Alan Birchenall

Former Player Remembers: Alan 'The Birch' Birchenall

This weekend, on Saturday 2 October, Club Ambassador Alan ‘The Birch’ Birchenall will celebrate the half-century anniversary of his Leicester City debut.
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No other player in the Club’s history has had such a long working association with the Club. The Birch came to Filbert Street with a formidable reputation forged at the highest level with Sheffield United, Chelsea and Crystal Palace. An England Under-23s international, he was the first player to command three £100,000 transfer fees. Sitting in his office at his home, Birch recalled how he came to sign for Leicester City.

“The first I knew about Leicester’s interest in me,” he began, “was when (Crystal Palace’s manager) Bert Head called me into his office to tell me that Leicester wanted to sign me. 

“I’d grown up in Nottingham and had played for Nottingham Boys against Leicester Boys at Filbert Street. I’d also played at Filbert Street for Sheffield United, Chelsea and Crystal Palace. I’d always thought that Filbert Street was a bit run down. I’d played at Old Trafford, Highbury and Anfield, but my goodness, that Double Decker at Leicester was frightening. 

“I’d been at Palace for one season, after leaving Chelsea. To be honest, I didn’t think that Palace would survive in the First Division. Also, Steve Kember, who was my best mate at Palace and who was an integral part of their midfield, had just left for Chelsea. For these reasons, I didn’t hesitate about the move to Leicester.

Jimmy Bloomfield had recently been appointed as Leicester’s manager. As Second Division champions, they had just won the Charity (Community Shield) by beating Liverpool and I thought then that Leicester looked to be a very useful outfit. And then, out of the blue, the approach came from Leicester. 

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

Jostling for possession with Manchester United's Bobby Charlton during his time at Crystal Palace.

“The fee was £100,000 but I didn’t even ask about the fee, or about the money. Part of the deal was for Bobby Kellard to go from Leicester to Palace. I never saw Bobby at that time. I don’t think he was interested in moving but he got a bit disillusioned with Leicester as he felt that they didn’t want him. 

“A few years back, when I’d finished playing, I saw him in Spain where he ran a bar. He asked me if I’d any regrets about moving to Leicester and I replied that it was the best thing that happened to me. This was a few years back and I told him that I was working for them part-time as the era of commercialism was just starting. 

“When I moved to Leicester, I didn’t know Jimmy Bloomfield or his ideology. I knew he’d been a skilful player with Arsenal. I first met him when I drove up to Leicester for talks about signing. I remember going into his rickety old office at Filbert Street. The board room next door was like a museum. It was all old furniture with wood panelling and the trophy cabinet. 

“I signed on for the same money that I was on at Palace. Nowadays, players and their agents have full control in the negotiations but back then, the clubs had 100 per cent control. They told you what you were going to get. Negotiations were very limited. 

“However, I had a problem. The Inland Revenue had got hold of me. When I was at Chelsea, I had a house at Ascot. When I moved to Palace, on top of my signing on fee, they offered me an apartment in an exclusive area in south London called Banstead for £5 per month! I thought this was really good, but the Inland Revenue calculated the value of the real rent for the property. As a result, my signing on fee for Leicester went straight to pay the tax for that. 

There were some very good players at Leicester when I arrived 50 years ago. Shilts [Peter Shilton] was in goal. He was incredible. One of my first games for Leicester was at West Ham, with World Cup winners [Bobby] Moore, [Geoff] Hurst and [Martin] Peters in the side and with Harry Redknapp on the wing. I’m originally from East Ham and all my family were there. We drew 1-1.

The Birch

“When I arrived at Leicester, Jon Sammels had just signed for £100,000. He was from Arsenal, who had just won the double. He was a top player. 

“Also, when I signed, Jimmy told me that the he would be signing another top quality player, Chelsea’s Keith Weller for another £100,000. I thought to myself: ‘This is incredible. Leicester are signing three top quality players – if you include me! – for £100,000 each. They’ve really gone for it!’ 

“There were some very good players at Leicester when I arrived. Shilts (Peter Shilton) was in goal. He was incredible. One of my first games for Leicester was at West Ham, with World Cup winners [Bobby] Moore, [Geoff] Hurst and [Martin] Peters in the side and with Harry Redknapp on the wing. I’m originally from East Ham and all my family were there. We drew 1-1. Crossy (Graham Cross) scored for us. I remember coming back on the coach and across from me was Shilts. I’d played with England goalkeepers Alan Hodgkinson and Peter Bonetti at Sheffield United and Chelsea and with John Jackson at Palace. All of them were great ‘keepers. I looked across at Shilts and thought: ‘He’s good, this lad!’ I’d seen him make some unbelievable saves in the match and in training. 

“David Nish was there when I signed. I called him ‘The Galleon’ because he drifted across the surface. He didn’t look as though he was covering any ground and then he’d just sprint straight past you! He was quality. 

“There was also big [John] Sjoberg and Crossy (Graham Cross) at the back. They complimented each other. Big ‘Sjoey’ (John Sjoberg) was an old type centre-half, a bit like [Steve] Walsh, [Matt] Elliott and [Gerry] Taggart. 

“Lenny Glover was also there when I arrived at Filbert Street and later, of course, Dennis Rofe, and Frank ‘Elvis’ Worthington arrived, but those two weren’t there when I joined. 

Being involved with the Club for the last 50 years has given me great pride and pleasure. That’s why I’ve tried to give so much back. It’s been a privilege.

The Birch

“When I signed for Leicester, I was a striker, but after a year, I moved to midfield. I’ll be quite honest: for eight or nine years, playing as a striker for Sheffield United, Chelsea, Palace and Leicester, I’d been clattered by men like Jackie Charlton, Brian Labone, Ron Yeats, Tommy Smith and ‘Chopper Harris’ (Ron Harris). By the time I got to Leicester, all the steam had been kicked out of me! It was brutal. I used to get up and carry on, but I had teeth knocked out, gashes and other injuries. 

“I suggested to Jim that I moved to midfield and, for the rest of my time at Leicester, I played in the centre of a midfield three, with Wells (Keith Weller) on one side and Sammy (Jon Sammels) on the other. Even an idiot like me could perform in that midfield. I had the role that [Wilfred] Ndidi has today, but I came nowhere near to doing what he does!” 

Eleven days after Birch celebrated the 50th anniversary of his signing for Leicester City, he will then celebrate, on 2 October, half a century since his Foxes debut. 

This was against the club he had just left, Crystal Palace. Leicester City’s opponents on the weekend of the 50th anniversary of Birch’s debut will be none other than ...Crystal Palace! Until the game was switched to Sunday 3 October for Sky Sports coverage, the game was scheduled to be played exactly 50 years to the day after Birch made his debut. 

Reflecting on this coincidence, Birch continued: “The coincidences that have happened throughout my life and my career are too strange for me to take on board. It makes you think. Playing against Palace on the 50th anniversary weekend of my debut is not a coincidence. If I try to explain my theory and thoughts about why we’re here, it’s too deep, but this was meant to be. I believe that everything is mapped out for everybody on this planet from the day they are born.” 

As for the Birch’s debut itself, it was originally scheduled for the fixture against Arsenal at Highbury on 25 September, 1971, but he was injured. 

“I remember that Jim took me and Lenny Glover onto the pitch at Highbury before the game,” Birch recalled. “We were both injured, but he said to us that one of us would have to play. I looked at Len and said that I was really struggling with an ankle ligament injury so Len said that he would play. This gave me a bit of extra time, so my debut was against Palace a week later.” 

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

The Birch has helped raise millions of pounds for local causes over his time at the Club.

Looking at the match report for his debut game, from a distance of 50 years, Birch noticed that his old side Sheffield United were top of the old First Division and that Crystal Palace were bottom, with Leicester City two places above them.

The game was a goalless draw. Bobby Kellard was in the Palace team against his old team-mates. The report stated: ‘The weather was glorious and the crowd looked in the region of 30,000 [...] 'Birchenall, Leicester’s expensive new signing, had few chances to shine but he was always willing enough to chase.’ 

Reading this report about his debut, Birch commented: “Today, people think that closing down players is new. Forwards back in my day just waited for opportunities, but I used to chase people down. I was the original player to close players down! I made myself busy. What I lacked in the finer arts I made up by being good in the air, I could do flick-ons, I had an awareness of the game, I had a half decent left foot – my right foot was useless! – and I could chase people down.” 

Following his debut, the Birch was a regular in the first team for the next four seasons. Thinking back, he continued: “We weren’t consistent enough, but on our day we could beat anybody and we could certainly entertain the fans.” 

Since hanging up his boots, Alan has become a true Club legend. He was Leicester City’s first-ever ambassador. Working with the Club, he has raised over £1M for charity, has received an MBE and has become an Honorary Freeman of Leicester. The University of Leicester have made him an Honorary Doctor of Law.

He has interpreted this role in his own distinctive way by working tirelessly to help others in the community in countless ways. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the way he has developed this role is uniquely effective and second to none. 

Birch concluded by saying: “Over my 50 years at the Club, I’ve been through the lot: trials, tribulations, excitement, promotions, relegations, administration, the tragic helicopter crash, winning the Premier League and the FA Cup, playing in Europe, the new Seagrave training ground and women’s football. The last 11 years have changed our Club forever. Don’t let us ever forget where we could have been had the new owners not come into the Football Club. Being involved with the Club for the last 50 years has given me great pride and pleasure. That’s why I’ve tried to give so much back. It’s been a privilege.” 

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