How did you get on with Jock Wallace, your first boss at Leicester?
“I remember the first time he came down to a reserve game. We sat down at half-time and Jock came in effing and blinding at us, but he was looking at me all the time he was doing it. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying but I got the general drift. Then he came over to me, picked me up by the scruff of my neck and pinned me to the dressing-room wall. He said, ‘You little English shit, you get yourself running.’ When he put me back down again, I was trembling. I wouldn’t have minded but we were 2-0 up and I’d scored them both! I didn’t score in the second half because I could hardly put one foot in front of the other. I just ran around like a headless chicken trying to look as if I was working hard. He called me in next morning and it was like sitting outside the headmaster’s office. He’d calmed down then and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, son, I was just making a point.’”
That eleven-match ban for breaking David Geddis’s jaw seemed to create an image for you...
“I suppose my mistake is thinking that if people can give it out, they can take it as well; but football isn’t like that. The only time I’ve ever got into trouble is when someone has been out of order to me. Maybe I’m a bit cumbersome in the way I do it – the ref always seems to be looking at me. The refs treat me like crap, turning away or blanking me. Some will even wind me up, saying something sarcastic or laughing at me. They aren’t really supposed to behave like that. If a player’s trying to kick you or elbow you, then you have to do something to protect yourself.”
“Steve Bull provoked me first in both the sending-off incidents. He should have been off already for an elbow at Molineux. The ref turned away again. I wasn’t quite discreet enough, but I hardly touched him. He made a meal of it and got me sent off, but that’s his job. That’s football. Whatever anyone says, if we get someone sent off, we’re pleased. Bully didn’t hurt me when he swung a punch at me at Filbert Street, but he deserved to be sent off for that, so I stayed down.”
“There’s no question that it was a dive but, to be honest, I would have done the same – although I’d probably have made it look better. The blame has to lie with the ref; but it goes on so much now, you have to do it to keep up with the rest. The refs get taken for a bit of a ride. A game with stakes that high has to be won any way it can, I’m afraid. I thought it was such an obvious dive that I turned to run upfield. By the time I turned round again, Speedie was arguing with a crowd of our players.”
Surely not? David Speedie?
“But I wouldn’t mind having him in my team, if I’m truthful.”
In the 99/2000 season, you had a spell playing up front as an emergency striker...
“Yes, it was quite exciting, really. Not much pressure on me, if I made a mistake it wasn’t going to cost us a goal! For the first game, John Robertson said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s only Desailly and Leboeuf!’ They’d won the World Cup about two months before. Robbo said to me, ‘Just go up there and cause havoc, son.’ I think we got a draw that day. I had a bit of a set-to with Roberto Di Matteo and Gus Poyet, who weren’t too happy with the physical aspect of my game. We had a few words going down the tunnel and they ended up locking themselves in the away dressing rooms. I chased them in there and they shut the door on me! Luckily, the officials didn’t see that one.”
The media’s treatment of City isn’t always so positive. It probably bottomed out after the Worthington Cup final against Spurs...
“I thought it was desperately poor. I picked the papers up the following morning... obviously, Robbie took a hammering individually, but the team also took a hammering over tactics. Someone called Graham Hunter, who writes for the Daily Mail, drew some sort of comparison with myself and Brian Clough being able to kill games off. He quoted Clough winning the European Cup final, having killed the game! Extraordinary! Savage took a dog’s abuse. When they’d seen what the German player had done, going down after being missed in the challenge completely, I think they were almost too embarrassed to report it two days later, having had the chance to watch it again.
“I can understand the players’ annoyance here because they can definitely play. I read that we are ‘hard-working Leicester.’ As if we’re the only team that work hard in the League. Manchester United work as hard as anybody, so do Arsenal. For me, hard work is a prerequisite of doing well.”
Can you describe how it felt to score from 30 yards in the last minute of extra-time in a Division One Play-off final?
“No, I can’t. You haven’t had it. It’s why I played football for another ten years. For a moment like that. That’s why the game is so hard to give up and why people struggle when their playing career is over. Because that takes you somewhere you will never go again.”
What were your first impressions at City?
“It’s only since I retired from the game and matured slightly and had time to analyse Martin O’Neill that I get to understand him a bit more. He’s the only person in football who’s succeeded in making me feel uncomfortable. I remember when I’d not long signed for Leicester we stayed in a hotel down in London. As I turned the corner to go to my room, he was walking down the corridor towards me about 50 yards away. I was looking at him and he was looking at me, and then he just walked past without a word! I was waiting to go, ‘Hello, Gaffer,’ and he just looked straight through me as though I was invisible.
“Bizarre little things that he used to do. He’d go round the dressing room saying, ‘You were shit... You were shit.’ Then he’d put his arm round Gupps and say, ‘You were great.’ He’d sit and talk to his favourites like Muzzy and Neil Lennon, and I’d just be ignored completely. In his psychobabble sort of way he was trying to get me to prove him wrong. Possibly, it worked. As a football manager he has a bit of a side to him, but as a man he’s very thoughtful and caring.”
Towards the end of the O’Neill era, didn’t you feel something special was going on? With Emile Heskey and Stan Collymore together up front?
“Well, at the time Martin kept getting linked with other clubs and the feeling deep down was that if he left, that would be the end of it. He was that much of an influence on the team and the players, including myself. No matter what people say, Leicester will never have that same amount of success ever again.”
“No, it’s a fact. You won’t. Never, ever, ever. It might not have been Leicester’s best ever but it was a great side, finishing in the top ten four times, winning trophies, playing in Europe. It’ll never happen again, unless they get the guy who bought Man City; but they won’t.”
Can’t Buy That Feeling – Inside Leicester City – The Best of the Fox Interviews. By Simon Kimber and Gary Silke. Available from ConkerEditions.co.uk, Amazon, Waterstones, Foxes Fanstore and all good bookshops.