David Pleat

Former Manager Remembers: David Pleat

In 2019, Club Historian John Hutchinson spoke to former Leicester City manager David Pleat about his career in football, which has spanned six decades.

His appointment as City’s manager in 1987 was the result of his impressive managerial achievements at both Luton Town and Tottenham Hotspur. David’s knowledge of football and the esteem he commands within the game have made him very popular and respected figure not only within the media but also in the wider world of football.

A speedy winger, David’s football career began in his home town Nottingham.

Thinking back, David said: “The inside-left in the Nottingham schoolboys Under-14s and Under-15s teams was Alan Birchenall. I made all of his goals but he still tells me he was the best player in the team! When the schoolboy thing finished about three of us made our way to professional clubs but Birch didn't.

"He went to an amateur team called Thorneywood Athletic which was one of the best young clubs in Nottingham. He did it the hard way. His determination, drive, and self-confidence won him a contract at Sheffield United and the rest is in the record books. He had a superb career. He’s a character and a good lad.” 

An England schoolboy and youth international winger, David went on to play for Nottingham Forest, Luton Town, Shrewsbury Town, Exeter City and Peterborough United before moving to Southern League Nuneaton Borough in 1971 as player-manager.

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David Pleat
David Pleat

David Pleat was a largely admired youth player early on in his career.

He later he became a youth coach at Luton, before becoming chief coach and then manager in January 1978. An advocate of attacking and attractive football, David guided Luton to the top flight in 1982.

The following season, his celebratory jig across the Maine Road pitch to celebrate staying in the top flight was seen by millions of TV viewers. Narrowly beaten by Everton in the 1985 FA Cup Semi-Final, Pleat’s Luton finished ninth in the old First Division the following season, the highest in the club’s history. 

Thinking back, David reflected: “Prior to coming to Luton, everyone would recall a Keith Weller goal at Kenilworth Road in a wonderful 4-0 victory for Leicester. In my time at Luton, we had many encounters with Leicester.

"One of the players I signed was Alan Birchenall (in May 1979) when he was having his swan song. I did this for him to cheer up the dressing room... which he did. I remember that once we went to Leicester on a Saturday afternoon and the heavens opened. He ran out for the second half under an umbrella. Unfortunately, he found out why I signed him and he left a few months later! 

“I always thought, in Jock Wallace's time at Leicester City, that Alan Young was a great help to the emerging Gary Lineker. Jock's assistants were Ian MacFarlane and Eddie May, both since sadly passed away, who were looking after a young, exciting Leicester team, which included the likes of Steve Whitworth, Ian Wilson, Larry May, Steve Lynex, Alan Young, and Lineker. 

In the first few months, we had a terrific run. We had players like Russell Osman, Gary McAllister, Mike Newell, plus outstanding signings at the time like Nicky Cross and Peter Weir. They shot us up the league from a very difficult situation.

David Pleat

“I remember a match against Leicester which was televised on London ITV’s Big Match programme. We’d beaten Leicester but I was quite downbeat about our performance in the post-match TV interview. Jock, standing beside me, said I didn't need to be downbeat because they would only see the highlights and without my comments, we would've been seen in a good light. It was a very interesting thing for him to say.”

With a burgeoning reputation as an innovative manager receptive to new ideas, David replaced Peter Shreeves as Tottenham Hotspur’s manager in May 1986.

Playing some of the most attractive football seen at White Hart Lane for years, his side finished third in the First Division and reached the FA Cup Final and a League Cup Semi-Final. Reflecting on this, David added: “One of my great regrets is that we were denied a place in Europe due to the Heysel ban.”

In December 1987, with recently relegated Leicester in 23rd position in the Second Division, Pleat replaced Bryan Hamilton as manager. 

His impact was immediate. He soon had City playing his trademark attractive football. Results improved dramatically.

His new side displayed title winning form, gaining 34 points from the last 17 games. In marked contrast to the seven games before David’s appointment, when the team hadn’t scored once, Leicester netted in every one of these 17 games. 

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David Pleat's Leicester City
David Pleat's Leicester City

The early form was promising for David Pleat at Filbert Street.

“I took over from Bryan Hamilton,” David recalled. “It's never easy when someone gets the sack and you take over his job, but I happened to see him recently and we're still as friendly as ever. A real gentleman. 

“In the first few months, we had a terrific run. We had players like Russell Osman, Gary McAllister, Mike Newell, plus outstanding signings at the time like Nicky Cross and Peter Weir.

"They shot us up the league from a very difficult situation. In the last game, at Middlesbrough, we won 2-1, played outstandingly well and denied them automatic promotion. We were confident that the following season would be successful. 

“The bookmakers made us favourites to be promoted the following season. Unfortunately, freedom of contract had been introduced and I lost Russell Osman to Southampton, after tribunal. The following year, Gary McAllister left for Leeds in the same circumstances, and then Mike Newell went too. These players couldn’t be replaced.

“Leicester was a fantastic club, but I have to tell you, they were financially bereft. It was a nightmare to lose Osman, who was so vital to us, McAllister, and Newell too. It was very difficult to replace these players with no money. It was my Achilles heel. 

“Leicester was a very friendly, democratic club. The board was led by Terry Shipman, but unfortunately, they had no financial muscle. They resisted Trevor Bennett, a wealthy local self-made man who wished to invest in the Club. Bennett really loved me, you know. He was desperate to come on the board. He had the money, but in the end, he took it to Newcastle which was a great shame.”

I watch a lot of matches. You learn from looking at other club's programmes. I think City’s programme is one of the best. It’s always produced brilliantly.

David Pleat

Hampered by financial constraints, City were bottom of the old Second Division after the first 12 games in the 1989/90.

David improved matters in November, with the loan arrivals of Arsenal teenager Kevin Campbell and Tottenham Hotspur’s outside-right Paul Moran. Their three-month loans spells included seven wins. Later that season, David signed Manchester City’s David Oldfield and West Ham United’s David Kelly, whose impact was immediate. He scored seven goals in his first seven games, helping Leicester achieve a final position of 13th.

“When I was at Leicester,” David recalled, “there was a bit of indiscipline on the field particularly with Ali Mauchlen, Paul Ramsey, and Steve Walsh. This indiscipline cost me a cup tie at Millwall, which we were winning. I'll never forget it but there you go, that's football.” 

Pleat left Leicester in January 1991 with City fighting relegation. Terry Shipman also chose to resign as chairman of the board. 

He explained: “When, after three years, I got a phone call from Terry, it wasn't unexpected. He told me: ‘We had a board meeting last night, and although I desperately wanted you to stay, I was out-voted and I'm afraid it's time to part company.’ Then he said the magic words: ‘What is worse, they want me to go too!’ Terry then explained: ‘You've done brilliantly in getting plenty of pounds, but unfortunately, not enough points!’”

David’s next move was to return to Kenilworth Road in 1991, where he spent the next four years as Luton Town’s manager. 

Later in his career, David moved to manage Sheffield Wednesday between 1995 and 1997 and then back to Tottenham Hotspur as director of football and for three spells as caretaker manager. He also acted as a consultant a several clubs.

“This was mainly at Nottingham Forest,” David said. “I had great respect for, and an exceptionally good relationship with, their sadly missed chairman Nigel Doughty.”

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David Pleat
David Pleat

David Pleat now follows grassroots and youth team football.

David now considers himself to be in semi-retirement but he is still a keen follower of the game. 

“I am enjoying watching lower league football and academy football on behalf of Tottenham,” he explained. “I watched Leicester and Blackburn the other week in an Under-23s fixture. I watch a lot of matches.

"You learn from looking at other club's programmes. I think City’s programme is one of the best. It’s always produced brilliantly. For example, if I was coming this Saturday to Leicester, I'd immediately look for your youth and academy results, see who's playing and see for example, if there's a leading goalscorer there who's got something. That would then be a player that I have to look at.”

David is widely respected and is considered to be one of the most knowledgeable men in football, so it’s hardly surprising that he has worked extensively in the media making insightful contributions to The Guardian, Daily Mail, ITV, Radio 5, Premier League Productions, and Backpass Magazine

Reflecting on his career in football, which has spanned six decades, David concluded by saying: “In 1978, I took over from Bobby Robson on the board of the Football League Secretaries and Managers Association, (now the League Managers Association).

"I still fulfil this role today, 31 years later and am proud of my contribution. During my career, I have been fortunate enough to mix with and know some fantastic people. Luckily, like my friend The Birch, it has been a long and rewarding career. I have enjoyed my journey so far.”

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