Nowadays the mid to late 90’s are looked back on with great fondness for many Leicester City fans. Martin O’Neill is now classed as a legend of the club from his days of being the first team manager after taking over the reign after Mark McGhee left to take over the job at Wolverhampton Wanderers, a move the shocked and enraged many Leicester fans. He became an instant figure of hate for most fans after leaving whilst Leicester were top of the table, and describing Wolves as “the last of the sleeping giants”.
When the Leicester managers vacancy arose the 2 leading contenders were Martin O’Neill and Mike Walker with some quarters having Walker as the most likely appointment. In fact it is believed that the Leicester City Board were about to offer Walker the role when Chairman Martin George overruled them and offered O’Neill the job as manager.
As we mentioned, O’Neill is now looked at as a club legend, but his start at the club was very rocky indeed. Despite being top of the league for some of the first part of the season the middle part of November onwards saw mediocre form to say the least, and then McGhee left (also known as Judas).
O’Neill started as manager just before Christmas and the bad run of form continued. There were already rumblings amongst some sections of the fans at how the club was being run, questions about selling players and not reinvesting were rife, there was even a popular fanzine at the time called “Where’s the money gone?”.
If you were too young to remember you might find it hard to believe but O’Neill was under huge pressure with many questions being asked after he didn’t win a game for his first 7 in charge. Although he only lost 2 games 5 other draws were starting to leave the crowds frustrated. Occasional grumbles in the crowds grew in volume and anger grew towards O’Neill, the board and chairman Martin George.
The first real signs of how frustrated the supports were getting was the 1-1 home draw against Port Vale. With numerous chants against the chairman and board during the game and the ball not being thrown back from the crowd it became the first time their was a protest by the fans after the game.
In his 8th game in charge Martin O’Neill recorded his first victory as Leicester City manager. This game took the heat off him in a few ways. Not only did it give him some breathing room with a win on the board, after all, we have no idea what might have happened had the team not won that night. The big kicker though it gave him some room with the fans, as not only had he got his first victory, it was a 3-2 weeknight win against Wolves, the very team McGhee had left Leicester to manage.
The win still didn’t ignite the season however with 2 draws after against Reading and Derby which kept the season stuttering away. A live Sunday TV game then followed away against Ipswich Town. Leicester lost 4-2, and were 3-0 down within the first 12 minutes. It was also the match that Steve Claridge made his Leicester City debut after signing 2 days before from Birmingham City for £1m. If you remember back to the game it is also known for one more comical thing, Claridge played all that game with his shorts on back to front!
Leicester then continued their unpredictable form winning at home against Grimsby, losing the next 2 matches against Ipswich and Oldham then winning against Millwall. The up and down nature of the results was still continuing to frustrate the fans and a home loss to Sheffield United the following week was enough to bring everything to the boil. O’Neill, and his team, had lost the crowd. After the match there was a massive protest by the fans with some refusing to leave the ground for over an hour after the game. This is the real turning point.
Steve Claridge had been below par since making his debut and didn’t score in his first 6 games. After struggling with fatigue, a side effect from some medication was found to be reacting badly and everything changed. The next game up was against Charlton away from home, which Leicester won 1-0 with Claridge scoring his first goal for the club. This was followed up with another away game in the capital and another 1-0 win, this time against Crystal Palace.
With 6 league games left Leicester had got themselves back in contention for the play offs by sitting in 7th place in the First Division. Then disaster struck, or at least it seemed with a 2-1 loss against West Brom was followed up with a 1-1 draw against Tranmere, which put them back in 8th spot, 2 places away from the play offs.
There was a better feeling around the team and the club though. New signing Neil Lennon was impressing weekly, Claridge was now scoring and a loan signing from Chelsea reserves was starting to show his worth, an unknown Muzzy Izzet.
A quote from Martin O’Neill summed the position up back then, “Excuse the Irishism, but we now have four one off games”, and he wasn’t wrong. Wins against Oldham and play off hopefuls Huddersfield had finally got Leicester into 6th spot and the play offs with 2 games remaining.
The final home league game of the season was up next against Birmingham City. The script couldn’t have been written any better with Claridge scoring the opener against his former team, taking the opportunity to remind Birmingham manager Barry Fry who he was by running up to him to celebrate scoring against a manager that had frozen him out. It really was a party, Leicester won the match 3-0, Mark Morrison was wheeled out at half time after reaching Number 1 with Return of the Mack, and the Leicester fans took pleasure in thanking Barry Fry for selling Claridge to the club. In fact the song of “Thank you very much for Stevie Claridge”, to the tune of the famous Cadburys Roses advert seemed to ring out for most of the 2nd half.
The hard work was still not complete though, with 1 more game left, a win would make sure of a play off spot. The last game was a tough away game against Watford. Thousands of Leicester fans were going, many couldn’t get tickets at all. It all came down to this game, a must win. They did it! A Muzzy Izzet goal was enough to grab a 1-0 win and take 5th place in the play offs to extend the season and continue the dream of Premier League football.
After what seemed like a huge achievement there was little time to stop and take stock of quite what Leicester had just done, but having now reached the play offs there was yet more hard work to do.
Crystal Palace had finished 3rd, Stoke City 4th, Leicester 5th and Charlton Athletic 6th. This meant Leicester were to play Stoke in 2 games with the 1st leg being played at Filbert Street. A nervous 0-0 draw left it to a winner takes all game a few days later at Stoke’s Victoria Ground. A Garry Parker volley off a young Emile Heskey’s cross was enough to win the game 1-0 and secure another play off final trip to Wembley. There were amazing scenes at the end with wild celebrations before Stoke fans invading the pitch put a stop to that, but the adventure continued.
The play off final was huge, a one off game with the winner enjoying the riches of the Premier League whilst the losers having to repeat the whole season again next year with the same goal in mind, winning promotion.
Leicester had secured another Wembley visit and another play off final with the final game of the season against Crystal Palace. We are going to write a full article about that play off final as it was such an amazing match, it had everything so won’t go through it all now, but, what a match!
Leicester City actually went 1-0 down in the first half and after that it is safe to say for much of the match after that, absolutely battered Palace. For much of the 2nd half Leicester seemed to be camped in the Crystal Palace half pretty much all the time but despite the constant pressure couldn’t break through and grab the equaliser. Until the 75th minute that is when Muzzy Izzet powered through into the box with the ball to be brought down and win a penalty, which Garry Parker calmly scored. It certainly was well deserved. After the score stayed the same and extra time was running out it looked like the lottery of penalties was going to decide the match. Step up, Steve Claridge.
Leicester’s giant keeper ‘Spider’ Kalac had already been brought on for the penalties and there was seconds left. The ball was pumped forward from a free kick that managed to fall to Claridge on the edge of the box who hit it on the half volley, off his shin, to see it float into the corner of the net. ‘The Shin Of God’ had won the match.
Leicester had secured promotion to the Premier League in one of the most remarkable fashions. Martin O’Neill had pulled off a masterstroke and the unthinkable. He had written himself into the clubs history books and this was just the start of the adventure. The rollercoster was only just starting and not only the most optimistic of fans could have predicted this, or what was to come in those dark days in O’Neill’s first 13 games when at times every loose ball was jumped on by the fans.
However, O’Neill had proved all the doubters wrong and now it was time to buckle up and enjoy the ride, and what a ride was coming!!!!