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.