Leicester mercurial

Martin O'Neill confounded the pundits and delighted Leicester fans by declining the chance to move to a bigger club. Stephen Wagg looks at how the voluble barrack-room lawyer came to hold Filbert Street in the palm of his hand

It’s October 19th 1998, on a chilly evening at Filbert Street. Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur are awaiting permission to kick off from BSkyB producers. “OK everyone, here comes Martin,” Leicester City PRO Alan Birchenall bellows into the microphone. The crowd stirs. “Now he doesn’t know I’m doing this,” thunders Birchenall, “but if you really want to keep Martin here at the club, SHOW HIM WHAT YOU THINK OF HIM!” Most of the 20,000 spectators jump to their feet and, amid a crescendo of noise, brandish “Don’t Go Martin” posters (issued by the local newspaper) above their heads.

Martin O’Neill embraces Birchenall briefly and proffers a shy staccato salute to the four sides of the ground. Up in the rafters of Leicester’s one respectable stand, football scribes of broadsheet and tabloid alike remain convinced that O’Neill will now go to manage Leeds United. The wave, their columns will say the following morning, was goodbye.

Most Leicester people would probably have agreed. Indeed, before the Spurs game, shortlists for a replacement were being drawn up across the city. But by early on October 21st it was clear O’Neill would be staying after all and, at a morning press conference, another chapter in the soap opera that has been Leicester City in the 1990s came to a close.

For much of their post-war history City have been a yo-yo club, a status affirmed by their appearance between 1991 and 1996 in no fewer than four play-off finals. The manager for the first three of these finals was Brian Little, a quiet and controlled man whose ponderous public pronouncements, speckled with phrases like “this-particular-moment-in-time”, did not prevent him being popular in the town. He had two problems, though. One was that the players he was able to buy for Leicester – players in their mid and late twenties – were in most cases unlikely ever to be better players than they were when they came to the club: on the eve of the first play-off final he estimated privately that if the team were to win the following day, ten new players would be needed for the following season.

The other problem was a growing rivalry with the club’s thriving commercial department, run by managing director Barrie Pierpoint, a man with baggy suits and long cigars. Pierpoint’s people, Little complained to the club’s directors, had much bigger cars standing in the Filbert Street parking lots than his own assistants were driving.

Little resigned in 1995 to manage his beloved Aston Villa, with Leicester’s relegation from the Premiership already almost certain. When he brought Villa to Filbert Street a few weeks later he was visibly shaken by the reception he received. His successor, Mark McGhee, also departed within a year, despite having brought in some very talented players (Parker, Kaamark) most of whom are still at the club. Brushing aside protracted efforts by the club to persuade him to stay, McGhee, like Little, made clear his impatience with the club’s commercial department and his desire to go to a higher spending club. Emotions in football, he told a Sunday newspaper later, were for fans not for managers.

For Martin O’Neill, however, who emerged late in the running to take McGhee’s place in the spring of 1996, feelings are always in play. He is plainly a man of strong emotions, as his jack-in-the-box touchline persona makes clear, but he is also a consummate politician.

O’Neill came to a Filbert Street thoroughly disgruntled by two managerial defections in quick succession. His first ten matches in charge failed to yield a victory and, during a minor demonstration after a particularly dismal home defeat by Sheffield United, a few cries of “O’Neill Out” could be heard. Around this time a caller from Long Eaton told a Radio Leicester phone-in that O’Neill hadn’t turned things around and he would probably have to go too. To the man’s great misfortune, a tape of the programme reached O’Neill, who was to return again and again to these two moments.

O’Neill now began to acquire new players. Neil Lennon came from Crewe to run the midfield and in Chelsea’s reserves O’Neill found Mustapha Izzet, a delightful will o’ the wisp player of Turkish-London parentage. Significantly, most of the players O’Neill brought to Leicester were soon worth several times what he had paid for them.

Leicester won the play-off in 1996 and surprised many by coming ninth in the Premiership and winning the Coca-Cola Cup. O’Neill, fidgeting by the dugout, exhorting his obviously devoted players, denouncing dodgy referees and beguiling TV interviewers, now became a local hero. With a trophy freshly on display in the boardroom and the town imploring him to sign a longer contract, O’Neill agreed to receive listeners’ calls at Radio Leicester in the spring of 1997 – on condition that the broadcast began with the tape of Wretched from Long Eaton.

One caller after another pleaded with O’Neill to put this and the Sheffield United game behind him (“When are you going to forgive us, Martin?” asked one young woman), but he would not be moved. He now had, and has retained, the anxious and unqualified support of the Leicester football public.

Leicester have joined Coventry, Southampton, Derby and others to form the unofficial Hanging In There League, composed of teams who won’t win the Premiership, but can, ordinarily, expect to stay in it. To keep the dream alive, though, they must seek to go beyond the mid-table and into the Euro-qualifying slots. Visible ambition, after all, drives the sale of season tickets and merchandise. O’Neill has said for some time that this will mean paying his existing players more and finding cash for new ones of high quality.  The attempt to supply these needs has led O’Neill  into open conflict with Pierpoint’s commercial department, which employs three times as many people as the football department, and the plc that now owns the club. It is clear O’Neill resolved some time ago either to win this conflict or to leave.

In the summer of 1998, Leicester City announced a new club structure in the wake of flotation on the stock market. O’Neill made it clear it was unacceptable, because new committees seemed to blur the distinction between football and business. Back pages insisted he was going to Everton. O’Neill instead waited to be approached by Sir Rodney Walker, the new chairman of Leicester City plc. Who, Leicester people wanted to know, was Sir Rodney Walker? Despite the widespread local perception that Walker was a largely absent suit, interested only in balance sheets, O’Neill was appeased and agreed to stay.

On September 26th, however, the News of the World carried a story about continuing friction between O’Neill and the commercial arm of the club. Leicester were on Sky that day and O’Neill was pressed about the story. It was old hat, he insisted. However, stories were already circulating that George Graham was prepared to go to Tottenham. When Graham decamped a few days later, Leeds pursued O’Neill.

If he was at all minded to stay with Leicester, O’Neill played his hand to perfection. If he were to leave share prices, already low, would sink further and a remarkably spirited football team would disintegrate. There would be an outcry among supporters, bringing a certain backlash against Pierpoint’s Fox Leisure merchandising operation. And there would be hostility toward the plc, especially since the flotation is known not to have yielded the promised money for new players and has resulted in legal wrangling: writs were recently issued against three former Leicester directors by a fourth. 

Against this backdrop of probability O’Neill made clear his desire to speak to Leeds, carefully adding that he would not necessarily take the job. He knew full well that his contract forbade this without Leicester’s permission and that such permission could not possibly be granted: to grant it could easily have construed as not wanting to keep him. So, a little bizarrely, he cited a “gentleman’s agreement” he claimed to have struck with club chairman John Elsom during the summer that he could break this part of the contract if he wanted to. 

On October 21st, with the supporters emotionally exhausted from checking the clubcalls, the websites, the ceefax and the radio and TV bulletins, O’Neill finally said he would remain. The signs are that he has wrung every possible concession from Leicester: a new four-year contract at double the salary; more power within the club; more money for players; a swift transition to a new stadium; and, to keep everyone on their toes, the right still to speak to other clubs.

Like many tough negotiators, O’Neill agreed to all this with grudging air, presenting himself as shackled by the intransigence of his employers. But he knows they had no realistic alternative. And perhaps, in the end, a Leicester is what he really wants rather than a Leeds. After all, at big clubs there are high expectations and short memories. But for many football people of O’Neill’s generation, the greatest football managers were those who made bricks without straw. Brian Clough brought trophies to Nottingham Forest and Derby County with a series of wonderfully motley teams, but he only lasted a few days at Leeds. 

Maybe this is in O’Neill’s thinking, and maybe it isn’t. But the recent melodrama had an air of finality to it. Martin O’Neill is now in the unenviable position of a man who has been given everything he asked for. At the club he has put business and finance capital on the back foot and stood up for football. But a big club may not come for him again. And he can’t ask the people of Leicester for many more declarations of love.

From WSC 142 December 1998. What was happening this month