He made his debut against a star-studded Chelsea side in 1998 having recovered from breaking his leg in 10 places. From his home in North Carolina, the former Foxes midfielder spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his career in football.
Stef is remembered as an intelligent attacking left-sided player who could score goals, spray passes and whip in free kicks to great effect. Thinking back to his time as a first teamer, he said that making his Leicester City debut against the Blues was one of the best days of his life.
During his time at Filbert Street he came up against the best players in the Premier League in a journey which started as a nine year-old.
“I was with Leicester City from the age of nine,” he remembered. “I played Sunday League matches for Birstall United, which is where I’m from. A guy called Len Mawby scouted me. He got me to Leicester City, where I was at the School of Excellence with Neville Hamilton. I stayed there, signed schoolboy forms, and then I did my two-year youth training scheme with David Nish (who had captained Leicester City in the 1969 FA Cup Final). He was my youth team coach. Chris Tucker (currently an Under-23s coach at the Club) was around then too. It just went from there.”
Stef’s ambition was to sign professional forms at the end of his two-year training period, but he suffered a huge career-threatening setback.
He continued: “When I was in my second year of YTS, I made it into the first team squad. I was given the no.34 shirt. Although I was in the squad, I was still playing for the youth team. We had a youth team fixture at home against Aston Villa and in that game, I broke my leg in 10 places! One of their guys had the ball and I put leg in front of him. I knew he was going to hit my leg but I was doing it so that he could hit my leg and I could take the ball away from him. It wasn’t really a tackle. I knew he was going to hit my leg but I didn’t realise how hard he would hit it. I had six breaks on the tibia and four on the fibula. The doctor said he didn’t think I’d play again. I didn’t have any pins. He just left it to heal.
The Leicester youngster quickly became a regular for City after recovering from injury.
“That injury was near to the time when we were due to be told whether or not we were going to get a professional contract. Martin O’Neill said to me whilst I was in the hospital that he would give me a one-year contract and that I had to prove my fitness. He could have just basically said: ‘Go. You’re done’.
“It took me about nine months to get back. I worked really hard to regain fitness, and when I did I was probably stronger than before. The first team physio Mick Yeoman helped me so much to get back to where I had been. O’Neill had given me the chance and it was life changing.”
Stef made his Leicester debut in November 1998, soon after his 20th birthday. He came on as a substitute in a Premier League home match against Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea.
“I was on the bench,” Stef remembered. “Before that, I had travelled a couple of times with the first team. I was in the squad but hadn’t made the bench. I was just travelling on the bus and making the teas for players like Walshie (Steve Walsh). Then I was told I was sub against Chelsea at home.
“There were some good players in that Chelsea side and I remember all of them. They had players like [Gianfranco] Zola, [Marcel] Desailly, [Gus] Poyet, [Roberto] Di Matteo and [Graeme] Le Saux. I came on at around the 70th minute. I was warming up on the side of the pitch and O’Neill shouted across to me. Obviously I was nervous. As I was running down the side of the pitch, the fans were geeing me up and then I came on. The first thing I did was tackle Desailly. I hit him hard and I won the tackle. My adrenalin had kicked in. This revved the crowd up. We lost the game 4-2 but my mum was there and it made me proud.”
Stef also had a couple more starts that season in games against Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest. At the end of that year, he won the Young Player of the Year Award.
“That year, I was playing in the reserves, but training with the first team,” he added. “I was doing really well in the reserves and that’s what gave me my chance in the first team. I think I was probably the only one to break into the first team that year. Emile [Heskey] was already playing by then. Stu Campbell and Stu Wilson were around at that time too. I got the award and that was brilliant.”
The following season (1999/2000) was Stef’s breakthrough season. He made 32 first team appearances.
These included seven of the eight games in the run which culminated in him playing at Wembley in the League Cup Final.
“In the run to Wembley, I scored two at home against Crystal Palace and missed a penalty!” he recalled. “That was the start of the run. Then there were the penalty shootouts against Leeds and Fulham. Those games leading up to the big semi-finals against Aston Villa were a bit of a blur. We played Villa in two legs, beating them 1-0 on aggregate. I hit the post in the home leg.
Stef in action against Chelsea for Leicester.
“When we got to Wembley, some thought maybe the game might be too big for me, that I wouldn’t play and that they would put [Andy] Impey at right-back and [Robbie] Savage in the middle. Martin used to tell us the team the night before and then name the subs on the day of the match. When he read the team out my heart was pounding. I was selected! He said: ‘Why would I not play you? You have done a great job’.
“Going up to Wembley and looking at all those flags on Wembley Way was another one of the best days of my life. We beat Tranmere Rovers 2-1. Matt Elliott scored twice and they had a player sent off. They also had Dave Challoner, who had a really long throw.
“Playing at Wembley had been my dream when I was growing up. This League Cup win at Wembley was the last final there before it was knocked down. Looking back, I was on a buzz going to the game. I was trying to take it in but the game itself is a little bit of a blur. You want to turn time back and relive it again. It was such a big occasion. You are trying to concentrate and take everything in as well and it is difficult.”
At the end of that season, O’Neill left Leicester City to manage Glasgow Celtic. Stef had seen this coming.
He explained: “I knew he was going to go somewhere else because he was such a good manager. The big guns were going to come calling for him. I knew he would go and I was just hoping someone would come in who would like me. Peter Taylor arrived. I’m not saying he didn’t like me but he liked other people more. You are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. That’s the way football is. Players like Stan Collymore, Tony Cottee and Steve Walsh left the Club.”
In an interview for the CITY Matchday Magazine in 2012, O’Neill said that when he left Filbert Street, Leicester were good enough to be a top-six side and Stef echoed this.
“That team had great team spirit but it went downhill when O’Neill left,” he said. “Until Leicester won the Premier League in 2016, I think our team was one of the better Leicester teams, not necessarily technically, but with players fighting for each other. Everyone knew what they were doing. The organisation was good. But it changes when a different coach comes in.”
Stef added: “Bassett liked me because I could whip crosses in. I could take corners really well, was good at set pieces and could get the ball into the box. When Adams took over he didn’t really fancy me. I went on loan to Crewe and then I went to Walsall. I was there with Paul Merson and Colin Lee (who had been Mark McGhee’s assistant manager at Leicester in the mid '90s) was the coach. In my first full game, we lost 6-1 and I was sent off! I don’t know how! I don’t even tackle!
“I left after six months and went to Notts County managed by the ex-Leicester City player Gary Mills. I enjoyed it there. I scored some good goals at Notts County.”
Stef in action for the Foxes in the 2000 League Cup Final at Wembley.
One of these goals, a stunning strike against Yeovil Town, won him the Goal of the Year award at the inaugural Football League awards in 2007, by which time Stef had joined John Gorman’s Wycombe Wanderers. One of Stef’s highlights at Wycombe involved coming up against Chelsea again.
He recalled: “We lost to Chelsea in the semi-finals of the 2007 League Cup. We had already beaten Premier League clubs, Fulham and Charlton. We drew with Chelsea at home 1-1. We then went to Stamford Bridge. Andriy Shevchenko hadn’t scored for Chelsea for about 15 games, but one of our players gave him a pass back and he scored. This opened the floodgates for him and we got beaten 4-0.
“I enjoyed it at Wycombe, but we didn’t get promotion and I moved on again. Peter Jackson took me to Lincoln City. He got sacked and Chris Sutton, the ex-England and ex-Chelsea player, took over. I liked them both as coaches. I had worked really hard at Leicester but as I got older, I was sometimes seen as a lazy player. I wasn’t getting up and down the pitch as I had in the Premier League.
“Then I was out of contract and I was getting old! I went to Tamworth, managed by my old Notts County manager, Gary Mills. I really enjoyed that. I just wanted to play football. That’s what I loved doing. I don’t care if it was Tamworth or in Sunday League or on Vicky Park!”
Stef concluded by talking about his current life: “I’m living in North Carolina now. It’s beautiful here. It’s hot most of the time, it’s a beautiful area and the people are nice. I love America.
“My friend Sam Stockley, who I used to play with at Wycombe, came over to the USA before me. He created a programme out here called Elite Technique, which offers elite-level soccer training for boys and girls. He got me out here four years ago. The programme has got about 300 kids in it from the age of six to 18. Sam has moved on now so I am now director of the programme.”
Stef’s work doesn’t stop him from following Leicester City though: “I coach a lot but I can watch Leicester on the TV. The games are at either 7am or 11am! I also get to see the Match of the Day equivalent. Despite Leicester’s high profile, some Americans still call Leicester Lei-chester!
“I still see some of my old Leicester team-mates, like Matt Elliott and Tags (Gerry Taggart) when I come back to Leicester at Christmas.”
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