Mike Whitlow

Former Player Remembers: Mike Whitlow (Part One)

When Mike Whitlow reminisced with Club Historian John Hutchinson about his career in football, the conversation covered many aspects. Among many other things, Mike spoke about moving to Filbert Street from Leeds United and his five years as a Leicester City left full-back.
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Mike made 179 appearances for City. He played in the Club’s four Wembley play-off finals for a place in the Premier League, winning two of them. His fifth Wembley appearance for the Foxes was in the final of the 1997 League Cup, followed by a triumphant replay at Hillsborough.

He also spoke about his post-Filbert Street playing and coaching career. Born in the Cheshire town of Northwich, Mike joined non-league Witton Athletic as an 18-year-old in 1987.  

Thinking back to those days, he began: “People today might remember me as a raving nutter defender who kicked everything that moved, but when I went to Witton when I was 18, I was a centre-forward and also played on the left wing or left midfield.

“Then I ended up at left-back and, all of a sudden, these meatheads were smashing me all over the place and I thought that I’d better stand up for myself. I wouldn’t last in today’s game. Players like me were described as giving 100 percent, giving everything and being hardworking. I wish they’d said about me that I had silky skills, could put the ball on a sixpence, control it and place it wherever I wanted. That was never going to happen!

“When Leeds gave me the chance to go professional, I knew I had to work hard. I always felt I had to do more than everybody else. I didn’t want anyone taking away from me the chance I’d been given. I had to be mentally strong if I was going to be able to cope with somebody who had more skill than me, so that if I bodged up it wasn’t through not trying.”

Mike spent four seasons at Elland Road, making 96 appearances, before joining Brian Little’s Leicester City for a £250,000 fee in March 1992. This was two weeks after Simon Grayson had also arrived at Filbert Street from Leeds to aid the Foxes' push for promotion.

“I’ve always wanted to play in every game, come what may,” Mike continued. “When Tony Dorigo came to Leeds that season, I thought: ‘Oh dear! He’s playing for England. I don’t think I’ll be playing many games now.’ Luckily, Brian wanted me at Leicester and I didn’t give the move a second thought. I was going to play football.  

“Call it luck, call it being in the right place at the right time, but at the end of the season I was playing at Wembley against Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn Rovers in the play-off final for a place in the new Premier League. I’d never been to Wembley in my life except to watch a game and it is every kid’s dream to play at the national stadium

Blackburn won 1-0. The goal was scored by the ex-Leicester striker Mike Newell from the penalty spot as a result of David Speedie going to ground after a challenge from Steve Walsh.   

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Mike Whitlow
Mike Whitlow

With Mike Whitlow in the team, City regularly challenged for promotion, but always seemed to fall short.

Thinking back to that final, Mike continued: “As a young player, I was so excited to be at Wembley. After 20 minutes, because of all the excitement and adrenalin, I was knackered. I felt like I’d got miner’s boots on and that I was carrying about 400 pounds of rocks on my back. It was tough. We were the underdogs as we’d sneaked into the play-offs. We’d come a long way in a short space of time. We were progressing.

“We had a lot of characters who were coming into the team, but it was weird. I’d come from a changing room with really big stars to a group of lads that was tight-knit and that worked hard. Nobody was any different from anybody else.

“I really felt at home after my first few months, because it was how they made it. As a young lad then, growing into the professional game, it was very nice.

“When I came to Leicester, there were some really good youngsters coming through like Julian Joachim and Emile Heskey. Steve Thompson was there pulling all the strings. Then there were other players coming in too, like Ian Ormondroyd, Colin Hill and Phil Gee. Within 12 months, there were a lot of changes in how everything worked and in how everyone pulled together. Brian Little did a great job putting all that together

“Brian had brought in John Gregory and Allan Evans as coaches. It was a good mixture of different people. Brian was probably the most chilled manager I’d ever worked under. Allan was the more serious one and John was a bit more relaxed. He still thought he was 10 years old, wanting to play all the time. He was fab to have around.”

The following season (1992/93) ended in another Wembley play-off final for a place in the Premier League. This time, the opponents were Glenn Hoddle’s Swindon Town. After going 3-0 down, Leicester City pulled it back to 3-3, before Swindon were awarded a late penalty to win the match 4-3.

“Glenn Hoddle was scary,” Mike remembered. “I used to love him and Kenny Dalglish when I was a kid, and in two successive Wembley finals, I’d been involved for Leicester against both of them. In the Swindon final, Glenn was pinging the ball everywhere.

“I’m playing at the back thinking ‘he’s brilliant!’ No disrespect, but we’d thought before the game, that he was getting old, that his legs had gone and that we’d be able to get at him. How wrong we were! This bloke ran the show! He was awesome. They ripped us to shreds and we were 3-0 down soon after half-time.

“At half time, we said: ‘Let’s get back in the game. Let’s get the next goal. We’ve got nothing to lose. We’ve given a full season to get here!’ We pulled it back two goals and when Steve Thompson equalised, we thought: ‘We’re going to win this!’

“And then Pooley (goalkeeper Kevin Poole) had a mad rush of blood and conceded a penalty towards the end of the game. Swindon broke away and Kev came out. He still claims he never touched him (Steve White) but he must have had a different set of eyes to me, bless him! We were thinking: ‘Oh no, not a penalty at Wembley again!’ It was though and Phil Bodin scored to make it 4-3.

“This defeat was more heartbreaking than the one against Blackburn. We had more expectation against Swindon than we’d had against Blackburn because Kenny Dalglish had brought all those expensive players in and they were expected to beat us. Also the Blackburn game had been the first time at Wembley for most of us.

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Mike Whitlow
Mike Whitlow

Leicester's third successive play-off final was booked due to a semi-final win over Tranmere.

“For the match against Swindon, we thought: ‘Right, we’ve experienced Wembley. We can do this.’ But in football, it’s who turns up on the day and, to be fair to them, they ripped us to shreds in the first hour. Even though we got ourselves back in it and Steve Thompson was absolutely magnificent that day, we were absolutely gutted to lose. It really hit home that day because our expectation was more.”

The following season (1993/94) Mike found himself playing in City’s third successive play-off final. This time, their opponents were Derby County. In the weeks leading up to it, many key players including David Speedie, Iwan Roberts, Steve Agnew, Gary Mills, Steve Walsh and Mike Whitlow were on the injured list.

For the final, Little’s team included three centre-halves - Jimmy Willis, Gary Coatsworth and Brian Carey. Steve Walsh and Iwan Roberts, neither of whom were properly fit, played as strikers alongside Ian Ormondroyd.

Despite Derby's skilful side being firm favourites to win, City won 2-1, with Walsh famously scoring both goals.

“Technically Derby had some very, very good players,” Mike recalled. “If I’m honest, we mugged them. Our team was physically bigger. To be truthful, I think we bullied them. Gary Coatsworth was one of the hardest players in football but he was honest.

“Our plan was to work hard, be difficult to beat, be physical and be direct. We had Iwan, with no teeth, up front with Walsh. With those two, you’re not going to play the ball into their feet. It was a case of putting the ball into the box and then get at them!

“Walsh, bless him, scored the winner near the end. To beat a very good team like Derby was nice because it showed that hard work can pay off. A game like that could never happen now. We’d have had most of our players sent off!”

Having finally achieved promotion to the Premier League, the next season (1994/95) was tough. The side was strengthened with Club record signing midfielder Mark Draper from Notts County, but Little walked out of the Club in December.

He was replaced by Mark McGhee and, at the end of the season, Leicester were relegated.

“Mark (Draper) was a very talented player,” Mike remembered. “Going into the Premier League was a really big learning curve. It was a massive eye opener. You need hardworking players but you need also six, seven or eight players who are absolutely gifted.

“Hard work only gets you so far without quality. For example (Arsenal’s) Dennis Bergkamp was awesome, and it wasn’t just him. We were always up against that calibre of player in every single game. The standard was fantastic. If you made one mistake, you’d had it!

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Mike Whitlow
Mike Whitlow

The Foxes found it hard in the Premier League following promotion.

“We knew we weren’t quite there, but we always tried our hardest to give ourselves a chance. It’s hard when you’re losing, but you think: ‘Come on. Let’s have another go.’ It also provided you with a good opportunity to see where you were at, as an individual.”

That season in the Premier League did, however, provide Mike with a memorable moment.

“One of my best memories in football was when we went to Old Trafford and I scored the worst, ugliest goal you’ve ever seen! [Peter] Schmeichel wasn’t playing. Gary Walsh was in goal. He came out, completely flapped at the ball, it dropped six yards out and I tapped it in from a yard out with my wooden right leg. It was the simplest, easiest goal I’d ever scored.

“Growing up, I’d never have dreamt that not only would I have the opportunity to play at Old Trafford but also to score there. It was great for me because I scored at the Stretford End and my United-supporting mates were all in the crowd at that end. I got abused by them on the phone all the way home!”

In part two of this interview, Mike went onto talk about Little’s controversial departure from Filbert Street, playing under McGhee, until he also walked out on the Club a year later, the arrival of Martin O’Neill, the 1996 play-off final against Crystal Palace, which secured promotion back to the Premier League, winning the League Cup in 1997, and his decision to leave Leicester City in 1997. He also talked about his subsequent career at Bolton Wanderers, Sheffield United and Notts County and his coaching exploits at Derby County, Burton Albion and Mansfield Town.  

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