Leicester City 3 Swindon Town 4, 31st May 1993

Sunday’s defeat at Vicarage Road was sickening. It feels horrible. Hard to imagine feeling worse, right? Wrong. This is the story of a young boy, his Dad and a very bad, very posh referee.

It was the pizza that did it. So distraught was my Dad with Leicester’s late, cruel, unjust defeat at the hands of a Swindon penalty, he made the very un-Dadlike decision to walk out of a popular chain restaurant, yours truly straggling behind, without paying. This was the second consecutive year of play-off heartbreak for Leicester fans, and this one really hurt.

The previous year’s 1-0 reverse against Blackburn was disappointing, but not unexpected. Big-spending Rovers went into the game as overwhelming favourites, having acquired the services of a number of expensive signings, including the goal-scorer at Wembley, Mike Newell. That summer, Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish bought Alan Shearer for a then-record £3.5m. Three years after that, they were Premier League champions. City fans could comfort themselves that their club had come a long way since almost being relegated to the third tier the previous season. There was no shame in losing via a dubious penalty to a team that was in the process of, almost literally, buying the league.

After a first season of moulding a team in his own image, City boss Brian Little began to add a little quality to his self-styled “grinders”. In came Lee Philpott, previously keen supplier of whipped balls into Dion Dublin and Steve Claridge at John Beck’s Cambridge United. We also welcomed the bald-headed Steve Agnew to Filbert Street, a classy yet tough-tackling central midfielder who had racked up almost 200 games for Barnsley.

Most notably of all, though, was the emergence of Julian Joachim. Joachim was every football fan’s dream – a local lad come good, brought through the academy, with bundles of natural ability. An under-18 England international by the end of the 92-93 season, he was City’s most exciting homegrown talent since the emergence of Gary Lineker ten years earlier. The kid was dynamite. He had a blistering turn of pace, tricks up his sleeve and a seemingly unflappable demeanour. Looking back at some of those goals from his first season now, his dispassionate, almost joyless approach to finishing reminds one of an early Michael Owen. Most memorable was his MOTD-certified Goal of the Season in the FA Cup replay against Oakwell at Barnsely, a ludicrous, outside of the boot ping from thirty yards out preceded by a waltz from the Leicester half past the Barnsley defence.

Joachim was raw and, understandably given his tender years, had a tendency to sometimes drift out of games. But he had given Leicester a little extra, that all important ability to turn a game on its head when things weren’t going to plan.

The most intriguing and unexpected development of the 92-93 season was the move of City captain Steve Walsh from centre-half to centre-forward. Walsh was not an obvious candidate to solve his team’s injury-induced goal-scoring crisis that winter. An uncompromising, heart-on-the-sleeve battering ram, he was already a hero to Foxes fans, having battled through the dark days of the David Pleat era. He was also in the process of racking up a remarkable 13 career red cards – a Football League record which he still holds to this day. His switch up top coincided with Leicester’s best run of form and he ended the season as top scorer, with 16 in all competitions.

When the play-off final eventually arrived, City faced a Swindon Town side that had progressed rapidly since a series of financial scandals had dogged them three years prior. Glen Hoddle had been player-manager since 1991 and, never shy about his own ability, often played himself in a Beckenbauer-esque sweeper role, adding some welcome glamour to the grimy world of second-tier football.

After a relatively quiet first thirty minutes at Wembley, it was Hoddle himself who put Swindon in front three minutes before half-time. Socks rolled down, he hung around the edge of the Leicester box after one of his sporadic forays forward. The ball popped out to him on the right side of the area and he duly dispatched the ball past Kevin Poole. One-nil.

The second half could not have started any worse for City. Some appalling defending left Craig Maskell unmarked in the area and he rifled the ball into the top corner. By Swindon’s third goal, the Leicester defence appeared to have completely lost their heads. A clearance from a corner ended up on the hopeful head of a Swindon attacker at the edge of the box and the ball was looped into the area. Half of City’s defence moved out to play the offside trap, the other half hung back and looked at their laces, Shaun Taylor flung himself at the ball and it was 3-0.

If the game had ended here, few City fans could have complained at the result. We’d been dreadful. What happened next played a large part in sculpting the (now slightly nauseating) ‘Foxes Never Quit’ legend. Little’s team, oddly, seemed galvanised by that third goal. Just four minutes after it, Joachim volleyed in from close range after a Walsh header rebounded off the post. Walsh then converted after a frantic passage of play resulted in a hopeful loft into the six yard box by Philpott. A minute later, Steve Thompson ghosted through the centre of a static Swindon defence and poked the ball past the goalkeeper with the outside of his right foot.

The momentum was with City, who looked the only team likely to win it at this stage. Then came one of the most infamous moments of injustice in Leicester history, courtesy of a dive that made Anthony Knockaert’s pitiful plunge last weekend look award-winningly genuine. Steve White’s ludicrous, arms-flung-back pirouette just inside the City box, following a long pass forward from Glen Hoddle, looked like a dive to City’s onrushing keeper Kevin Poole. It looked like a dive to the City defenders. It looked like a dive to me, and I was eight years old and a third of a kilometre away. The only person who didn’t think it was a dive, who thought that the 5’10” Poole had clipped White so hard with his left hand that he had no choice but to collapse to the floor in a heap, was David Elleray.

Elleray, of course, was to go on to greater things – infamy at international level, the pinnacle of every Harrow headteacher’s career, along with denying Chesterfield a victory in one of the all-time great FA Cup semi-finals – but 31st May 1993 was all about him, and that appalling penalty decision. Supporters of Premier League clubs whinging about Howard Webb and Mark Clattenburg – seriously, you don’t you’re born.

Poole, a wonderful shotstopper but never the most physically imposing of goalkeepers, was still shaking his head in incredulity as Paul Bodin stroked the penalty past him and straight down the middle of the goal. There was no coming back from this one. Leicester City had lost their second play-off final.

There’s a passage in Promised Land, Anthony Clavane’s gripping ode to the city of Leeds and its football club, which sums up the blunt anguish created by the kind of footballing injustice that occurred that day. Clavane recalls Leeds fans whipping themselves into a fury after their defeat to AC Milan in the 1973 Cup Winner’s Cup final at the hands of some shocking decisions from, it later transpired, a bribed ref. “Robbbed…cheated….cursed”, they sang. Leicester fans in 1993 could have been forgiven for thinking the same thing, a second dodgy penalty having prevented them from reaching their own Promised Land of the Premier League for the second year running.

It is to Brian Little’s great credit that he dragged his team, and the club’s distraught fans, to a third, ultimately successful play-off final a year later. We paid for our pizza in 1994.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Levein Spoonful: The Story of City’s 2005 Cup Run

The early months of 2005 were a curious time for Leicester City. Having started the season as big spending favourites for promotion, the club dispensed with their manager in October after a poor start, replacing him with a young coach with big ideas and a burgeoning reputation who was beginning to fashion a side in his own image. Sound familiar?

City’s FA Cup run that season served as an entertaining distraction from the team’s disappointing performances in the league and a welcome relief from a pretty embarrassing couple of years – administration, followed by La Manga, followed by relegation, followed by Kevin bloody Pressman.

Craig Levein, appointed as Micky Adams’ successor after he established an impressive record at Hearts, was yet to make his mark at the Walkers Stadium. Levein had talked a good game in his early days at the club, emphasising the need for stability, praising the club’s youth system and bringing in what we were told was the cream of SPL talent. Incredible as it may seem in hindsight, we were actually pretty exciting about Stephen Hughes at the time. Results, however, were not good. From Levein’s appointment at the end of October, to the end of 2004, City won just three games. The run had seen the Foxes drift away from the play-off places, with most fans accepting that we were now very much building for the next season.

The Cup, then, offered an opportunity for redemption of sorts for some rather tired looking veterans – Nikos Dabizas, Dion Dublin and the walking elbow that was Danny Tiatto – and a chance to ease into English football for the likes of Hughes, Alan Maybury and Mark De Vries.

Blackpool, then in League One under Simon Grayson, were City’s first obstacle. Levein’s side overcame the struggling Seasiders somewhat unconvincingly, needing a late Gareth Williams equaliser to take the tie to a reply at Bloomfield Road, which Leicester then nicked 1-0.

Reading, in and around the play-off places under the stewardship of Steve Coppell, were next. The Royals were on the cusp of becoming an excellent side. After just missing out on the play-offs in 2005, they went on to win the Championship title in ’06, smashing the league points record in the process (they accumulated 106, a figure which remains intact today) and scoring 99 goals. City were comfortably the better team when they met at the end of January though, even if they did have to come from behind to secure a first appearance in the 5th round since 2001. The oft-maligned James Scowcroft scored the ninetieth minute winner, steering a header past Marcus Hahnemann.

Meanwhile, in the grim reality of the second division, Leicester were sliding horribly down the table. City didn’t win a league game in February and March. Craig Levein’s all-too-brief honeymoon period was over and Mark De Vries was the Walkers’ boo boys newest victim.

The omens for the fifth round tie against Premier League Charlton were, then, not great. Despite the Addick’s then traditional mid-season slump being well underway by the time City made the convulated trip to The Valley, they were comfortable favourites. Another extraordinary late winner secured a quarter final appearance, Dion Dublin nodding Gareth Williams corner into the net in front of 5,000 Foxes going absolutely ballistic.

Dublin’s late, late contribution in South London was one of his few highlights in a homecoming season in which he flattered to deceive. Shifted from centre half to centre forward and everywhere in between, the lifelong Leicester fan never really settled in.

For the first time since that fateful, terrible defeat at the hands of a man found on Ceefax back in 2001, Leicester City had a chance to reach the semi-finals of the world’s oldest cup competition. The small matter of overcoming Mark Hughes’ Blackburn came first.

The game itself was a depressingly damp squib. Levein set his side up in a disappointingly negative way, Mark De Vries stationed up front on his own ahead of a midfield four which rivals Nottingham Forest’s recent podgefest for lack of dynamism – besides the hard-working Joey Gudjonsson were the flimsy Gareth Williams, ever-optimistic Lilian Nalis and the captain, the red card waiting to happen, Danny Tiatto. Chances were few and far between and the game seemed to be drifting towards extra time, until a cruel twist – Paul Dickov, the former Fox, slotted home a penalty in the 82nd minute. City, offering little up front until then, knew there was no coming back. Dickov showed no mercy and had no interest in engaging in the modern trend of not celebrating a goal against an old club – the Scot wheeled away towards the home fans, pummelling his victory fist into City’s mediocre season.

City’s season was all but over, but 2005’s cup run gave fans a fleeting experience of success in the midst of one of the most depressing eras in the club’s history. Craig Levein’s side only really secured their status in the division with three games to go, a home win against Derby County providing the relief. Indeed, Levein’s most memorable moments in his largely forgettable reign were in the FA Cup – in addition to the ’05 run, he led his side to one of the all-time great Leicester comebacks the next season when City came from 2-0 down to beat Spurs in the third round. Elvis Hammond dropped the F-bomb on national prime-time TV. It was pretty funny.

In a similarly disappointing 2011-12 season, let’s hope that Nigel Pearson can provide us with an old fashioned cup upset at Norwich on Saturday. And even if he can’t, at least we can be grateful that we never have to see Danny Tiatto, Scot Gemmill and Nathan Blake in a blue shirt ever again.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sayonara, Abechan: A Brief Affair with a Japanese holding midfielder

This weekend, news emerged (as always, on Twitter) that Yuki Abe was returning to Japan to rejoin his previous club, Urawa Reds. So comes to an end an unlikely, and all too fleeting, love affair with a player who brought understated calm to a team in various stages of flux over the past 18 months.

Abe was signed during the brief reign of (although not necessarily by) Paolo Sousa. An experienced Japanese international who played in the 2010 World Cup, Abe’s signing was nevertheless seen by many City fans and external observers as a vanity signing and marketing manoeuvre, designed to boost our profile in the lucrative Asian market. Abe’s early appearances under Sousa seemed to bear this view out, as he was shoehorned into right midfield and full-back in a disorganised shambles of a team lacking confidence, discipline and fitness.

The swift departure of the Portuguese heralded a fresh start for many amongst the inflated squad, Abe included. I first witnessed a full 90 minutes of Yuki in early November 2010 at Oakwell, Barnsley, when Sven Goran Eriksson’s team were beginning to get into their stride after a couple of decent wins away at Leeds and at home against Preston. Abe sat behind Andy King and Richie Wellens and in front of the previously leaky City defence, efficiently gaining possession in his own half and playing simple, effective and telling passes to his more attack-minded midfield compatriots. He bossed the midfield that day, covering yards without ever seeming to break into much of a sweat; never a tackle misjudged, never a pass misplaced. Abe trotted over to the travelling City fans at the end of the game, clearly shattered. I raved about his performance on Twitter on the way home, and immediately gained several new Japanese followers. Clearly this was a man loved and looked out for by fans of his previous club.

Abe went on to have a fairly successful 2010-11 season, City winning 12 of the 26 games in which he started – a higher win percentage than any other Leicester midfielder (hat-tip: Foxblogger). His performances apparently alerted more illustrious names – Manchester City were reported to be interested in adding Abe to their already lengthy list of defensive midfielders.

In a generally satisfactory first season in English football for Abe, one thing continued to elude him – a goal. I used to dream of how what it would eventually come about. The dream would usually end with me tussling his hair as he was mobbed by his adoring teammates after a 25-yard zinger into the top corner. As it happened, the goal, when it eventually did arrive, was almost as magical as I’d hoped – a fine strike into the bottom corner in a final day of the season romp against Ipswich Town. Abe was indeed mobbed by his teammates and a louder cheer was rarely heard in the whole season at the soon-to-be KP Stadium, a reaction which demonstrated his popularity at the club.

The pre-season money available to Eriksson for new signings always seemed likely to create problems for Abe. As the least conspicuous of existing midfielders (Wellens’ Hollywood passes and King’s goals hogging the headlines), the arrival of Neil Danns, Gelsen Fernandes and Michael Johnson meant he was seemingly well down the pecking order. Abe did, though, start the first game of the season against Coventry City and went on to feature semi-regularly until Eriksson’s sacking in mid October. Despite a recent, brief return to the side under Nigel Pearson, his days looked numbered from the moment Eriksson, clearly a fan, left the club.

Now, at 30 years old and apparently homesick, Yuki has been allowed to leave the club. It’s a move that makes sense for both parties; Pearson is rebuilding a clearly unbalanced squad in his own image, the signing of Danny Drinkwater demonstrating his intent to sign young, hungry, preferably British players which he can develop, while Abe apparently still has family commitments in Saitama City, a place where he is still adored by Urawa Reds fans.

Nonetheless, this not unexpected move still arrives with some sadness. Yuki was loved, perhaps primarily, for how un-Championship, how…un-Leicester…he was. He isn’t particularly quick, nor particularly strong. He doesn’t score goals, like Andy King, or play defence splitting passes like Richie Wellens. He doesn’t beat his man and swing in a cross of pinpoint accuracy like Steve Guppy did, or shout and bawl and scrap like Neil Lennon. Abe, quite simply, knew his strengths and played to them. His positioning was excellent, consistently intercepting balls and allowing the rest of the team to regroup before playing a simple pass forwards or sideways to more creative players. He was rarely booked, his tackling unerringly accurate. His floppy, bowl-cut hair and unassuming demeanour made him seem like either the quietly popular friend of the main Jock from an early 90s Californian teen comedy or a visitor from a more peaceful and prosperous future. I could never quite decide which.

If you’re reading this site, you’re probably a Leicester City fan. We’ve had brilliant players, we’ve had bloody terrible players. Generally, you love the greats and put up with the rest. But sometimes, a player comes along who, for no obvious reason, strikes a chord. You might follow his career with interest even after he leaves the club, or find yourself defending his performances, even when you know he’s been below par. You find yourself watching his curling free-kicks for his previous club on Youtube and cursing the manager for never giving him the opportunity to do the same here. You’re disappointed when another player signs in the same position.

For me, Yuki Abe was that player. He’ll never go down as one of the best, but he’ll be remembered very fondly indeed. Gambatte, Yuki. I hope you know you were appreciated.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

2011 Review: Five defining moments

No.1, 12th February: Andy King scores City’s second in a 2-0 win at Derby

The first two months of 2011 were Salad Days for Sven Goran Eriksson’s Leicester side, winning 7 of their first 8 league games of the year. January’s loan signings had settled into the team well; particularly Manchester City academy graduate Ben Mee and Yakubu, who racked up 11 goals in his 20 games for the club.

The pinnacle came during a first half at Pride Park where the Foxes absolutely outclassed their hosts with a scintillating display of counter-attacking football in a late Saturday evening televised fixture. City’s second goal, in first half injury time, was magnificent. Goalkeeper Ricardo rolled the ball out to Ben Mee. He played it forward to Yakubu, who had dropped deep to almost the centre half, dragging his marker with him in the process. Yakubu knocked a short, first-time ball to Patrick Van Aanholt, who pushed it forward to Gallagher. The Scot then played a perfectly weighted ball into the 18-yard box, where Andy King had emerged behind the Derby defence and proceeded to poke the ball past the onrushing Rams goalkeeper. From Mee to goal, the move took 8 seconds.

Leicester were bottom when Mr Eriksson arrived and now found themselves just four points away from the play-off places. It had been a long time since City fans had seen football this positive, performances this fluid, players this…good. Unfortunately many of those players weren’t actually employed by Leicester City and are no longer playing for the club. The form of early 2011 was like the financial bubble of the mid 00s – not at all sustainable, but bloody good fun at the time.

No.2, 22nd April: Chris Weale flaps, Forest end City’s play-off hopes

Fast forward two and a bit months from that wonderful night at Pride Park and Leicester’s play-off hopes were on the ropes. In a topsy-turvy Good Friday game at the City Ground, of all places, they were finally KO’d. Forest were 3 points ahead of the Foxes coming into the game and City knew that only a win would keep them within touching distance of the top 6.

After coming from behind twice, first through a Matt Oakley strike and later through Darius Vassell’s goal just a minute later than Forest’s second, City threw the game away, as was far too common in 2011, with a heartbreaking individual error. Paul McKenna’s shot on the volley was well-struck but moving at anything but breakneck speed as it bobbled innocuously toward the diving Chris Weale. Weale was clearly hypnotised by McKenna, as he inexplicably dived over the ball, otherwise known as ‘throwing a Taibi’ . This error completed a miserable season for the City keeper, who had seen himself replaced as first choice by a series of loan signings, returning only to the starting line-up only when they had proven themselves to be even more incompetent than he.

More importantly, Leicester had lost a crucial game at the home of their hated neighbours and play-off rivals and a promotion which had seemed utterly implausible in October had indeed proven to be just beyond the Foxes.

No.3, 31st August, Transfer deadline day: Beckford signs

Leicester’s search for a striker to complement David Nugent, who had arrived on a free at the start of the summer transfer window, had gone from exciting, through intriguing and, by deadline day, to just plain frustrating. Eriksson’s two premier targets had slipped through the net; Craig Maikail-Smith making a somewhat surprising move to newly-promoted Brighton and Nicky Maynard staying put, or being forced to stay put, at Bristol City.

City’s start to the 2011-12 season had done nothing to assuage fears that the side lacked the firepower required to mount a serious promotion challenge, home defeats to Reading and Bristol City following a tight 1-0 win away at Coventry on the opening day. A new striker was seen by many City fans as the golden bullet – if only we had someone to convert all those chances the team had been creating, we’d clearly be taking up our rightful place at the top of the table.

On Transfer deadline day, Wednesday 31 August, Sven Goran Eriksson finally signed his second frontman. Everton’s David Moyes, struggling with crippling financial restrictions placed on him by the club, took the £2.5m bait for Jermaine Beckford, a player who had performed solidly if not spectacularly in his first season at the club after his contract ended at Leeds United. The move smacked of desperation for both clubs; Everton needed the money, Leicester needed a ‘proven’ striker who could jumpstart a stuttering season.

Like most deadline day panic buys (take a bow, messrs Torres and Carrol), the transfer was not properly thought through. Beckford is a pouncer, a decent finisher who specialises in running off the last man. He thrives on decent service, from wide or from a No.10 who can weight through balls accurately. He is not, however, a particularly creative player – not someone who, like Adel Taarabt for QPR last season, or Adam Lallana for Southampton this term, can create something out of nothing, provide a spark to a team otherwise toiling. Beckford was never going to provide the quick fix so desired by Mr Eriksson and has been unfairly scapegoated by some City fans who see him as lazy and arrogant. Frankly, Beckford was the wrong man at the very wrong time and redemption under Nigel Pearson seems unlikely – it will be no surprise to see Beckford if leaves the club in January.

No.4, 16th October: Matt Mills sent off against Birmingham

Despite the aforementioned mediocre start to the 2011-12 season, Leicester had actually managed to establish some consistency prior to their televised Sunday afternoon visit to St Andrews in mid-October. Unbeaten in seven and with a defence not breached since 10th September, the Foxes went into the game in confident mood. Two weeks prior, before the international break, City had walloped Derby for the second time this year, this time doubling their money with a convincing 4-0 victory.

A key factor in Leicester’s mini-revival had been the improving form of Matt Mills, signed for a club record-equalling £5m in the summer. City fans were left wondering exactly how that figure had been calculated after some early season performances which left Mills looking like a shadow of the player who had almost captained Reading to the Premier League. Four clean sheets in a row prior to the Birmingham game had seen Mills establish a pleasing partnership with Sol Bamba however, Bamba’s maverick, roaming style complementing Mills’ more no-nonsense, body-on-the-line approach.

Mills’ wild, two footed lunge on Morgaro Gomis, though not particularly malicious, was deserving of the red card which followed. City were already 1-0 down and the sending off effectively killed the game and went some way towards ending Sven Goran Eriksson’s year-long occupation of the manager’s chair. A dull 2-0 win over Watford followed, with a dire 3-0 home defeat to Millwall sealing the Swede’s fate.

As I argued at the time, Mills’s sending off at St Andrews set the wheels in motion for the somewhat hasty sacking of our cuban-heeled European friend. Despite Mills’ obvious shortcomings, Leicester have looked significantly more secure with him at the heart of the defence and the two biggest wobble periods of the season have coincided with his absence through suspension. One wonders how the season so far may have panned out had City finished the game against Birmingham with 11 men.

No.5, 15th November: Pearson returns

Most Leicester fans were pretty upset when Nigel Pearson was seemingly forced out of the club in June 2010. Following two years of consistent improvement and considerable over-achievement in reaching the play-offs in City’s first season back in the Championship, Pearson suffered the indignity of seeing his successor Paolo Sousa manoeuvred into position via an invitation to the semi-final second leg against Cardiff. Pearson’s face apparently didn’t fit for the club’s new Thai owners. They wanted a bigger name, and the Champions League-winning Sousa fitted the bill.

Almost 18 months later, that commonly rehearsed narrative turned out not to be the case at all. Milan Mandaric’s strained relationship with Pearson had come to a head at the end of the 2009-10 season and he took the arrival of new investors as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean; the Raksriaksorn family were left to rue this decision as first Sousa and then Eriksson failed to deliver the consistency required for a sustained promotion challenge.

Pearson’s return makes sense in hindsight – despite the mediocre start to his second spell at the club, he clearly should never have been allowed to leave and most City fans back the opportunity he has been given to carry on his good work. At the time his name was first associated with a return however (almost two weeks before his eventual confirmed appointment), it came as a real shock. From the sublime (Martin O’Neill) to the ridiculous (Steve McLaren), at times it seemed every unemployed manager in Europe was having his hat thrown into the ring. At one point, Huddersfield’s Lee Clark looked nailed on as betting was suspended. Pearson appeared happy at Hull City and looked to be turning his young team into decent play-off contenders, but the temptation of a return to the club where he made his managerial name was too much to resist.

Fellow Leicester fan David Bevan of The Seventy Two accurately described the emotions of many City fans in this article . Pearson’s performance so far has been disappointing, but he will get more patience from fans than most managers due to his achievements in his first spell at the club.

The current league position suggests this may be a lofty hope rather than a realistic aim, but can we dream that the most significant date of 2012 will be 19th May, the date of the Championship play-off final?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2011 Review: What’s Eating Leicester City?

This article appeared originally on the Slide Rule Pass site.

On 30th July 2011, Leicester City faced Real Madrid in a pre-season friendly which served as a statement of intent for the Foxes’ Thai owners. The Raksriaksorn family, who made their millions from the King Power duty free company, took over the club before the 2010-11 season and had already overseen huge investment in an increasingly bloated squad under the management of Sven Goran Eriksson. Leicester were among pundits’ favourites for promotion to the Premier League; attracting Mourinho, Ronaldo and co to Leicestershire was supposed to be the first step in a casual waltz to the Premier League under the sexy football and charismatic leadership of the former England manager.

Fast forward six months and Leicester are languishing in mid-table, Eriksson is unemployed and City fans, so optimistic on that balmy day one week before the start of the league season, are frustrated. Nigel Pearson, forced out of the club he had taken to the play-off semi-finals in 2010, has returned to the newly-renamed King Power 18 months after his controversial departure.

The replacement of Eriksson, the charming, cuban-heeled, multi-linguist globetrotter, with the tough, dour, classic English centre-half Pearson signalled a policy shift from the Leicester board. Last season under the Swede was a whirlwind of high-scoring victories and calamitous defeats, the Foxes falling just short of the play-offs. Premier League loan after Premier League loan arrived, the likes of Yakubu, Curtis Davies and Diomansy Kamara adding glamour to a ragtag bunch of old Pearson favourites and remnants of the short-lived reign of Paolo Sousa. The football flowed and the champagne was expected to follow. After a mediocre start to this season, however, the Raksriaksorn’s acted quickly, ending the Sven experiment and opting for a comparitively experienced Championship campaigner who was quietly moulding his Hull City side into a useful outfit with hopes of a play-off place.

So far, however, Pearson’s return has failed to have the required effect. After an impressive start, securing seven points from a possible nine, City have stalled, losing away at Hull and lowly Doncaster and only drawing at home against Peterborough. Inconsistency reigns – Leicester have failed to win two league games in a row this season.

Pearson should, and will, be given time to turn things around. He retains great affection from fans for his considerable achievements in his previous period at the club and is widely respected for the way in which he handled his enforced departure under Milan Mandaric’s chairmanship. Significant funds will be at the manager’s disposal in the January transfer window; another reason for Leicester fans, with relegation to the third tier still fresh in the memory, to remain thankful. There does though remain the look of a club that is overburdened by expectation – desperate to get to the promised land of the Premier League, it weighs heavy on the shoulders of fans and players. The likes of Richie Wellens and last season’s top scorer Andy King look shadows of their former selves, terrified of failure and unwilling to take risks. The swelling club coffers were supposed to bring excitement and success; the result has instead been bickering on the forums and the terraces, and mediocre football on the pitch. Lloyd Dyer’s punt past Iker Casillas seems a lifetime ago.

Despite this apparent misery, Leicester could still mount a decent challenge for promotion. While the automatic places look out of reach, City are only five points off the play-offs and, with the aforementioned riches, will surely end January with a stronger squad than at present. In the Championship, any club putting a mini run together can hurl themselves into a decent position, as Hull City have recently shown.

Whatever the circumstances, promotion to the Premier League would feel sweet after almost ten years in the wilderness. But, for me, the happiness would be a little hollow. This is not 2002-03, when Micky Adams’ led a threadbare squad through administration and into automatic promotion. This is not the Blue Army renaissance of the early nineties, when Brian Little won promotion through the play-offs at the third attempt. This is not Middlesbrough, performing miracles with a young team of hometown boys, or Southampton, making the seamless transition from League One champions to Championship leaders at Christmas with limited investment. This is pound after cynical pound thrown at a club where enjoyment has been replaced by massive expectation.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pearson’s Return – Who Wins? Who’s Off?

A phenomenal number of personnel changes have taken place in the 18 months or so since Nigel Pearson was last manager of Leicester City. Kyle Naughton, Manuel Vitor, Yakubu, Jeffrey Bruma and Ben Mee all came and went. Jack Hobbs, Martyn Waghorn and Matty Fryatt, all Pearson stalwarts, must feel like some of the unluckiest footballers in the country after following their man East only for him to leave them behind once again. Sven Goran Eriksson’s signings will, meanwhile, be wondering what the future holds under the new boss.

One game into Pearson Era No.2, who has been sobbing down the phone to Eriksson at 3am and who has been flirting with the new boss?

Apparently Moreno is still at the club, by the way. No, really.

The Winners
Matt Mills
Huge cliche this, but Matt Mills is a Nigel Pearson kind of player. A strong, brave, old-fashioned centre half, Mills fits in to Pearson’s philosophy that the first job of a defender is to defend. In Pearson’s last spell at the club, he brought in the hoary, experienced Wayne Brown to complement the raw talent of the young Jack Hobbs. Despite a collective lack of pace, they forged an impressive partnership in the 2009-2010 season. Mills could be Pearson Mk2’s Brown. Without the (alleged) racism, hopefully.

Andy King
King, despite showing sporadic glimpses of the form that brought him 16 goals in 2010-11, has started to look an increasingly frustrated (and frustrating) figure in the Leicester midfield. A victim of Erikkson’s failure to settle on a consistent midfield formula, King’s late, Lampard-esque bursts into the box have become less frequent. Pearson’s return should see King once again become a focal point of the attack, although the lack of width at the club this season could continue to trouble the Welshman.

David Nugent
Nugent has been one of the few unqualified success stories of Eriksson’s signings. A mobile, hard-working, excellent finisher, Nugent resembles Matty Fryatt without the flat feet and extended bouts of depression. Still only 26 as well. Phwoar.

The Losers

Yuki Abe
Poor Yuki Abe. A calm, classy, international midfield stopper, English football’s lack of respect for the ‘unseen’ has seen Abe drift away from the first team and, since his return from international duty last month, he’s barely even seen the bench. Pearson seems unlikely to be the man to revive Abe’s fortunes. Favouring graft over the type of sweatless elegance purveyed by Abe, Pearson seems likely to opt for some form of Wellens/Danns/King/Johnson combo. Sigh. You may have noticed that I rather like Yuki Abe.

Jermaine Beckford
Portraying Pearson as some kind of Howard Wilkinson-style maverick dismisser is wide of the mark, but his treatment of DJ Campbell and Max Gradel go some way to showing us how Beckford might fare under his reign. So far, Beckford looks like the archetypal deadline day panic buy, struggling first to fit into a system he has been shoehorned into and then feeling the wrath of City fans for failing to even put in much of a shift in recent weeks. Beckford does, however, have the advantage of being more of a Pearson kind of player than both Campbell and Gradel. Strong and physical, he could benefit from the more direct style likely to be employed by his new manager. An awful lot depends on how much Beckford fancies the challenge. His goal against Palace last weekend was a good start to the redemption process.

Gelsen Fernandes
After a brief period as a fans favourite at the King Power, a position achieved largely through wild lunges and lots of running about, Fernandes has been well and truly off the radar since Eriksson’s departure; he has not made the 16-man squad since the 3-0 defeat to Millwall which ended the Swede’s reign. Turns out we’ve got too many central midfielders. Who knew, eh? Never as vociferous a consumer of loan signings as Eriksson, expect Pearson to ship the Swiss back to Saint Etienne at the soonest possible opportunity.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Swede, Mills and the Damage Done

I had planned my first post here to be something suitably arch. Something about the unbearable lightness of being Richie Wellens, perhaps, or the time when my brother and I, aged 6 and 8, met Julian Joachim. Monday’s dismissal of Sven Goran Eriksson by Leicester City’s Thai owners means the site kick offs on a more sombre note.

Just three weeks ago, I wrote a guest post for Foxblogger critiquing Eriksson’s first year in charge of the club. Like most supporters, I was cautiously optimistic about the direction in which the club was heading and, despite an inconsistent start to the season, backed the manager. At the time of writing, following an emphatic 4-0 win over Derby County, Leicester were unbeaten in seven games and looking formidable. David Nugent had returned to the side with vigour, Matt Mills and Sol Bamba had forged a secure looking partnership in central defence and the much-debated diamond system seemed to be offering a flexible and dynamic solution to the midfield dilemma.

Then, Matt Mills got himself sent off.

Prior to Mills’ needless two-footed lunge on Morgaro Gomis at St Andrews, the Bamba-Mills juggernaut had not conceded from open play in over 450 minutes, a record dating back to Barnsley at Oakwell on 10th September. Leicester limped to a 2-0 defeat against Birmingham, with Mills banned for the following three games. A comfortable victory but lifeless performance against Watford was followed by the horror show that was Saturday’s 3-0 home defeat to Millwall, and that was the end of the Sven Goran Eriksson roadshow (East Midlands leg).

Of course, the blame cannot be placed at the sizeable feet of one, expensively-bought man. But Mills’ malaise this season tells us a lot about the departure of the man who brought him to the club and made him captain. A club record signing, Mills has, at times, looked no better than his predecessor Jack Hobbs; a ‘hoofer’ in the eyes of many fans, the man Nigel Pearson signed from Liverpool looked like Franz Beckenbauer in comparison with Mills’ early season performances against Barnsley and Reading. Mills did improve and, as his confidence grew, so did the team’s; the rolling cast of midfield sitters feeling able to get forward quicker and more often, cushioned by the security behind them. The Birmingham debacle demonstrated his propensity for hot-head moments and, though the size of his transfer fee was no fault of his own, Mills’ demeanour has been of someone who is overburdened by being overvalued.

For Mills at the back: read Jermaine Beckford up top. Beckford was hailed as a last-ditch coup; Everton’s top scorer last season snatched from under their desperate noses by the snotty rich kids from the division below. The Londoner has flattered to deceive, though, with Sven’s now-regular withdrawal of his services early in the second half indicating the Swede’s decreasing faith in the player. Indeed, the purchase of Beckford looks increasingly like a signing that happened because it could, rather than the result of any grand transfer policy. The failure to sign Craig Mackail-Smith, now enjoying life on the south coast, and long-term target Nicky Maynard, now looks negligent rather than merely unfortunate.

Eriksson’s big-money signings have been his achilles heel and what he has ultimately been judged on by the Raksriaksorn family owners. Conversely, his budget signings and transformation of previously unheralded squad players was impressive. Kasper Schmeichel and Lee Peltier have been unqualified successes; young players bought cheap, both of whom will go to play on in the Premier League, with Leicester or otherwise. David Nugent looks a class act on the verge of resurrecting his career. Darius Vassell and, to a lesser extent, Yuki Abe, have established themselves as manager’s favourites and key components of the squad.

So, as I offered just after that jubilant, unseasonably warm early-October demolition of Derby, we were only just getting to know Sven Goran Eriksson as Championship club manager. And now, we never will. Not since Mark McGhee, to my mind, has a manager so split the City fans. Like McGhee, Eriksson occasionally got his teams playing sensational football, sometimes came across as aloof, suffered the righteous fury of the Radio Leicester phone-in after almost every defeat and the equally vociferous backing of his cheerleaders. The Swede, however, suffered a final fate more familiar to Peter Taylor – undone by an over-inflated transfer fee and the misguided largesse of the club’s owners.

Ultimately, Sven retained the support of the majority of the fans and the feeling amongst most is of sincere disappointment that his project will not be followed through to completion. A horrible feeling of ‘here we go again’ prevails. It’s hard not to believe Sven’s glories and troubles will simply be transferred to another chancer on the Leicester City gameshow; the current frustrations simply replaced by alternative ways to throw away a lead, shoot oneself in the foot and fail to beat apparently inferior opposition.

Farewell then, Sven. We hardly knew you at all.


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

An Introduction…

You won’t find comprehensive reports and analysis on this blog. We’ll leave that to the likes of the excellent Foxblogger and the equally fantastic The Seventy Two.

Instead, The Fox Pass will focus on the slightly odd distractions that permeate football supporters’ thinking. Long-retired and oft-forgotten former players. Seemingly irrelevant yet somehow life-changing games. The striking physical similarity between Steve Howard and Josh Homme.

I’m a Leicester City fan and, inevitably, the blog will have a Leicester City bias. However, I’ll also be discussing the ups and downs of my second team, Guiseley AFC, as well as hosting guest posts from fans of Leeds United, Wolverhampton Wanderers and any other bugger that wants to get involved.

Feedback is always welcome. Get in touch with us at thefoxpass@gmail.com or @thefoxpass.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment