Tony Knapp

Former Player Remembers: Tony Knapp

Tony Knapp was a classy centre-half who played for Leicester City between 1953 and 1961.
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Earlier this month, from his home in Norway, Tony spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his distinguished career in football, both as a player and a manager.

While at Filbert Street, he represented the Football League and was selected for an England squad.

Tony later spent six years at Southampton, played in the USA, and managed at club level in Iceland and Norway, where he won the league and cup double with Viking Stavanger.

He also spent two spells managing the Iceland national team. 

Nottinghamshire-born Tony began by explaining how he came to join Leicester City in December 1953 as a 17-year-old.

“Clubs have scouts all over the country who are on the lookout for promising players, especially young ones,” he said. “That’s what happened to me. Leicester City contacted me and asked me to join the Club. I was brought up as a coal miner working at the coalface. Once you’ve worked down there, in that environment, it makes you realise how lucky you are to have a little bit of talent.

“In the season I joined, Leicester got promoted to the First Division. I can still remember the team. They had some great players like Arthur Rowley, Mal Griffiths and Johnny Morris, who was world-class.

“Unlike other players, I didn’t have to do National Service. At that time I had a speech impediment and the Army said that if I joined the forces, I would have a nightmare, with people taking the micky and people not understanding me, so I didn’t have to go!”

Tony went on to recall his first team debut, which was against Stoke City at the Victoria Ground in February 1956: “I remember it well. You always remember your debut. Today, they probably wouldn’t have told me that I was playing until the morning of the game, but they told me the night before and, of course, I couldn’t sleep.”

City were promoted back to the old First Division as Second Division champions in 1957. The Club narrowly avoided relegation in their first year back in the top flight.

The following season, in November 1958, Matt Gillies was appointed manager at Filbert Street. Over the next two years he started rebuilding the side, laying the foundations for the successful sides of the 1960s.

He gave debuts to the likes of Gordon Banks, Richie Norman, Frank McLintock and Ian White. Tony was an important part of this rebuilding process. He became a regular at the start of the 1958 season when David Halliday was the manager and continued as Gillies’ first choice centre-back for the next two-and-a-half seasons.

I just wanted to play. I knew that I was in the England picture and that if I was to get into the England team I had to play.

Tony Knapp

Tony’s classy performances in 1959/60, when he was a virtual ever-present in the Leicester City side attracted national attention, as he recalled: “We had some good players in the side. Frank (McLintock) in particular was a very good player and a nice guy as well. He was a journalistic star wasn’t he? He was the big man at the Club. I was starting to get mentioned as a young player and in March 1960, I was selected for the Football League against the Scottish League in a match at Highbury. I began to think: ‘Well, I’m arriving’. For me, who had a speech impediment at that particular time, it was a tough time, but a great time.

“At the start of the 1960/61 season, I was called up to the 14-man England squad for matches against Spain and Hungary. I’ve still got the England badge on my wall at home.”

In November 1960, Ian suffered a knee injury and Ian King came into the side in his place.

“Ian was a good player,” Tony said. “I think he had a direct influence on me being a good player because I felt threatened by him every time I saw him play. I thought: ‘Well, I don’t want to get injured because he’s going to come in’. Sure enough, that’s exactly what he did!

“This meant that I missed out on the 1961 FA Cup Final against Spurs. At that particular time it was a terrible thing to not play. But when I look back, it was insignificant really because although I missed the cup final, it was only one match out of all of the matches that I played in.”

That summer, after going on Leicester City’s tour to South Africa and Rhodesia, Tony left Filbert Street having played 92 games for the Club. It was reported that he turned down a move to Chelsea and that there was also interest from Liverpool, but in August 1961 he moved to Southampton, for £27,500. This was a record incoming fee at the time for City.

“I didn’t get much of that money,” Tony laughed, before explaining why he moved to the Dell. “I wasn’t like a present day player who thinks about money. I just wanted to play. I knew that I was in the England picture and that if I was to get into the England team I had to play. I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t think: ‘Oh well, I don’t want to go to Southampton.’ I needed to play. Southampton is a lovely part of the world. You couldn’t get a better manager than Batesy (Ted Bates). He was tremendous and he made me captain straightaway. I enjoyed my time there and I still have a home there. My ex Leicester City team-mate Ian White was already at Southampton. I liked him. He was a great lad. He was a good player as well. I think he was so underrated. 

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Tony Knapp
Tony Knapp

Knapp in action for Leicester City, with Gordon Banks in goal.

“Terry Paine (who became a member of the England World Cup winning squad in 1966) was also there. He was a very talented player. There was no doubt about his ability. It was whether he could perform week in, week out. He wasn’t just a talented individual. He wasn’t one of those players who just played for himself. He played for the team. Without realising it, we got to rely on him. He was class.”

After six seasons with the Saints, Tony’s next move was to Coventry City in August 1967. They had just been promoted to the old First Division under the innovative and charismatic Jimmy Hill.

He explained: “I spent a year at Coventry. It was a good experience for me because they were a different sort of club from Southampton. They were very professional, which isn’t to say that Southampton weren’t. There was something about Coventry and Jimmy Hill. If you weren’t intelligent, you would think that he had a big head, but that wasn’t really the case. He just believed. I learnt a lot from him even though I was over 30. I learnt that you had to believe in your own ability. He certainly did! He wouldn’t have survived in his career had he not believed in his own ability.”

Tony’s next move, in March 1968, was to Los Angeles Wolves, who that year were founder members of the North American Soccer League (NASL). The team was coached by the ex-England international Ronnie Allen and the ex-Manchester United goalkeeper Ray Wood, and in his season at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Tony made 30 appearances.

Thinking back, Tony remembered: “You would laugh at some of the things we had to put up with. I love America. I think they are first-class when it comes to sport. That’s been proved the world over, with the amount of world champions they have. I had a great time in LA and made some tremendous friends there.”

Nearing the end of his playing career, Tony had spells at Bristol City and Tranmere Rovers in 1969 and 1970 before becoming player manager at Poole Town in 1971.

“I often wonder what the word contrast means, but if you want a contrast, that was it,” Tony laughed. “One day you are an England player and the next day you’re at Poole Town!”

Tony then went on to make his mark in Icelandic and Norwegian football.

Whilst managing KR Reykjavik in 1974 he was approached to become the Icelandic national manager.

“I was doing quite well at Reykjavic,” Tony explained. “When I got this phone call. It was someone called Ellert Schram from the Icelandic FA. They said that they wanted to offer me the job of Icelandic National Coach. I was a bit naïve and until he mentioned it, I hadn’t realised that Iceland that year were going to play in the pre-qualifying rounds of the World Cup. I thought: ‘I can’t miss out on that!’ If you get the chance of playing in the World Cup or the European Championships, you know you are going to be playing the top teams in the world, like Germany, France and Belgium. You name it, we played them!

“Icelandic players have got a very strong character. When I saw them making sure that opposition players didn’t get any freedom, I loved it, I really did. They have this mindset that they're as good as anybody.

What really impressed me was how important the Club was to the people of Leicester. Whenever you were walking about in the street, or shopping, people would stop and talk to you. It was brilliant.

Tony Knapp

“In 1978, I became manager at Viking Stavanger in Norway. I didn’t know anything about Norwegian football and I didn’t know that they were a very big club. We won the league and cup double in 1979. I had to be strong mentally because they wanted to run the club in the way they thought it should be run and I had to point out: ‘Well, you haven’t won anything for the last few years.’”

As well as managing Stavanger, Tony also worked at three other leading Norwegian clubs, Fredrikstadt FK, Vidar Stavanger and SK Brann. He also had a second spell managing the Icelandic national team in the mid 1980s. Tony still lives in Norway, having spent the best part of 30 years coaching a number of other Norwegian teams until he retired in 2008.

During this time he had considered coaching in England.

“I made the mistake of thinking my results in Iceland would get me a job in England,” he said. “But I didn’t bother pursuing this. I just thought that if English clubs were interested, they only had to look at my record, which would speak for itself. Norway is my home. I have a wife and children and good friends here. I live in a little community near Stavanger called Jørpeland. It’s lovely here.”

Tony concluded by reflecting back on his time at Leicester City.

“I still put that period of my life at the top of the list,” he said. “I remember the great players at Filbert Street at the time, like Frank McLintock and Gordon Banks, who was the best goalkeeper I ever played with. What really impressed me was how important the Club was to the people of Leicester. Whenever you were walking about in the street, or shopping, people would stop and talk to you. It was brilliant. I had a mining background. My father was also a miner and he loved it because I was a footballer, but my background meant that I never got carried away. Some pros fly high and then come back down to earth with a bump. I never flew. I think, looking back, if I’d have had the confidence I should have had as a player, I’d have been a better player.”

By saying this, Tony was being harsh on himself. His classy playing performances at the highest level and his distinguished coaching career were very impressive indeed.

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