In August 1972, the Foxes paid Leyton Orient a national record fee for a full-back to bring Dennis to Filbert Street, where he rejoined his old O's manager Jimmy Bloomfield. A key member of Bloomfield’s entertaining Leicester City sides, he also played for the Foxes manager’s successors, Frank McLintock and Jock Wallace.
He made 324 starts for the Foxes before being signed by Chelsea manager Geoff Hurst in February 1980. He finished his playing career at Southampton and then embarking on a lengthy coaching career.
Dennis began by explaining how his career in football as a player, coach and manager began.
“I was picked for the East London Boys Under-13s team,” Dennis recalled. “We won a few games and reached a cup final against South London. The match was at Leyton Orient’s ground. Afterwards, a couple of Orient’s scouts asked four of us if we’d like to go training with them on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. So that’s what we did and three of us went on to get professional contracts: myself, Terry Brisley and Paul Went.
“After two years, I was offered an apprenticeship and I signed professional when I was 18. My first manager at Orient was Benny Fenton, then it was Dave Sexton, then Dick Graham and then Jimmy Bloomfield came in 1968.
“I made my first team debut when I was in the youth team. It was against Bristol Rovers. By then Jimmy Bloomfield was the manager. The following season (1969/70), Orient won the Third Division (now League 1) title. That team recently got together for a Sunday afternoon dinner. I think we only used 17 players in that promotion season. Four players didn’t miss a game and I only missed one. There were fans at the dinner too and we did a Q&A. The sad thing was that there were only about 10 of the team there because the others had all passed on.”
In the first season in the second tier, Dennis was an ever-present in the Orient side and, the following season, in February 1972, the Londoners were drawn away against Leicester City in the fourth round of the FA Cup in front of a crowd of over 31,000. By this time, his old Orient manager Jimmy Bloomfield was in his first season in charge at Filbert Street.
Dennis joined the Club from Leyton Orient and would leave the Foxes to join Chelsea in 1980.
“We won 2-0,” Dennis recalled. “Peter Shilton missed the game and Leicester had their reserve goalkeeper, Carl Jayes, who was making his debut. He dropped a high ball which led to our second goal. It was a good day. Filbert Street had a good atmosphere. I remember that the rain came down and the pitch wasn’t that good.
“As I was coming off the pitch, the Orient supporters were saying to me: ‘Oh. I bet you’re glad that you didn’t go to Leicester now!’ This was because Jimmy had tried to sign me. Little did I know then that I would end up playing for Leicester City.”
Orient went on to defeat Chelsea in the fifth round before losing 1-0 to Arsenal in the quarter-finals.
Five months later, in August 1972, Dennis did sign for Bloomfield’s Leicester City.
“Jimmy was a big factor in me coming to Filbert Street,” Dennis explained. “Also, he told me that he’d signed quite a few players that I’d know of from the London area, like Alan Birchenall, Keith Weller and John Sammels, and that they’d be more to come as well.
“My transfer fee was £112,000, which was a British record for a full-back, but I think it was only the following day when Leicester sold David Nish to Derby for over £200,000, so I was only the most expensive full-back for a little while!
“Frank Worthington signed for Leicester at about the same time as me. I was staying at the Holiday Inn and Frank was staying there as well, so I didn’t get a lot of sleep! Frank was going to sign for Liverpool but his blood pressure was too high so Leicester signed him.
“I settled in at Leicester quickly. When I signed in August, I was engaged to be married. We brought the wedding forward to November and we bought a newly-built four bedroom detached house for £12,000, which in those days was a lot of money. The wives of the players were very helpful and Sue, my wife, used to go round and sleep on a Friday night if we went away to play.”
The full-back is still fondly remembered by Foxes supporters of the era.
Dennis adapted quickly on the pitch as well. He missed very few matches during the next seven and a half years. As Dennis explained: “We had a settled defence with Peter Shilton, Steve Whitworth, Graham Cross, Malcolm Munro and Alan Woollett. Mark Wallington and Jeff Blockley came a little bit later.”
In his first season at Filbert Street, Dennis became an England Under-23s international.
He added: “We went on a tour to Denmark, Germany and Czechoslovakia. I played against Czechoslovakia in Bratislava and I was very proud of that. I’ve still got the cap and I wouldn’t part with it for the world!”
The following season (1973/74), Dennis was an ever-present in the Leicester City side which finished ninth in the old First Division. Considered to be one of the most entertaining sides in England, City also had a superb FA Cup run, producing spectacular performances in away victories at Luton Town and Queens Park Rangers before being defeated by Liverpool in the semi-finals after a replay.
Thinking back, Dennis recalled: “We drew 0-0 with Liverpool in the first game at Old Trafford in a game that could have gone either way. Then we were beaten 3-1 at Villa Park in the replay. It would have been brilliant to reach the final.”
By this time, Steve Earle had signed from Fulham and, the following season (1974/75), Leicester City struggled until the arrivals of Chris Garland from Chelsea and Jeff Blockley from Arsenal strengthened the side. A highlight of that season for Dennis was when he scored a memorable winning goal in a 4-3 victory at Birmingham City.
In 1975/76, with Brain Alderson and Steve Kember now in the side, Leicester, with Dennis again not missing a game, finished a creditable seventh in the top flight.
“The camaraderie at the Club at this time was unbelievable,” Dennis remembered. “We used to go out during the week and play darts or snooker in local working men’s clubs. We’d take a signed shirt or something like that with us. It was a really good PR job. In those days, you could have a beer and play darts and snooker and people wouldn’t bother you. Nowadays, everyone wants to get their phone out and take your photo crossing the road! We also used to go out, six couples, on a Saturday night.”
Rofe was part of an immensely popular squad of players.
After six seasons at Filbert Street, Bloomfield left in May 1977 despite the Club being eighth in the top flight with three games to go, before losing their last three games and finishing 11th.
“Jimmy was absolutely first-class as a manager,” Dennis reflected. “We were upset when he lost his job. I think the directors might have wanted a little bit more. We had a little dip and Jim paid the price. I’ve since learned that directors can be funny people.”
Bloomfield’s successor was Frank McLintock, who had been a big star at Leicester City before going on to captain Arsenal to the league and FA Cup double.
“I understand why the directors appointed him because he’d been a really good player for Leicester,” Dennis added. “But it was a little bit too early for him to manage really. Jimmy knew how to manage players. That’s half the battle. You’ve got to have knowledge of the game, obviously, but you’ve also got to get the players believing in themselves and in the manager and Frank never quite got that. Also, he made a few signings who didn’t really help the team.”
Leicester were relegated at the end of the season, by which time McLintock had left the Club. His replacement was Jock Wallace, the Glasgow Rangers manager.
Dennis continued: “Whereas Jimmy Bloomfield had a very calm, non-confrontational attitude, Jock Wallace was totally different, but he was a marvellous man. He made me captain. He had us running up and down sand hills when training. It was hard, but in Jock’s view, if you weren’t fit you couldn’t win games.
“He was an absolute legend. In one game, he was shouting instructions at me in his broad Scottish accent. On the Monday morning, he dragged me into his office, grabbed me and hung me up on the door, on a coat peg! Then he said: ‘You’re my captain. Don’t you ever ignore me when playing’. I said: ‘Governor, I didn’t do it on purpose, I just couldn’t understand what you were saying!’ He took the point: ‘OK wee man’.
In Wallace’s first season (1978/79), with young players like Tommy Williams, Trevor Christie, Mark Goodwin, Larry May, John O’Neill, Dave Buchanan, Andy Peake and Gary Lineker coming through, the team only finished 17th in the Second Division, but these youngsters, together with more experienced stars, played an important part in the side winning the Second Division title the following season.
However, in February of that title-winning season, with Leicester near the top of the table, Dennis signed for promotion rivals Chelsea.
“I was 30 and I wanted to play in the First Division again,” Dennis explained. “I knew I didn’t have too much time left in the game, so I asked for a transfer. Our promotion rivals Chelsea came in for me. I thought they had a better chance of promotion than Leicester, so I signed for them. At the end of the season, Leicester got promoted and Chelsea didn’t, failing on goal difference! I felt a bit sick about that but, at the end of the season, Leicester said that as I’d played so many games for them that season, I could have a medal.
“I was at Chelsea for two years. Geoff Hurst signed me. He was good but, unfortunately, we didn’t go up the following season either and he was sacked. I was captain and Geoff Hurst’s replacement, John Neal, wanted to keep me because of my experience, but I was injured towards the end of my second season and he let me go for nothing.
Dennis had a brief managerial career after his playing days were over.
“I went to Southampton, who were in the old First Division. Soon after I arrived there, Kevin Keegan left. There wasn’t enough room in the dressing room for Keegan and Rofe, so Keegan went! He was a legend. Peter Shilton was also there and, in my second season, Southampton finished runners-up in the league to Liverpool. I was a squad member rather than a first team player.”
Dennis then embarked on a long coaching career.
“I was doing my coaching badge at Lilleshall when I joined Southampton,” Dennis recalled. “When the coach, Frank Burrows left, the manager Lawrie McMenemy let me have a go at coaching the reserves. I quickly found that playing and coaching wasn’t the right thing for me, so I packed up playing. I went on to have three spells, totalling 18 years, coaching at Southampton, including being first team coach.”
Dennis also had spells managing Bristol Rovers and Bournemouth.
Summing up his career, Dennis concluded: “We had a great team at Leicester. We had great camaraderie. We also had a marvellous manager, Jimmy Bloomfield. The best playing years of my life were at Leicester.”
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