Mike Whitlow

Former Player Remembers: Mike Whitlow (Part Two)

In the second part of Mike Whitlow's conversation with Club Historian John Hutchinson, the former Leicester City star reflected on the latter part of his time at Filbert Street.
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Mike recalled Brian Little’s controversial departure, playing under his replacement Mark McGhee, until he also left the Club a year later, the arrival of Martin O’Neill, the 1996 play-off final against Crystal Palace, winning the League Cup in 1997 and why he left Leicester City.

After winning promotion in 1994, life in the Premier League was hard and, with City in the relegation zone, Little left in November 1994 to go to Aston Villa.

Thinking back to this, Mike said: “Villa had seen what Brian had done at Leicester and he’d also been at Villa as a player. I won’t have a word said against any manager or coach that I’ve worked with because they gave me opportunities.

“Football's about taking an opportunity, managers having faith in you, you having faith in them, and them giving you opportunities.

I knew I had the opportunity to play. Being rejected as a youngster and working hard to get into the league had put things in perspective for me. As long as a manager let me play, I’d run round the field all day long.

Mike Whitlow

“You want people around you to be honest and who want you to do the best you can. I’d gone from Howard Wilkinson at Leeds, who gave me the opportunity to get back into the Football League, to Brian, who was at the different end of the scale from Howard.

“Howard would go loopy at you if you didn’t win. Brian was more calm and relaxed.”

McGhee replaced Little as manager in December 1994.

Mike continued: “He brought in Colin Lee, who was one of the best coaches I ever worked with. I learnt a great deal in a short space of time with Colin. He was really relaxed and really nice. He could talk to you and explain things. The detail he put into his sessions was really good. It was impeccable.

“You could pick his brains about football. He was like a book of knowledge. Colin was a coach. He was too nice to be a manager. Sometimes you have to have a ruthless streak.”

At the end of the season, Leicester were relegated, but in the first half of the following season (1995/96), McGhee’s side were playing attractive football, near the top of the table and looking good for an immediate return to the Premier League.

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Mike Whitlow
Mike Whitlow

After beating Stoke City in the semi-finals, the Foxes defeated Crystal Palace at Wembley to return to the Premier League.

Then, in December 1995, a year after Little had walked out on the Club, McGhee did the same to become manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers. 

“That was a strange one,” Mark remembered. “I knew that Brian wanted Simon [Grayson] and me at Villa, and Simon went there. Three days before Mark left, he pulled me into his office, outlined his plans for the Club and said he wanted me to sign a new contract.

“And then, three days later, he went to Wolves! Despite all of the words he had spoken to me, he jumped ship! 

“However, I’d signed a new contract. I knew I had the opportunity to play. Being rejected as a youngster and working hard to get into the league had put things in perspective for me. As long as a manager let me play, I’d run round the field all day long.

“I’d be happy because I loved being out there and was proud to be playing. At Leicester, we’d been to Wembley three times, we had a good group of lads, McGhee had come in, we were doing well and Colin was a fantastic coach.The Club in general was progressing and I felt I could learn a lot at Leicester.

“Then Martin O’Neill came in. I love this bloke to bits, even now. I could sit and listen to him all day. If you cut him in half, he’d bleed football. He was an absolute nutter at the side of a pitch, because in his head, he was still out there and he was going to win the game for you!

“He came with Steve Walford, John Robertson and Seamus McDonagh. He trusted this group and he was very loyal to them.”

O’Neill’s first three months were difficult. The team slipped from second to ninth in the table, winning only three of his first 16 league games. The low point was the home defeat to Sheffield United at the end of March when there was an angry crowd demonstration against the new manager.

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Leicester City 1996
Leicester City 1996

Mike Whitlow celebrates with his team-mates after Martin O'Neill guided the Club back to the top tier.

However, bolstered by new signings Neil Lennon, Muzzy Izzet, Steve Claridge and Julian Watts, in the eight games which followed, City won six, drew one, and scraped into the play-offs. They beat Stoke City in the semi-finals and then memorably overcame Crystal Palace at Wembley in the final.

Steve Claridge scored the winner four seconds from the end of extra-time with his famous ‘shinned’ goal. 

“The fans didn’t take to Martin too well at first,” Mike recalled. “They were telling him that he should be sacked and that they didn’t want him here. He kept all their letters. Then all of a sudden, we were in the play-offs and at Wembley again.

“Super Steve’s winning goal at Wembley! He can never say he didn’t shin it! The ball came across and, with his socks round his ankles, he hit it into the top right-hand corner four seconds from the end of extra time. There was no coming back for them.

“We’d had a tough year, but yes, we were back in the Premier League. 

“You’d look at Steve and think: ‘He’s never a footballer!’ He’d turn up for training in his gear, ready to train, with his socks round his ankles. He never wore shin pads and he’d do nothing in training. Then, all of a sudden, he’d score! One day in training he would be running everywhere.

“The next day, he wouldn’t, but on a Saturday afternoon, you could put your life on him. The lads loved him to bits. He never changed. His view was: ‘This is how I am and this is what you’re going to get fellas’.

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Mike Whitlow
Mike Whitlow

Mike Whitlow starred for City at Hillsborough as they beat Middlesbrough to win the League Cup.

“We went to an army place once for training and one of the blokes there was a bit cocky saying he could run further than any of us because of his endurance. Steve couldn’t run quickly but he could run all day. He took this bloke on and wiped the floor with him.

“If I had to pick a team of all the players I’d played with, Claridge would be on my teamsheet because I know he would give you absolutely everything, wanting to score, wanting to close down and wanting to put his head on the ball.”

With the team back in the Premier League, the following season (1996/97) was Mike’s final full year at Filbert Street. 

“I started the season in the side,” Mike recalled. “But then Martin brought Steve Guppy in. However, I played in the League Cup matches because Steve was cup-tied. I was fortunate to play in the final at Wembley. Pontus Kåmark also played. He’d been injured for a while.

“Martin told us to get ourselves fit and my first game back was at Wembley! I’d been on the bench just before the final. I’d worked hard with Pontus to get fit and Martin was fantastic with us. He wanted us to play. What an opportunity!

I’ve got a picture at home of me being nose to nose with Ravanelli because I’d kicked him from pillar to post and he must have hated me!

Mike Whitlow

“So my fifth Wembley final with Leicester was the Coca Cola Cup Final against Middlesbrough with [Fabrizio] Ravanelli, Emerson and Juninho [Paulista] in their side. As a kid, you dream about playing against players like that.

“I’ve got a picture at home of me being nose to nose with Ravanelli because I’d kicked him from pillar to post and he must have hated me!

“In the final, Pontus did a job on Juninho. He followed him everywhere. He was so focused. I don’t think he had more than four kicks, but neither did Juninho because he followed him everywhere. Pontus was a great player though. People in Leicester might not realise this, but he is a legend in Sweden.

“As captain of Sweden, he was very big in his home country. I saw this when I went to Gothenburg with him. 

“Middlesbrough should have won with their talent. Neil Cox, one of their defenders, said we’d mugged them! It was really 10 against 10 because Pontus cancelled Juninho out. Our attitude was: ‘Let’s give this a right good go! What have we got to lose?’

“The score was 1-1 after extra time with Emile [Heskey] scoring a late equaliser. Then there was the replay at Hillsborough. Claridge scored the winner in extra-time. What a night that was! It was special. Those days don’t come often.

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Leicester City 1997
Leicester City 1997

Less than a year after promotion, the Foxes lifted the League Cup - sparking celebrations for Mike Whitlow and his colleagues.

“You look back and sometimes you don’t appreciate how lucky and fortunate you’ve been because my career started from Non League. Then, I joined the Football league. I’d had two championships with Leeds and, with Leicester, I’d had four Wembley play-off finals and then a League Cup at Wembley.

“Leicester City made me the person and the player I became. I grew up a lot more there. I worked hard. Instead of thinking: ‘What am I doing here?’ I now felt: ‘This feels right. I deserve it.’ I turned from being a quiet young man into one who was confident in myself.

“I grew up because of the surroundings at Leicester with players like Walshie (Steve Walsh), Muzzy [Izzet], [Neil] Lennon and Pontus.”

In September 1997, Mike left Leicester for Bolton Wanderers, newly promoted Premier League.

He explained: “Martin came to me when we were on the plane coming back from playing Atlético Madrid. When we’d landed and were coming back on the bus, he told me that Bolton wanted me. We had a really good chat. He said he wanted me to stay.

“He wanted me to play at centre-half rather than left back, because Guppy was a left wing-back and I was getting to be more of a defender rather than going forward. I still wanted to play at left-back but I knew Steve would play there.

“To be fair, Steve was technically a million miles better than me, so I went to Bolton. When Sam Allardyce became Bolton’s manager in 1999, he told me not to go over the half-way line, play at centre-half, head and kick the ball, give it to someone else and just stop players scoring.

“That’s what Martin had wanted to do two years earlier but, at that time, in my head I was still this attacking full-back. Looking back, Martin was talking common sense, bless him.”

Bolton were relegated from the Premier League at the end of Mike’s first season there, but he played in the following season’s play-off final at Wembley, losing to Watford. He was at Wembley again in 2001 when Bolton’s victory over Preston North End at saw him return to the Premier League, playing with the likes of Youri Djorkaeff and Ivan Campo and winning the Players’ Player of the Year award.

Mike subsequently spent a year at Sheffield United, and then began his coaching career at Notts County, before becoming Head of Youth Development, first at Mansfield Town, and then at Burton Albion. He returned to Mansfield in 2016, where he has coached the Under-18s and the Under-21s.

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