Leicester City win the 1996 Play-Offs

When Time Stopped Still – Leicester Beat Palace At Wembley

On this day in 1996, Leicester City secured promotion to the Premier League in extraordinary circumstances, beating Crystal Palace in the First Division Play-Off Final, and commencing a vintage era.
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City went into the 1995/96 campaign combining the disappointment of suffering relegation from the Premier League with a steely resolve to make amends as quickly as possible. 

A troublesome season in the top-flight, which saw Brian Little leave the Club for Aston Villa in November, also ended with the Foxes finishing 19 points adrift of safety in 21st place. In the summer which followed, the financial hit of relegation was bypassed somewhat by the £3.25M sale of Mark Draper to Little’s Villa, but £500,000 of that went to his former club, Notts County.

Now under the management of Mark McGhee, Leicester remained one of the favourites for promotion and they duly won five of their opening seven games, leaving them atop of the standings.

That run included a memorable 1-0 win at Derby - City’s last trip to the Baseball Ground - which saw Julian Joachim score, Iwan Roberts get sent off and included Kevin Poole saving a penalty. One notable arrival in the transfer market, meanwhile, was the acquisition of Sweden international midfielder Pontus Kåmark, who’d just helped IFK Göteborg win the title in his homeland.

On Guy Fawkes Night, McGhee’s Foxes headed to West Bromwich Albion and a brace from Scott Taylor and a solitary effort from Roberts enabled the visitors to race into a 3-0 lead before half-time.

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Fans protest against Mark McGhee
Fans protest against Mark McGhee

Foxes fans hold up banners reading 'Liar 2' following McGhee's departure.

However, two errors from Zeljko Kalac in City’s net almost cost Leicester dearly before the Australian was again blamed by some for the 3-2 home loss to Bolton Wanderers in the League Cup Third Round. 

Kåmark, on the other hand, was also stretched off with a serious ligament injury in that game as Leicester’s previously unstoppable momentum under McGhee began to grind to a sudden halt. Just a year after the Blue Army had seen Little leave the Club for Villa, McGhee followed suit, citing Wolverhampton Wanderers’ better promotion prospects as his rationale for departing. 

A team of players and coaches – including David Nish, Chris Turner, Garry Parker and Steve Walsh – took over for a brief spell as a record compensation package was agreed for McGhee's services.

Former Norwich City and Everton manager Mike Walker was the undisputed favourite in the papers to take the helm at Filbert Street, but in late December 1995, a surprise announcement was made. Martin O’Neill, a target of Leicester’s one year earlier, following Little's decision to leave, handed in his resignation at Norwich on the very same day the two clubs were scheduled to meet in the First Division. 

City defeated the Canaries, courtesy of goals from Mike Whitlow, Roberts and emerging local talent Emile Heskey, but it would be a few more days until O’Neill’s official unveiling as Leicester's new manager.

The 24th full-time manager in the Club’s history initially struggled to implement his radically different ideas on the squad and he in fact went seven league games without a victory in his new post.

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Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill

Few would have guessed what Martin O'Neill would go on to achieve at the Club.

Ironically, the Northern Irishman’s maiden success with Leicester came at Molineux – securing a hard-fought 3-2 win over McGhee’s Wolves, a source of immense satisfaction for the fans.

New faces began to arrive through the doors at Filbert Street too – although Neil Lennon, Muzzy Izzet, Steve Claridge and Julian Watts were not necessarily household names. Despite a sense of optimism simmering in the background, the Foxes continued to struggle, culminating in a disastrous 2-0 home defeat by Sheffield United, which all but ended their play-off hopes. 

Throughout much of the second half – and indeed at full-time – the Blue Army made their feelings towards O’Neill known, but the new Leicester manager stood by his principles and defended his approach.

After speaking to a group of disgruntled fans outside Filbert Street and on a local radio phone-in, the Northern Irishman cleared the air with his critics and embarked on a late dash up the table. City won six of their remaining eight games, including a last-day success at Watford, sealed thanks to a rare Izzet header, which was enough to squeeze them into the play-off berths.

At the end of the regulation season, the agreement for Izzet’s loan from Chelsea expired, prompting O’Neill to part with another £75,000 to utilise the midfielder’s talents in the semi-finals. 

A fourth play-off campaign in five seasons initially tasked City with facing Stoke City and, following a fraught goalless draw at Filbert Street in the first leg, the Potters were favourites. However, Leicester dictated the tempo against a team who'd done the league double over them and deservedly prevailed courtesy of a half-volley from Parker, sparking pandemonium in the away end. 

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Garry Parker
Garry Parker

Parker toasts City's win at Stoke at full-time.

It was a cathartic moment for Parker, too, after a disagreement with O’Neill had led to him being stripped both of the City captaincy and his regular place in Leicester's starting line-up.

As a result, it was Walsh who led the Foxes out as skipper at a sun-drenched Wembley Stadium on the afternoon of 27 May, 1996 as unfancied Leicester confronted Crystal Palace in the capital. Despite City looking the better team, Palace took the lead in the 14th minute through Andy Roberts and the Blue Army contemplated the prospect of yet again suffering heartache beneath the Twin Towers. 

It took until the 76th minute for the Foxes to register on the Bank Holiday Monday scoresheet, with Izzet’s galloping run tempting defender Marc Edworthy to foul him in the penalty area. 

Parker duly stepped up to take the spot-kick. He was such a reliable figure in these situations, but the magnitude of this kick in particular had City fans nonetheless biting their nails in unison. Naturally, as he'd done so often before, he planted his penalty beyond Nigel Martyn in the Eagles’ net and the clash eventually went into extra-time as the temperatures continued to hit the heights. 

With seconds of the added 30 minutes remaining, O’Neill made the unorthodox decision to withdraw goalkeeper Poole and replace him with penalty expert Kalac - a bold move which could have backfired.

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Garry Parker & Steve Claridge
Garry Parker & Steve Claridge

Garry Parker's penalty was followed by a dramatic 120th winner by Steve Claridge in the play-off final at Wembley.

A crowd of 73,573 watched on as the ‘keepers swapped places and waited for the referee to blow his whistle to indicate that 120 minutes couldn’t separate the two teams. It seemed to be a formality.

With even fewer seconds remaining, a loose ball glided through the air... and time suddenly stopped. Everything seemed to agonisingly slow down. Wembley fell silent – and Claridge stuck out a leg. He actually miscued his strike, making contact with the ball with his shin rather than his laces, but it was perfect in an imperfect way – dumbfounding Martyn in Palace’s goal and bulging the back of the net. 

There was a delay in the Wembley crowd’s reaction to what they’d just witnessed, most likely because of the sheer disbelief which was being felt in all four corners of the ground. 

Time sped up again and the travelling Leicester contingent exploded with happiness. O’Neill was mobbed by Walsh on the sidelines, Claridge ran off into the sunset and the fans went ballistic. 

Leicester City were back in the Premier League – and O’Neill was only just getting started.

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