The London-born frontman’s free-scoring career during the 1980s and 1990s earned him a reputation as one of the best strikers in the country, but it had not yielded the silverware it perhaps deserved.
He had spent six years at West Ham United, where he was voted the PFA Young Player of the Year in 1986, when the Hammers finished third in the top flight, just four points off champions Liverpool.
His goalscoring efforts earned him a move to Goodison Park in 1988 – just one season after Everton secured the first division title and were regarded as one of the best teams in Europe.
However, for all of the times he found himself on the scoresheet, Cottee was missing one thing that all professional footballers crave – a major honour.
And so, on 27 February, 2000, after losing a cup final as both an Evertonian and a Fox, Cottee finally had a winner’s medal, as Leicester defeated Tranmere in the League Cup Final at Wembley Stadium.
“For me personally, it was a real crowning part of my career, really, because to go so long, to try and win a medal, and I played in four previous finals and lost all four, and then of course that was my fifth final,” said Cottee.
Matt Elliott & Tony Cottee
Cottee joins 2000 League Cup hero Matt Elliott in celebrating City's win against Tranmere Rovers.
“To finally get that winner's medal, that was the best feeling in the world for me, just to get it put around your neck and it was hanging down and then you held the cup and done all the pictures and running around Wembley and everything.
“But I was pleased for my team-mates as well because we had such a great group of lads, and we'd had the disappointment of obviously losing the year before, so I think it was just a special day.
“I know Matt [Elliott] obviously got all headlines with the two goals and everything, but, I think we worked really hard that year to get through the rounds and to get to the final and it was just a special day and also the fans as well, it was a great reward for the fans. We let them down the year before and it was nice to put that right.”
Cottee admitted that he never truly believed he would return to England’s top flight after departing West Ham following a second spell in 1996.
His destination was Malaysia, with Selangor. They are a team known as the Red Giants, but it was in blue that Cottee finally realised his dream - at 34 years-old.
“I played for some really good clubs,” he said. “When I left West Ham the second time, I went to play in Malaysia and I really thought that was the end of my career. It was sort of one of them where I've a good career, scored a lot of goals, but I have to accept that my chances of winning anything at a top-flight level have gone now.
“I know Matt [Elliott] obviously got all headlines with the two goals and everything, but, I think we worked really hard that year to get through the rounds and to get to the final and it was just a special day and also the fans as well.Tony Cottee LCFC TV
“I didn't for one minute expect to come back to the Premier League. It was always that I'm going to come back and maybe play for one of my local teams I honestly thought that was the case, because when I left West Ham, there was no interest, so I thought I'd come back and play for Orient, Dagenham, Southend, Colchester or whatever.
“I was only 32 I think when I came back from Malaysia, so for me, it was always going to be a case of come back, play football and enjoy the last few years of my career.
“Never, ever in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to go and get that medal after what, 17 years of trying.”
Cottee was a runner-up with Everton in the 1989 FA Cup Final against Liverpool, when Ian Rush’s extra-time winner secured bragging rights in a Merseyside derby held over 200 miles away beneath Wembley’s famous Twin Towers.
He endured a similar pain a decade later, this time for the Foxes in a 1-0 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup Final on the same turf.
“We went to that game against Spurs really, really confident that we could get a result,” Cottee recalled. “It wasn't the best Spurs team, but they had good players, the likes of [David] Ginola, and Sol Campbell at the back.
“They had some good players, but we fancied our chances. It wasn't a good game, 0-0. Sav (Robbie Savage) obviously had his row with Justin Edinburgh and Justin got sent off, Spurs go down to 10 men and then you're thinking: ‘We've got to win this’, and I'm thinking: ‘I'm going to win my first trophy. After 16 years, I'm finally going to win my first trophy here’.
Cottee was a beaten FA Cup Finalist with Everton during the 1989 Wembley clash with Liverpool.
“And then the game just meandered on, got towards the last few minutes and Spurs just broke away and scored. We didn't have enough time to recover. If it had gone to extra-time with the extra man with a big pitch that Wembley was, no doubt we would have won the game, absolutely no doubt.
“But it was just fate and we switched off. They scored, the final whistle goes and I just zoned out, totally zoned out, and I just went into a sort of, I don't know, just a haze, and I'm thinking to myself: 'Don't get upset, don't get upset'.
“Anyway, the tears started rolling down because you think: 'Don't get upset' and then because you think don't get upset, you do get upset. The tears started rolling down my eyes and I sort of remember shaking hands, I think it was Ian Walker in goal, Sol Campbell.
“Ian Marshall came up to me, put his arm round me and went: 'You're alright TC, don't worry, don't worry, you're alright'. There's a picture of me on the pitch at Wembley, and I'm like that, I just didn't want to talk to anyone. I just wanted to stay out there for as long as possible and pretend that the nightmare hadn't happened.
“And then this arm went around my shoulder and I thought: 'For God's sake, who is it now?'. You know, just go away. Just leave me alone. I don't need to talk to, and I don't want talk to anyone.
“And then I got that Irish accent and it was: 'Don't worry, don't worry. We'll be back next year'. Obviously, I realise it was Martin O'Neill when I looked at him, and I went: 'Gaffer, I'm 33 years of age, we're not coming back next year. This is a one-off. We've blown it, it's not going happen. We're not going come back next year'.
It was a frustrating campaign, whereas the '99 League Cup campaign, I was very much a part of it, scoring the goals and involved in all the major talking points and everything that went on. 2000 was the complete opposite.Tony Cottee LCFC TV
“He went: 'I promise you, we'll be back next year. I promise you, we'll be back next year'. I don't know whether Martin actually meant it or not, but, in terms of where I was as a person and a footballer, at that time, it was really sort of nice to hear it. And of course, he was true to his word and we did go back the following year.”
The 1998/99 season was particularly frustrating for Cottee given he had finished as the Club’s top scorer with 16 goals to his name, but had no silverware to show for it.
The following term, while he contributed 13 goals, he did not experience the same feeling of involvement for Leicester, but nevertheless, he won a major trophy – and that’s all that mattered.
He said: “I was just fully focused on getting fit for the final, that was my aim. I think I came back a couple of weeks before the final, and I got a couple of games under my belt. So, I knew that I was going be okay to play in the final.
“I was just like, don't get injured again in the league games. But it was frustrating, it was a frustrating campaign, whereas the '99 League Cup campaign, I was very much a part of it, scoring the goals and involved in all the major talking points and everything that went on. 2000 was the complete opposite.
“I was very much a peripheral player and I was either rested or was injured and I didn't really contribute to the campaign at all. I didn't score in any of the rounds, but of course, you know, the main aim for me was to play in that final against Tranmere and above all else win the game and I didn't care how we won it.
Martin O'Neill & Tony Cottee
Martin O'Neill consoles Tony Cottee after the 1999 League Cup Final loss against Spurs.
“I didn't care whether it was the worst game in history and we won it 1-0. I really didn't care. For me, after the previous year and all my other experiences, just win the game.
“I didn't know what to expect, you know, as I said, I just come back from injury, I wasn't fully, fully fit but I knew that it was us against Tranmere. Tranmere had done fantastic to get to the final.
“I think John Aldridge was the manager and had a few what you'd call half-decent players, but, we were playing against a team that was in the division below us and we were by far the favourites, whereas the season before we weren't the favourites against Spurs. We were the runaway favourites, we were always going to beat Tranmere and that made it a difficult game for us. But, on the day, I don't think we played particularly well.”
Cottee himself came perilously close to scoring at Wembley against the Merseyside outfit. When two-goal hero Matt Elliott's first header struck the crossbar, Cottee was ready to pounce as it bounced back into play, only for the ball’s rotation to carry it over the line.
“Matt got the glory with the two headers, but I was just gutted, because his first header, when it hit the bar and bounced down, all I wanted was a tap-in from like a yard out!” said Cottee.
“I was hovering, I was just waiting for the ball, just when it hits the bar, don't hit the bar and go into the net, hit the bar and come out, and then I would've headed in from half a yard out.
You're powerless. You're standing on the side, you're waiting [for the] referee to just blow the whistle. Whatever the injury time was, just blow the whistle.Tony Cottee LCFC TV
“I would have got a goal in the final, but Elliott was being greedy! He put the ball in the net, it was great header, and then he got the second one as well. I was just pleased that, we'd made hard work of it, but to win the final and when that whistle went, it was just the best feeling in the world.
“I remember coming off, being substituted. I think there were a couple of things, I think obviously Tranmere were trying to put us under pressure. I think I'm right in saying Ian Marshall came on for me.
“It was a couple things from Marshy's point of view. I mean, firstly he was a fantastic defender, you know, to come on if you're defending set pieces. I was useless at that and Marshy was brilliant. So, it was the right decision to make, and also Marshy had been a great servant for the Club as well.
“I think it was important that he got the chance to come on, albeit for five minutes or whatever it was at the end of the game.
“But it was just one of them, just again, you're powerless. You're standing on the side, you're waiting [for the] referee to just blow the whistle. Whatever the injury time was, just blow the whistle.
“And then when the whistle went, we all had big cuddles on the side and then just ran onto the field of play and celebrated with the boys. I think we were all trying to grab hold of Matt Elliott because obviously [he was] the two-goal hero.
Emile Heskey, Matt Elliott, Tony Cottee & Andy Impey
Heskey, Cottee and Impey celebrate with Elliott, who scored a brace win the 2000 League Cup.
“But, I think, as a team we were just all so pleased because we'd righted the wrong of the previous year and that was really, really important.”
After making the walk up to collect his winner’s medal, Cottee was at the back of the line.
This was simply to extend his time atop of the Wembley steps, allowing him to gaze out at the sea of blue and white Leicester fans that cheered each and every Fox that lifted the League Cup trophy.
“I just wanted the winner's medal around my neck,” he added. “That's what I wanted, and where I zoned out the year before in self pity, this year, this particular year, it was all about looking forward to going up the steps because there's nothing worse when you stand there and you see the other team lift the cup and all that. It's awful, it really is.
“I was just looking forward to that. I was looking forward to the whole experience of going up the steps, putting the medal, round your neck, lifting the cup.
“When we went up to get the cup, obviously, Matty went up first, not just a goalscorer but as the captain and lifted the cup and then he passed it down the line.
“I was at the end. I was the last player to go up. I don't know why, but I just, I wanted to savour my moment. I wanted to savour everyone lifting the cup and I wanted to see everyone lifting the cup and see the joy on their faces, and then when it got to me, I just wanted to do that.
It wasn't a classic, but no one will ever forget the fact that we won the League Cup in 2000.Tony Cottee LCFC TV
“I've got a great picture and you could just see it's like: '[I've] done it. At last, I've done it'. As I say, I don't want it to all be about me because it's not all about me, but I was so pleased for the boys and Matt and everything, and all the ones we'd gone through the year before and to put it right.
“To finally get my hands on a winner's medal around your neck, and you lift the trophy and get that feeling, obviously I've not done it since and I'm not going to do it in the future, it was just for me, it was like: 'That's it, that's really made my career', and I was so pleased at that moment.
“We then did all the photos on the pitch and everything and then we jumped in the bath and I think we dragged Birch in the bath with us and everything. It was just brilliant celebrations, really, really good celebrations.
“As a footballer, losing the final as we did in such crazy circumstances, we were all, the whole team, was absolutely gutted and the manager as well. We had the opportunity to put it right and we took the opportunity.
“It wasn't a classic, but no one will ever forget the fact that we won the League Cup in 2000.”
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