It's 7am on Saturday 12 February, 2000. The sun’s around half-an-hour from rising and yet, huddled together, outside the Carling Stand at Filbert Street, there’s a group of Leicester City supporters waiting for the noise of the ticket office’s shutters to be raised.
Just to the left of the ticket office is the Fox Leisure store, decked out with fleeces, polo shirts, scarves, rosettes, jester hats, ribbons and pom-poms, all embroidered with the Worthington Cup logo. That’s the reason for this peculiar gathering.
They’re all here to secure their seats beneath the Twin Towers at Wembley Stadium for the cup final in 16 days’ time. It’s a sacrifice worth making.
On the big day, those who got there early would have paid £5 for the privilege of buying the matchday programme before it sold out, causing grumbles among both Leicester and Tranmere Rovers supporters. Inside, Martin O’Neill, the City manager, spoke candidly about his time at the Club.
“Whether I am a bit mad or not is open to debate,” he chuckled. “But there is a lot of excitement in a job like this. I love it at Leicester. We’ve had four great years together and I have a thoroughly decent rapport with the supporters, which is a very nice thing to have.”
Martin O'Neill had already won the League Cup with City in 1997.
For City’s much-loved Club Ambassador, Alan ‘The Birch’ Birchenall, the day began with breakfast in the nearby Holiday Inn hotel, before heading to Wembley Way.
“I got up, put my gear on and I went to Wembley Way,” the Birch remembers. “Of course, all of the Blue Army was coming in and they’re all looking at me thinking: ‘What’s Birch doing stood there, bottom of Wembley Way?’ As our team coach came around, it stopped… doors opened, I got on, front seat, going up Wembley Way, gates open, into the dressing room! That’s just come to me! This is the first time I’ve thought about that, practically since that day. They were the occasions that I loved at Wembley.”
Like the rest of the Blue Army, the Birch’s nerves were mixed with a sense of excitement as the magnitude of the occasion began to set in. It was no different for Leicester’s players, who had collectively shrugged off Arsène Wenger’s ‘Boring, Boring Leicester’ jibes to reach a third final in four years.
Despite that success, City had never won a cup final at Wembley. Their 1964 success over Stoke City was a two-legged final at either side’s home ground, while the 1997 triumph against Middlesbrough was eventually won in a replay at Hillsborough.
While not 'cup finals', play-off victories over Derby County and Crystal Palace did, mercifully, come at Wembley, but even they were surrounded on a historical timeline by defeats to Blackburn Rovers and Swindon Town – all of which came within a 10-year period.
Then there was the 92nd-minute heartbreak inflicted by Allan Nielsen and Tottenham Hotspur in 1999.
That was incredible in itself. You know, people almost got blasé about it. It was like an annual trip out. I remember somebody saying: ‘Well, it’s about time they started paying rent at Wembley because they were there that often!’Nev Foulger
“It’s hard to describe what engulfs you as a human being,” says Gerry Taggart. “You know, the build-up to the final, when your bus pulls up at Wembley Way and you’ve got that long straight road with Wembley in the background, it’s indescribable.”
Nev Foulger, BBC Radio Leicester’s man with the mic between 1992 and 2004, had witnessed first-hand how Wembley dreams often came crashing down.
“It was the seventh trip to Wembley I can remember in nine seasons,” Foulger recalls. “That was incredible in itself. You know, people almost got blasé about it. It was like an annual trip out.
“I remember somebody saying: ‘Well, it’s about time they started paying rent at Wembley because they were there that often!’”
Despite playing mid-table First Division opposition in the 2000 showpiece, the pre-match drama which unfolded in the Spanish town of La Manga had threatened to derail City’s preparations.
It’s a tale best told through the mouths of the men who lived it, many of whom can find the funny side today, but one wonders whether O’Neill would be able to.
Delirium for Matt Elliott, who's brace of headers secured the League Cup trophy.
The Northern Irishman preferred not to travel with the squad for warm weather trips, so he was to join his players, alongside Matt Elliott, on a separate flight the morning after Leicester’s first evening in Spain. Maybe O’Neill knew it wouldn’t all be hill running and ball drills in La Manga, but he expected his players to keep their heads down, as Ian Marshall explains.
“We all used to love a trip and Martin used to like letting us go on a trip,” he says. “He knew what it was. It was [a case of]: let your hair down for a few days and enjoy yourself… don’t get into trouble.”
Steve Walsh, on the other hand, adds: “I remember Gary Lineker was in the bar at the time, he was stood at the bar. Anyway, they were loud in this piano bar area. I went over to Lineker and said: ‘You alright, Gary?’ And he said: ‘Oh god, these are bang on it!’”
Lineker retreated to an early night and left the current crop of Leicester heroes to enjoy their evening. It was at this time that Marshall decided to call O’Neill, preparing for his early morning flight from England, to politely request a later bedtime. So far, so good.
Then he came over, I opened the door and said: ‘Everything okay, gaffer?’ He went: ‘Not at all, Matty. Put it this way, you need to take your suitcase out of the boot. We’re not going to La Manga!’ I was like: ‘Oh right, okay. What’s happened?’ He said: ‘I’ll let you know’.”Matt Elliott
“I’m sitting there and I’m ringing,” Marshall reveals. “It goes to answer phone and I’m like: ‘Hi gaffer, Marshy here, we’re having a great time! Any chance of the lads having a bit of a later curfew? If you get this message, give us a bell back! I’ll see you tomorrow’.
“I put the phone down and forgotten about it… obviously he never rang back.”
Tony Cottee was sat nearby, struggling to contain his laughter, knowing that Marshall had inadvertently alerted the manager, the man who held such respect silence would fall whenever he entered a room, that something was afoot in their hotel bar in southern Spain.
“Marshy, what you doing?!” says Cottee. “It was funny, it was really, really funny. Robbo (assistant manager John Robertson) was laughing, me and Tim [Flowers] were laughing, Marshy thought it was hilarious, but it obviously was a phone call that was going to come back to haunt Marshy, let’s put it that way!”
Enter Stan Collymore.
“Stan decided that he took a little bit of a fancy to a fire extinguisher,” Taggart adds. “Stan had already been warned once not to let the fire extinguisher off, but Stan being Stan, he took matters into his own hands. I don’t think he read the label…”
Muzzy Izzet, an icon to Leicester fans of a certain age, had a front row seat as the fire extinguisher was released, swamping the room – and all its inhabitants – with thick, soot-like white dust in a heartbeat. Things had escalated incredibly quickly.
“It was like dust!” the former Turkey international says. “It just seemed to engulf the whole room. He’d only done it for like three or four seconds, but in those three or four seconds, I just remember people had white faces… you could only just see their eyeballs. And then, after that, we filtered off and went to bed.”
The next morning, back in England, at City’s Belvoir Drive training ground, Elliott had met up with O’Neill, ready to take a taxi to the airport before linking up with the rest of the squad in Spain.
The Blue Army's heroes toast another piece of silverware during O'Neill's time in charge.
Elliott didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to witness his manager’s reaction to news of the night before in real time, as Leicester’s stay in La Manga was cut short.
“He was in quite a sort of thoughtful mood, quite a serious mood, not for any particular reason,” Elliott recalls. “He just said: ‘Matty, put your suitcase in the boot, sit in the back of the car, I’ll be with you in a minute’. Literally that second, the phone goes.”
Elliott patiently waits in the car for over an hour, watching the peculiar sight of O’Neill pacing the car park, listening to different accounts of the night before.
He adds: “His face was getting darker and darker and more crumbled as time ticked by. Then, I hear him effing and blinding at people, whoever it is down the phone. Then he came over, I opened the door and said: ‘Everything okay, gaffer?’ He went: ‘Not at all, Matty. Put it this way, you need to take your suitcase out of the boot. We’re not going to La Manga!’ I was like: ‘Oh right, okay. What’s happened?’ He said: ‘I’ll let you know’.”
Skip forward a few hours and the team is back in England, heading for the Sketchley Grange on the M69. A meeting has been called by the manager – and he’s had time to stew on it.
O’Neill arrived an hour late, a tactic many of the players believe was designed to increase the tension before the moment the patter of his footsteps could be heard in the corridor.
“Then he’d just come through,” Walsh explains. “He tore his jacket off and threw it on the floor. He went mad!”
Elliott continues: “Martin was tearing strips off every player and at the end of it he said: ‘Oh, there’s one more thing... Marshy, never phone my phone again.’ He said: ‘You’re not a good enough player to call my phone!’ That just killed him. Marshy’s head just dropped down. ‘Yes, gaffer! Yes, gaffer!’
“Big, brave Marshy had sobered up!”
If I’d have hit the first man, I’d have never forgiven myself, so I was just like: ‘Make sure you get a good connection here, get the whip, trust the whip, trust the technique, keep your head down, and then give the boys in the middle every chance to do what they do’.Steve Guppy
As the newspaper coverage – on both the front and back pages - gradually faded, attention finally returned to football. Leicester City vs. Tranmere Rovers, Wembley Stadium.
The two goals which eventually sealed glory for the Foxes were strikingly similar. Steve Guppy corners, headed home, one via the crossbar, the other tucked away into the bottom corner, by City’s captain fantastic, Matt Elliott.
“It was a routine that I had practised over a number of years that sort of came together for that moment,” Guppy reveals. “If I’d have hit the first man, I’d have never forgiven myself, so I was just like: ‘Make sure you get a good connection here, get the whip, trust the whip, trust the technique, keep your head down, and then give the boys in the middle every chance to do what they do’.
“You know, that was my part, it’s the hardest thing in the game, to score a goal, so Matty Elliott’s story is the far more important one, of course.”
After Elliott’s first, Tranmere had Clint Hill sent off in the capital, but losing numerical parity on the pitch didn’t prevent former Fox David Kelly from levelling matters in the second half.
A nightmare scenario of losing the final to lower-league opposition, shortly after a tabloid scandal, could so easily have become a reality for Leicester, but they were too experienced.
“They had a player called David Challinor, who was a long-throw expert, and he was supposed to be crucial to the outcome,” says former Leicester Mercury journalist Bill Anderson, who covered the Foxes between 1974 and 2009.
Matt Elliott cemented his place as a Leicester City legend in 2000 at Wembley Stadium.
“Indeed, he was because he was the one who failed to pick up Matt Elliott twice with his two goals,” he adds, wryly. “So, yes, Challinor was important, but not in the way people thought.”
The day belonged to Elliott, who holds a special place in Leicester City’s history as the man who sealed the Club’s first and, to date, only Wembley cup final triumph.
Many of the standout memories for Elliott involve his father. “I saw him after the game,” the ex-Scotland defender recalls. “He was the same as me, he was just shaking his head, saying: ‘I can’t believe this, I can’t believe this. Where’s all this come from?’
“I was like: ‘I don’t really know myself, dad, but let’s just enjoy it, eh!’ He was an inspiration to me, as is the case with a lot of sons and fathers. I absolutely loved him to bits. My youngest son was due to be born that day… his mum was thinking I was going to go to the hospital if he was born that day and miss the final… which was never going to happen!
“Thankfully, he waited three days, so I could enjoy the celebrations of winning the cup. It was just a special day really.”
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