Tony Cottee

Former Player Remembers: Tony Cottee

Earlier this season, Club Historian John Hutchinson met up with former England striker Tony Cottee to discuss his career, which saw him score 294 goals in 714 league and cup appearances.
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He played a combined total of over 350 games for Everton and Leicester City, aggregating a total of 133 goals for the two clubs. 

In 1988, Tony moved from West Ham United to Everton for a British record transfer fee. After further spells at Upton Park and in Malaysia, Tony then spent three years at Leicester, winning the League Cup with the Foxes in 2000, his first trophy in a lengthy top-level career. Tony began by explaining why he left his hometown club West Ham for Everton.

“I had a great time playing for West Ham,” he said. “In 1986, we finished third in the old Division One. I got the PFA Young Player of the Year award and was selected for the England squad. At this point, I naturally thought that West Ham were going to kick on, start to win cups, and maybe even win the league.

“However, for the next two seasons, West Ham struggled a bit. I was in the England squad, where the players were talking about playing in FA Cup finals, or winning the league, or winning the League Cup. 

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Tony Cottee

The London-born forward spent six years at Everton.

“That was really why I went to Everton. I wanted to kick on with my career. It was a very painful decision to leave my hometown club, but for the benefit of my career, I had to make a professional decision. So, in the summer of 1988 I put in a transfer request. Arsenal, and Everton came in for me. I think most people felt as a London boy I would sign for Arsenal but I chose Everton, and the fee broke the British transfer record. 

“Everton’s club secretary told me the fee was £2.05M. West Ham had said I could leave if Everton matched the record fee that had recently taken Paul Gascoigne to Spurs. Everton paid £50,000 more than this. I didn’t particularly enjoy being a transfer record player as it put a lot of stress and pressure on me.

“On my Everton debut, I scored with my first touch after 34 seconds and went on to score a hat-trick in a 4-0 win! I say in jest that my Everton career peaked in my first game! I played over 200 games for Everton, but it was always going to be difficult to follow on from such a fantastic debut. It was a wonderful day but scoring a hat-trick on my debut as a British transfer record signing put immense pressure on me, as fans expected me to get a hat-trick every week!

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Martin O'Neill and Tony Cottee

O'Neill consoles Cottee after the final defeat by Tottenham, which the striker thought was his last shot at silverware.

“In my first season at Everton, I scored a couple of goals at Wembley in the Full Members Cup Final, which was nice, but we lost 4-3 to Nottingham Forest.

“Then we got to the FA Cup Final against Liverpool. It was after the Hillsborough disaster, which made it a difficult and emotional experience. It was also a memorable one, because I played in my one and only FA Cup Final, which was really special in those days. We lost in extra-time but it was a great game. It was a celebration of everything that was great about Merseyside.

“I had a wonderful time at Everton. It was a great experience for me to be at such a big club. I had six-and-a-bit wonderful seasons there. I was their top scorer for five seasons. I scored 99 goals for the club. It’s frustrating that I didn’t get 100! I'm very proud of my time there.

“I can sum up my Everton career,” Tony joked. “Everton won the League in 1987. I joined in 1988. In my six years there, they didn't win anything. I left in 1994, and they won the FA Cup in 1995. It was the right club but just at the wrong time!”

In 1994, Tony moved back to Upton Park.

“I felt that I’d done as much as I could at Everton,” Tony explained. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd go back to West Ham, but Harry Redknapp re-signed me and I was their top scorer in the two years I was back there. I then signed for Selangor in Malaysia.”

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Emile Heskey, Matt Elliott, Tony Cottee & Andy Impey

Heskey, Cottee and Impey celebrate with Elliott, who scored a brace win the 2000 League Cup.

Reflecting on this move, Tony continued: “At the start of my third season back at West Ham, I got injured and, by the time I'd got back to fitness, I was pretty much sixth-choice striker. I was 31 and I wanted to play football. Then Harry told me he was going to have to sell me as the club needed the money.

“The only offer was from Selangor. It was a great experience. As a family, we used Malaysia as a base to go to wonderful places like Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Singapore, Bali, but I didn’t enjoy the football. The league had only been professional for three years, and it was completely different to what I'd been used to.

“Then my wife became pregnant and flew back to England, which meant I had about seven weeks out there on my own, probably the longest seven weeks of my life! I couldn’t wait to get back to England but never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd come back to the Premier League.”

The opportunity to do just that came when Martin O’Neill signed Tony for Leicester in August 1997.

“This move happened because my dad was an insurance broker,” Tony explained. “One of his clients since the early 1980s was Steve Walford, who was O’Neill’s right-hand man. In a chance conversation, Steve asked my dad how I was doing in Malaysia and when he heard that I wanted to come home, he said he would talk to Martin.  

“Wally then rang me up in Malaysia to tell me that Martin was interested. I thought he was winding me up, but he said a fee of £500,000 had been agreed and that Martin wanted to talk to me. I came back to England and met them at Watford Gap Service Station. Martin wrote down my terms and wages on a paper serviette. I didn’t have an agent but for me it was a no-brainer to sign for Leicester who were in the Premier League and were playing in Europe, having qualified for the UEFA Cup as League Cup holders. Because of the Heysel ban, I’d never played in Europe before. 

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Tony Cottee

Cottee left the Club shortly after Peter Taylor's arrival as manager.

“There were four other really good forwards at the club: Emile Heskey, Ian Marshall, Steve Claridge, and Graham Fenton, so I knew I might not be playing a lot of games. As I’d signed only a two-year contract, I didn’t want to give up the family home in Essex so, for three years, I commuted to Leicester. 

“I knew it would be tough to get into the team,” Tony continued. “I just wasn’t fit. In Malaysia, we trained for a different type of fitness because of the weather and I’d also missed most of Leicester’s pre-season. I was on the subs’ bench to start with. My debut was when I came off the bench for the famous 3-3 draw against Arsenal, when Dennis Bergkamp scored his hat-trick. 

“My first start was when we were beaten at Grimsby in the League Cup. At the end of the game, Martin worked his way round the dressing room, criticising every single player, and when he got to me he said: 'Tony, how much did I pay for you?' I looked at him and I went: '£500,000 boss'. He said: 'Well that was £500,000 too much!'

“A couple of weeks later, he sent me on loan to Trevor Francis’ Birmingham, to get back to match fitness. When I was recalled to Leicester, I still didn't play. Then we had a reserve game at Notts County on the Wednesday before the Manchester United game at Old Trafford. Martin got onto the team bus just before we were about to leave Filbert Street for Nottingham. He told me that he would play me at Old Trafford if I played well at Notts County. We beat Notts 1-0 and I scored the goal. True to his word, he played me on Saturday at Old Trafford. We won 1-0, and I scored the only goal.

“It was a great way to kick-start my career at Leicester. Then, of course, at the start of my second season (1998/99), I got into the team alongside Heskey, and I was a regular then for the next two seasons.”

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Tony Cottee

Cottee now regularly appears on LCFC TV and LCFC Radio, filmed and recorded at King Power Stadium.

In 1998/99, City finished 10th in the Premier League and reached the League Cup Final against Tottenham Hotspur, with Tony scoring in both legs of the semi-final against Sunderland. 

“I was voted Player of the Year that season by the fans, which was fantastic," Tony continued. “I think I got 16 goals, and we got to the League Cup Final against Spurs. Losing in injury time was a real frustration. I was feeling sorry for myself on the pitch at the end of the game. I’d worked for 16 years to win a trophy and this was my fourth Wembley defeat. I was crying my eyes out and then I felt this arm around me. It was Martin, who said: 'Don't worry, I promise that we'll be back next year'. 'Gaffer,' I said, 'I'm 33 years of age. We're not coming back next year'. He was true to his word, of course, and we beat Tranmere the following year, and I got my one and only winner’s medal. 

“Winning the League Cup in 2000 was a wonderful feeling for me. When I went to Leicester, I wasn’t sure what I’d achieve, but in the end I won my only trophy, scored my 200th league goal and scored for the first time at Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester United. I also played in Europe for the first time.” 

At the end of the 1999/2000 season, Tony’s time at Leicester was almost at an end. 

He added: “Emile left for Liverpool (in March 2000), which we all understood. When Martin left in the summer to go to Celtic, Steve Walsh and I wanted to continue Martin’s good work and we put in a presentation to be joint managers, with our plans for players we would sign. The directors were pleasantly surprised, but they had already decided that they were going to appoint Peter Taylor. When he came in, he wanted to deal with the younger players, which I understood but I think he probably saw me and Walshy as a threat. He couldn’t wait to get us out of the door! 

“It was a great shame. Everyone in football knows that I'm a West Ham man but I've got huge affection for Leicester City and for Everton as well and I feel l very proud and privileged to have played for three special clubs where I always tried to give 100 per cent.”

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