Alan Birchenall

Remembering When Birch Moved To Filbert Street

To commemorate his 75th birthday on Saturday 22 August, legendary Club Ambassador Alan ‘The Birch’ Birchenall tells the story of how he first arrived as a player at Leicester City in the early 1970s.
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Signed from Crystal Palace in September 1971, having previously cost Chelsea over £100,000, Birch joined Jimmy Bloomfield’s outfit, who were newly promoted from the second tier.

The side remained in the First Division throughout Birch’s time at the Club, during which he scored 14 goals and made over 160 appearances, transitioning into a holding midfield role following several years as a forward. In 1977, after six years with the Foxes, he left to join Notts County, before finishing his playing career in America.

He firstly recalled how his big money move from South London to the East Midlands came about.

“It’s the best decision I ever made, outside of getting married and having my family,” Birch began. “I remember, whenever I played at Filbert Street in the old days, it always impressed me.

The Blue Army, as it is now, was so close to the pitch, so the atmosphere was tremendous. They were recognised as a good footballing side, but not expected to win the old First Division.

Alan Birchenall

“The Blue Army, as it is now, was so close to the pitch, so the atmosphere was tremendous. They were recognised as a good footballing side, but not expected to win the old First Division.

“They had a manager called Jimmy Bloomfield in charge, who was a terrific inside forward. I’d seen they’d just signed Jon Sammels from Arsenal and he was building a new team. He said he wanted a footballing side to play attract football.

“After I left Chelsea, I’d had a season and a half at Crystal Palace and as a forward in those days, I ended up with 15 or 16 goals in the old First Division, which wasn’t bad for Palace, who had got promoted to what is now the Premier League.

“The opportunity came along and it didn’t take me long at all to say yes. A good player called Bobby Kellard left Leicester and joined Palace as part of the deal, plus add ons as well, valued at £100,000, which today is probably a week’s wages for some players.

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

Birch was part of Jimmy Bloomfield's entertaining side of the 1970s.

“But back in 1971 it was a lot of dosh and I think I was the first player to move for a six figure fee three times. I signed on my own, there were no agents in those days.

"I came up, walked into Jimmy Bloomfield’s office at Filbert Street and he said: ‘that’s what we’re offering you’ and the bonuses - so much for a win, so much for a draw, at today’s standards were quite laughable really, but that was in the early '70s.

“It wasn’t about the money though, for most of the players in the division, the sums were about the same. Jimmy said: ‘I’ve signed Jon Sammels, you sign and next week I’m going for Keith Weller, we’ve got some good players here and then we’ll get a couple of forwards in’, which he did, and that was the start of it.”

Birch's time at Leicester saw him transition into a new role, playing further back than in previous seasons, which he believes benefitted his career at Filbert Street. 

I’d had nine years playing up front being kicked from pillar to post and I think I’d got a bit fed up with it. I wasn’t producing good football, I was better than what I was producing.

Alan Birchenall

Birch continued: “I would never say I was a prolific scorer, I was a feeder man to Mick Jones at Sheffield United, Peter Osgood at Chelsea, although I was scoring at Palace. I came and for the first season, I’d lost that edge.

"I did alright, I linked up well but I’d had nine years playing up front being kicked from pillar to post and I think I’d got a bit fed up with it. I wasn’t producing good football, I was better than what I was producing, so I went to Jimmy Bloomfield when we were on a pre-season tour and asked to get a run in midfield and he said ‘we’ll give it a go’.

“I slotted into midfield, playing just in front of the back four, which was a new position, but most clubs play with it now. I played the rest of my Leicester career in centre midfield, organising, and it just suited me as I’d had my time up front.”

Entertaining the Filbert Street faithful was always on the agenda and while silverware did not arrive, it was an enjoyable team to be a part of. The closest City came to trophy success during that decade was the 1973/74 FA Cup, reaching the Semi-Finals and taking Liverpool to a replay before bowing out with a 3-1 defeat.

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

Birch scored 14 goals in his six years at the Club.

That was the nearest we came really, our best opportunity was to win the cup,” Birch added. “We were never going to win the league, we weren’t consistent enough, but we were entertaining.

“Some of the football we played was unbelievable, when we were good, we were very good. We had so much talent in the side, at one stage we had four England players. When the Blue Army left a game and had gone to the pub, they’d say ‘didn’t we see something special today?’ and there was always going to be something that was a talking point.

“We had a couple of close cup competitions but never got over the edge, so we were a nearly side, but it was just a pleasure to play in. We played Luton in the FA Cup, they were top of the old Second Division and had been made the favourites to beat us down at Kenilworth Road.

“We played them off the pitch, I think it was 4-0 and I remember Malcolm Allison, the manager of Manchester City, poked his head in the dressing room and asked to have a word.

I took the game serious but I enjoyed it. Our supporters will tell you I had banter, interacted with the fans before, during and after a game, it was that sort of era.

Alan Birchenall

“It was so unusual for another manager who happened to be at the game to come in and he said ‘I’ve just won the First Division with great players like Mike Summerbee, Mike Doyle and that’s the best attacking performance I’ve seen from a football club’. And that, for me, made a statement of what the ‘Bloomfield Boys' were all about.

"I took the game serious but I enjoyed it. Our supporters will tell you I had banter, interacted with the fans before, during and after a game, it was that sort of era. I had a motto of win, lose or draw, don’t be a bore.”

After retiring from the game, Birch soon returned to Filbert Street, initially as Public Relations Officer. Since then, his famous annual end of season runs have raised over £2M and benefited more than 100 local charities, further endearing him to the Blue Army.

“I’ve always said, no way was I one of the best players who played the most games or was with the Club the longest, but what I did, I enjoyed every minute on the pitch and ever since then off the pitch as well.

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

Birch's latest End of Season run raised money for the Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha Foundation.

"I just gave it 100 per cent and that’s how it’s worked out. It’s been a long haul, I had a three or four year period where I wasn’t here, but I was still working for the Club on the lottery side and going out and doing stuff even though I wasn’t getting paid.

“My charity work was started back in ’71 but as an excuse to get the lads together, have a good night out at the local disco and just raise a few hundred quid and it’s carried on to this day.

“I’ve been with the Club on and off for almost 50 years, it’s been an honour to be in that position. It’s been a great ride and I’d just like to thank the football club for looking after me."

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