Leicester City win promotion to the Premier League

Former Player Remembers: Gary Coatsworth

Last month, Club Historian John Hutchinson spoke to Gary Coatsworth - a defender whose uncompromising style made him a cult hero at Leicester City - about his career in football.
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Signed by Brian Little with whom he had won two promotions at Darlington, Gary played a crucial role in the Wembley play-off victory over Derby County in 1994 which resulted in City being promoted to the Premier League. Unfortunately, during the following season, injuries forced Gary to retire from full-time professional football at the age of just 26. He currently works as a supervisor at Nissan in Sunderland.

Gary, who was born in Sunderland in October 1968, started by explaining how he began his professional career at Barnsley in 1986: “When I left school, I was working as a panel beater and was playing my football in the Heddon Youth League where I was picked up by Barnsley. I went down there for a trial and they offered me a contract.”

The Barnsley manager was Allan Clarke, for whom Leicester City had paid a British record transfer fee of £150,000 in 1968.

“Both Allan and his brother Wayne had played for Leicester City,” Gary continued. “I played a few games for them in the Championship. I made my debut against Millwall. They were a good side who had Teddy Sheringham playing for them.

“When I was released by Barnsley at the end of the 1988/89 season, Eddie Edwards, a Barnsley scout, told me that Brian Little’s Darlington were interested in me and that he would contact Darlington to tell them I’d been released. By the time I’d got home, Brian was on the phone to me. He had recently become Darlington’s manager but had been unable to keep them from being relegated to the Conference from the Football League. He invited me to Darlington’s last game of the season. I went and I met Brian. I just liked his ideas and the way he came across. I felt at home with him straight away. I liked his enthusiasm and his ambitions for the club.

“He then started releasing quite a few of the squad at the time, although he kept Jimmy Willis, who I later played with at Leicester. Nearly all of the new players he brought in were from the North East.”

Darlington were promoted back to the Football League in 1990 at the end of Gary’s first season playing for the Quakers.

“I had to wait for a while for my debut,” Gary recalled. “And then, when I had my debut, I was injured. I went up for a header and the lad arched his back. I came down on his shoulder and broke my collar bone. Then, I had a few problems with my knee. Towards the end of the season, Jimmy [Willis] broke his leg and I got another opportunity to play with two games to go to the end of the season.”

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Gary Coatsworth
Gary Coatsworth

Coatsworth became a popular figure among the Blue Army for his work-rate in Leicester's colours.

In the last game of the season, a 1-0 victory over Welling, Gary entered Darlington’s folklore by scoring the crucial goal which ensured the Quakers’ return to the Football League.

“It was a header against Welling,” Gary added. “Back in those days, the Conference pitches hardly had any grass. Playing on those pitches was like treading on concrete. We got a free-kick out on the left, round about the half-way line. Andy Toman took it and put it in the box. Basically I just went for it and attacked the ball. Today, I would probably have conceded a free-kick, but I connected just right and the ball looped over the goalkeeper into the bottom corner.”

The following season, Gary was in the Darlington side which won the Fourth Division title in their first season back in the Football League.

“That was another good season,” Gary continued. “Brian only made a couple more signings, bringing in Mick Tait, who was a very tough tackling defensive midfielder and (future Leicester City player) Michael Trotter. It was such a good atmosphere at the club. We enjoyed training. It was different all the time. We had good laughs. When you got fined, you got a poem and things like that with your fine. You’d be fined for not wearing flip-flops, not being clean shaven, not wearing the correct attire, that sort of thing. It was very disciplined but it was enjoyable discipline.”

Little’s methods and back-to-back promotions with Darlington brought him to the attention of Leicester City at a time when the Foxes had narrowly avoided relegation to the Third Division. He was appointed to the manager’s position at Filbert Street in May 1991. Gary was sorry to see him go but it wasn’t long before he joined his old manager at Filbert Street.

“I was very sorry to see him leave Darlington,” Gary reflected. “But to be honest we weren’t surprised because he was ambitious and wanted to prove himself which he did. We were sad to see him go. Frank Gray took over and we didn’t get off to a bad start but then we started to slip. One day, when I went in for training, Frank pulled me to one side and said: ‘Leicester City have come in for you and I want you to go down there.’ So I travelled back to Sunderland, got some clothes and headed down to Leicester.

“I’d had no idea this was going to happen. It came out of the blue. I was a bit shocked. It took me by surprise but it meant stepping up to the Second Division, which I’d played in with Barnsley.”

Gary signed for Leicester in October 1991.

Little was in the process of transforming the Club as Gary explained: “He did exactly the same at Leicester as he’d done at Darlington. He had the same discipline. We had three centre-halves at the back with the full-backs pushing on. We had some great players there like [Steve] Walsh and Millsy (Gary Mills). There were experienced players, too, who would bring the younger lads along. Also, Jimmy Willis and Michael Trotter arrived soon after me around about Christmas time.”

However, after only three games for his new club, Gary injured his cruciate ligament in a match against Millwall.

“We didn’t know it was a snapped cruciate until I had an operation,” Gary said. “They thought it was a cartilage injury, but when I went in for the operation, I was told by the surgeon: ‘The good news is that your cartilage is alright, the bad news is that your cruciate is snapped.’

“It was very frustrating. I hated sitting about. I couldn’t do anything. I’d moved down to Leicester but my wife was still in Sunderland so I went back up there.”

The injury meant that Gary missed out on the 1992 Wembley play-off final against Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn Rovers for a place in the new Premier League.

Injury also caused Gary to missed out on the 1993 play-off final 4-3 defeat against Glenn Hoddle’s Swindon Town. In March 1993, he had regained his place in the side at a time when the Club were ninth in the table and in danger of slipping out of play-off contention. Gary’s return to the side coincided with a run of seven consecutive wins in the league, followed by a draw and another win.

“At the start of this run,” Gary recalled, “I wasn’t in the squad and was at home in Sunderland with the family. Brian phoned me up and said: ‘Get prepared for tomorrow.’ I thought I might be sub but I ended up playing at full-back against Birmingham and we won 2-1.”

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Leicester City 1992/93
Leicester City 1992/93

The Foxes finally won promotion at the third time of asking.

The following game was a 3-2 win at Barnsley. Gary scored two memorable goals at the ground where he started his league career.

Describing the goals, Gary said: “I always used to go up for the corners and I always had to attack the front post. The ball came across, I got my head on it and, fortunately, it went into make it 1-1. In the second half, I won the ball and I played it to David Oldfield out wide and just carried on my run. I took it forward a bit and then I tried my luck from the corner of the area with a long distance shot and it went in.  

“After that run of seven consecutive wins, I injured my ankle against Bristol Rovers. I probably shouldn’t have played the next game and then we played West Ham and got stuffed. I shouldn’t have played but I wanted to play so much that I didn’t feel the pain. That injury ended my season and I missed another play-off final.”   

The following season, Gary scored with a truly spectacular volley from 25 yards against Luton Town: “I remember the ball getting played forward, I ran into the box and David Speedie headed it back out as I was running in. I saw that the ball was just sitting right. When I volleyed it, I felt my foot just sink into the ball, and luckily it went into the bottom corner.”

For the third successive season, City reached the play-offs and this time Gary was fit to play: “I remember drawing 0-0 at Tranmere in the semi-final first leg on a red hot day. I remember tackling Pat Nevin. He tripped on the ball and got a free-kick. We won the second leg at Filbert Street 2-1. It was a hard game. Speedo (David Speedie) scored and then got sent off.

“We played Derby in the 1994 final at Wembley. I can remember little bits about the game. One thing that sticks out in my mind was waiting in the tunnel and then walking out to the noise of the crowd. It was deafening. You could feel it in your chest. It was unbelievable.

“Derby had a good side, but we had a physical side with players like [Steve] Walsh, Iwan [Roberts], Jimmy [Willis] and Sticks (Ormondroyd). I suppose we bullied them and they couldn’t handle it. I liked games which were more physical. I like a good battle with somebody.”

Referring to his pass which led to the first of Walsh’s two goals in the 2-1 victory, Gary said: “I knew that if the ball went into the box and it was 50/50 between their 'keeper and Walshy and Iwan, the 'keeper would have known he would have been in a battle!

“Winning was unbelievable after the disappointment of the two previous years and beating Derby made it even more special. Jimmy was Man of the Match. He cleared off the line didn’t he?”

Unfortunately, Gary didn’t get to play in the Premier League the following season as he was injured again" “I’d had the problem with my ankle before Wembley when I’d had a cyst in the joint and it burst. They took it out but the ankle was still stiff and I ended up taking painkillers. I went to the specialist again, who could have operated, but down the line that might have caused more problems, like struggling to walk, so I retired from full-time football in April 1995 at the age of 26.

“I played for Spennymoor for a few years, and for the last 25 years I’ve worked at Nissan where I am a supervisor. I’ve got three years left then I can retire.”

Leicester City Crest

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