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.