuity and individual brilliance. As an added bonus it also happens to contain a performance of the highest class from Arsenal God Dennis Bergkamp.
Dynamic, intelligent and equally adept at both the gritty and finer sides of the game, Muzzy was an ever-present in the Foxes’ side and a key part of their success. Sorely underrated by all but Leicester City’s fans in his day possibly because of his hilarious name, he will one day ascend to the Pantheon of Great Under Appreciated Footballers, sitting somewhere between professional Rutger Hauer lookalike Antti Niemi and a bizarro world version of Morten Gamst Pedersen who retired instantly the moment the Venkys took over Blackburn.
STAR PLAYERS: 3/6
STAR MANAGER: 5/6
CLASS RATING /6: 4.16/6