Tony Cottee

Records, O'Neill & Lifting A Cup – Cottee Speaks

The sight of Tony Cottee in tears on the pitch at Wembley in March 1999 – after Leicester City's last-gasp defeat by Tottenham Hotspur in the final of the League Cup – appeared to be a heartbreaking final act in the striker's career.
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However, as we talk in the garage he's recently converted into a bar at his home in Southend, Essex, there's a framed Foxes shirt on the wall, next to a photograph of the now-56-year-old lifting the League Cup a year later – the only major trophy of his professional career. 

It was an achievement which cemented Tony's status as a Leicester legend, but it was also one of the major plot twists of a story which spanned well over the 19 years he spent playing football in English football. It includes chapters in the east end of London and Merseyside too.

"I’ve got three great former clubs," he says. "I think the fans appreciate that I always gave 100 per cent. I didn’t always play well, but I always tried.

"If it doesn’t happen, you’re still trying. On the flip side, when you do get it right and you’re scoring goals, the fans always look up to their goalscorers for obvious reasons. You can’t get away from that fact. If you’re a goalscorer, the fans love you. I scored goals for all three clubs and it’s lovely for me.

"I go back to all three grounds and I get welcomed. The fans are brilliant with me. There can’t be that many players who get a good reception at all the clubs they played for. You might get it at one or two, but to get it at three clubs is special for me.

"I had wonderful times and different emotions at all the clubs. I absolutely loved playing for West Ham, Everton and Leicester City. In the main, all clubs have done well since I left. They were all in the top-10 last season and it’s nice to see. Being a part of the Leicester story last season, covering the cup final, and what they’ve achieved recently, it’s been brilliant. They’re a real example for every club to follow on and off the field."

I didn’t really take penalties too. I think I scored seven or eight penalties in my career. It was Ray Stewart on pens at West Ham first time, then Julian Dicks the second time – both fantastic penalty takers. We had Peter Beardsley at Everton and Muzzy Izzet at Leicester, so you’re not going to get a look-in with those lot!

Tony Cottee

Since 1970, only two players have scored more goals in England's top flight than Cottee – Alan Shearer and Ian Rush. Although Cottee's goal haul stands at 214 in total, it is just 78 in the Premier League.

The Premier League's all-time top goalscorers list is topped by Shearer and includes the likes of Wayne Rooney, Andy Cole, Sergio Agüero, Frank Lampard and Thierry Henry towards it apex.

Apart from Shearer, Cottee scored more than them all in the top flight, albeit mostly in a 22-team league, not the 20-team structure of today. Twenty-seven of his 214 top flight goals came for the Foxes, 115 at West Ham and 72 with Everton.

"When you watch the Premier League 100 Club show, it’s a nice little programme with all the goals, and I only scored 78 Premier League goals," he adds.

"But I also scored 140-odd in the old Division One, so people forget those. I’m thinking, hold on a sec, I’m in the 200 Club, not the 100 Club! Since I retired, I sometimes joke with people and ask them to name the players who scored more league goals than me.

"People always say names like Thierry Henry, Robin van Persie, Didier Drogba, Sergio Agüero. None of them scored more league goals than me - I’m immensely proud of my goalscoring.

"I didn’t really take penalties too. I think I scored seven or eight penalties in my career. It was Ray Stewart on pens at West Ham first time, then Julian Dicks the second time – both fantastic penalty takers. We had Peter Beardsley at Everton and Muzzy Izzet at Leicester, so you’re not going to get a look-in with those lot!"

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Tony Cottee

Tony's walls at home are proudly decorated with reminders of his careers at West Ham United, Everton and Leicester City.

Fans of West Ham United, Everton or Leicester City, though, don't need educating on Cottee's striking ability. Whether it's in the east end of London, Merseyside or the East Midlands, Tony is often greeted with open arms by supporters of all three for his efforts over a magnificent 19-year career. 

Tony was born in Forest Gate Hospital in Newham, but his passport says his place of birth is West Ham. Among the terrace houses and cobbled streets of Forest Gate is where Tony spent the first 18 months of his life. As many east London families do, the Cottees soon moved to Essex.

A year later, there was another move, to north Romford, a place called Collier Row, where Tony would spend his formative years growing up. It was with Romford Royals, a side which he joined aged seven, playing with and against older boys, where he played on full-size pitches with full-size goals too.

"It wasn't bad for us strikers!" he laughs. During one season, young Tony scored 99 goals in a side which included apprentices at Chelsea, Millwall and West Ham. He can recall one afternoon when he came up against a centre-back called George Parris, who he'd one day play alongside at West Ham.

"I might have been about 4ft 10ins and he was 5ft 10ins. He was a foot taller than me and he was big, strong and powerful… everything. The thing was, he never grew anymore, and I was still growing and caught up with him! But that was what I was up against. All the other lads were taller than me.

"My dad was instrumental in me growing up as a kid. I was moaning one day about how tall everyone was and he said: ‘Look, you’ll get to 5ft 8ins’. It wasn’t like I had a 6 footer in there, but all my family grew to about 5ft 8ins. I was only going to get so high, but I would grow.

I said: ‘Are you going to take me to school every morning?’ He said: ‘No, you’re going to go on your bike and it’ll build your quads up!’

Tony Cottee

"My dad sat me down and we looked at all the top strikers in the world at that moment in time. This is mid-to-late ‘70s. We looked at Kevin Keegan… 5ft 8ins. Pelé, the best player in the world at the time… 5ft 9ins. Gerd Müller, another one of my heroes, who’s recently died unfortunately… 5ft 8ins.

"So my dad told me not to worry about my height, he showed me that there were top players out there who were shorter. Look today as well, Lionel Messi’s 5ft 6ins. I don’t need to say any more, do I?"

As Tony headed into his teenage years, he'd already decided he wanted to have a crack at being a footballer. He knew he could score goals, but he needed the right environment. His father, a role-model figure in his life, knew exactly what he needed. 

Tony's dad got him a place at the Warren School in Chadwell Heath, around four miles away from the family home. 

"My dad chose the school that was best for me from a PE point of view," Cottee adds. "He’d been a part-time coach at a school called Warren and I could play all the sports there.

"It would’ve helped me improve physically and play my football, but it was four miles away. I said: ‘Are you going to take me to school every morning?’ He said: ‘No, you’re going to go on your bike and it’ll build your quads up!’

"He was right, of course, it helped me, but it didn’t matter whether it was rainy, windy, snowy… I had to cycle to school. Dad was working, he was grafting, trying to build his business in insurance. He had to put food on the table so he couldn’t drive me every day.

"Eventually, by the time I got through my senior years, we were relatively comfortable. We’d started to move up in the world. It was tough for me because I was small and you have to be dedicated.

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Ron Greenwood & Tony Cottee

Former West Ham manager Ron Greenwood presents Cottee with the PFA Young Player of the Year award in 1986.

"Of my three best mates at school, two of them got put inside for drugs, and the other got put inside for burglary. I had a choice, you either go down the path of having a bit of fun, or you go and be dedicated and try and be a footballer."

By taking the latter route, Tony soon found himself on the books at West Ham – the dream for a boy from Essex. John Lyall was the manager of the Hammers in 1981 when, on a May morning, Cottee arrived with a neat haircut eager to make an impression at his boyhood club.

West Ham's senior players had just broken up for the summer and apprentices were invited to take a look around. By the end of the day, Tony found himself creosoting the fence, cutting the grass, painting the goal posts, washing the boots and cleaning the toilets.

"Here I am thinking I’d gone there to play football and I’m doing all this!" he recalls. "Looking back, it was a real grounding experience. It was John’s way of saying: ‘You may want to be a footballer, but you’ve got to learn. You’ve got to do the basics'.

"Back in those days, you’d look after a pro. You’d clean their boots and all that. So, when they got back from their holiday, you’d have to do it all. I worked all through May, had June off, and then I was back in and I was told I’d be the apprentice for Frank Lampard senior.

"Frank was one of my heroes. I’d seen him play at Wembley six months earlier. It was surreal. To be a fan of your club and then go to your club, it makes it special. I think I was very carefully selected and chosen to be developed in a certain way."

On the Friday before a New Year's Day clash with rivals Tottenham Hotspur, Lyall hauled Cottee and room-mate Alan Dickens in for an afternoon training session. He was in the squad. Tony thought they'd been brought along for the ride, to get a taste of senior football from the safety of the substitutes' bench.

Nobody tells you want to do. Geoff Pike was next to me at the dinner table and asked for fillet steak, chips and peas. I thought to myself: ‘Oh that sounds nice’. I’d never had a steak before!

Tony Cottee

About an hour and a half before kick-off, the sound of Lyall's footsteps bounced off the brick walls in the Upton Park dugout and he locked his eyes on Tony.

"He just said: ‘Do you want to play for West Ham?’ The debut went exactly how I wanted it to go. I would’ve dreamed of scoring after 25 minutes and beating Spurs 3-0. I was playing against Glenn Hoddle, Garth Crooks and Ricky Villa. We played really well and battered them. It was amazing.

"In the midweek, on the Tuesday, I scored against Luton as well and then, on the Saturday, we went up to Old Trafford to play Man Utd in the FA Cup. I was 17 years of age and I played up front against Man Utd at Old Trafford.

"I remember going to the hotel the night before the game. We’d got the bus up to Manchester for about five hours. I didn’t know what to do at the hotel. Nobody tells you want to do. Geoff Pike was next to me at the dinner table and asked for fillet steak, chips and peas. I thought to myself: ‘Oh that sounds nice’. I’d never had a steak before!

"You made it up as you went along. There were not nutritionists or sports scientists. We lost the game 2-0 and then John was very clever. He took me out the side for six games."

Cottee ended the 1982/83 campaign with five goals in nine outings. West Ham began the next season with five wins on the trot. Paul Goddard was injured, so Tony stepped into the breach, netting twice in an opening day success over Birmingham City. He'd end the year with 19 goals. 

"If nowadays you had a kid come through who scored 19 goals in his first full season, 15 in the league and four in the cup… what do you think they’d be earning?" Tony says with a wry smile. "It could be 50 to 60 grand, whatever, but what do you think I was earning in 1983/84? The answer is £110. 

"To be fair to John, at the end of the season, he called me in and he said: ‘We’re going to put your wage up, you’re going to go up to £400 a week’. That was nice and, for me, it was amazing. It still wasn’t what I was worth, but it was a lot of money.

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Tony Cottee

The former Foxes striker sat down with LCFC.com to look back at his 19 years playing football.

"But to get it, I had to sign another year’s contract, so I signed a four-year contract. Within six months of the season, I was then scoring even more goals and he called me in and said: ‘The board have done brilliantly for you. We’ll put you up to £500’. I’m thinking: ‘Happy days!’

"But then he said I had to sign for another year! So, I’m now on a five-year contract. You never really got the rewards you should have done, certainly compared to today."

The highlight of Cottee's first spell at Upton Park was undoubtedly the 1985/86 season – when he netted 26 goals, won the PFA Young Player of the Year award and West Ham finished third in the old First Division. It's a campaign which still holds legendary status for Hammers fans even today.

"For one season, we genuinely had a chance to win the league," the 56-year-old says. "We got the record for the highest points tally for a team finishing third and we’ve still got 17 club records from that season. I had a great time at West Ham... being a fan as well.

"We finished third and it’s amazing how fans can celebrate finishing third, but the thing is, people always rightly talk about how good the team is now, but they’re not going to be challenging for the title. That’s the big difference."

Tony went one better the following season, scoring 28 goals in all competitions, before another 15 in 1987/88, but West Ham were in decline. The east London club had narrowly avoided relegation and recent league champions Everton made their move. 

Paul Gascoigne had just swapped St. James' Park for White Hart Lane in a record £2M deal and West Ham weren't prepared to let Tony go for anything less than that. A fee of £2.05M was eventually agreed between the two clubs and Tony headed to Goodison Park. 

"I just got more and more down about things and I got frustrated," Tony adds, recalling his final days at West Ham in the '80s. "Frank left and Paul Goddard left, two top strikers, and we never replaced them. Surely we could’ve bought someone, but we never did it.

The reason I went to Everton was to win things. We had wonderful individual players, but as a team, we never gelled. That’s the best way to describe it. We got to finals, three in the FA Cup. League form wise, we always flattered to deceive. We’d beat the big boys and lose silly games.

Tony Cottee

"I got more and more frustrated so I went and saw John Lyall and just said: ‘I need to leave’. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. People, particularly West Ham fans, don’t understand. They said: ‘I’ve never forgiven you for leaving’.

"You have to try and explain that was my job and my profession at the time. Did I want to leave? Of course I didn’t, I’m a West Ham fan. I can honestly say, sitting here, talking to you, I wish I had stayed at West Ham my whole career.

"I’m a fan and I look at Mark Noble and think how he stayed there through the years and beat lots of records. I’d love to be able to say that, but I also would never have worn an Everton or Leicester shirt and wouldn’t have them on the wall now.

"I might never have won anything. It was the right time to leave. You can’t make a decision in 1988 and then look back in 2021 and say it was the wrong decision. At the time, it was the right decision. I made it and Everton is a fantastic football club, it really is.

"The reason I went to Everton was to win things. We had wonderful individual players, but as a team, we never gelled. That’s the best way to describe it. We got to finals, three in the FA Cup. League form wise, we always flattered to deceive. We’d beat the big boys and lose silly games.

"For many reasons, it never really turned into the move I wanted it to be. The funniest thing about my time at Everton, bearing in mind I was there six years… in 1987, they won the league, in ’88 I joined. I left in ’94, won nothing, and in the ’95, they win the FA Cup!

"It was the right club at the wrong time and I can’t describe it any better than that."

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Tony Cottee

Scoring against Liverpool is a sure-fire way to endear yourself to the locals at Goodison Park.

Ask Liverpool fans for their opinion of Tony Cottee and they'll probably say he's the man responsible for Kenny Dalglish's departure as manager at Anfield in 1991 – and with good reason. Everton fans, admittedly with a different expression on their faces, may say the same thing. 

The historic moment came in an FA Cup Fifth Round replay at Goodison Park between Everton and Liverpool on 20 February, 1991. It was arguably the greatest Merseyside Derby of all time, but for many, it's forgotten. Perhaps it's another thing swamped by the shadow of the Premier League. 

Liverpool led four times – 1-0, 2-1, 3-2 and 4-3 – but were denied safe passage by two stoppage-time goals from late substitute Tony Cottee. It was a helter-skelter classic with huge ramifications beneath the lights at the Grand Old Lady and one of the first-ever matches to be televised via satellite.

"The Evertonians always ask what my greatest moment at the club was," Tony continues. "Bear in mind I scored a hat-trick on my debut, scoring after 34 seconds, but the Evertonians always say that 4-4 game must have been the best I ever played in.

"I was sat on the bench for most of it watching on so I didn't really play in it! We played them on the Saturday before and it was the most boring 0-0 game you could ever watch. It was live on tele and it was awful. I was bored myself. There was no hint of an open football game coming.

"All the hints were it was going to be another stalemate. Right from the kick-off, the atmosphere was unbelievable and it was just end to end stuff. I was warming up and you get the call. Unlike players today, I was ready to go. I had my shinpads already on. I just took my tracksuit off and I’m ready.

"[Everton manager] Howard Kendall put his arm around me and pointed to the clock in the old stand. It had 84 minutes on it. He said: ‘Go and get us a goal’. I looked at him and thought: ‘What the hell do you expect me to do in six minutes?!’

"I run on the field of play and my dad always used to say: ‘Don’t go out wide, stay down the middle. Goals are always scored down the middle’. I had that in my ear. I had six minutes and four minutes of injury time. I must have only touched the ball twice.

I’m thinking surely someone would take me, maybe not a Premier League club, but maybe a Championship team might come in for me. I think there was a little bit of talk about QPR, but nobody came in for me.

Tony Cottee

"In around the 91st minute, the ball was played in, it got a little flick on it, and I just hit it with my left foot and curled it into the bottom corner. When I scored that goal and ran to the fans. Apart from my debut, that was the most amazing feeling.

"Barnesy (John Barnes) then got another one [for Liverpool] and then I got a second goal. It was a special game, it really was. Kenny resigned two days later."

Cottee only failed to hit double figures in one of his six full seasons at Everton, due to injury, and his tally was 19 in 1993/94 – his final year on Merseyside. The Toffees had failed to win the silverware Tony craved so dearly and he was ready for a homecoming. 

Harry Redknapp was now the manager at West Ham and he went home that year. Tony did what he did best - hitting 15 goals in his first season back at West Ham in 1995/96 and another 12 in 1995/96, but he was now in his 30s and Redknapp was stockpiling strikers in the squad.

Tony has started his journey on the road to Leicester, but it was involve a strange diversion, to Malaysia. 

"Harry had brought in Florin Răducioiu, Ilie Dumitrescu and Paulo Futre, and then Iain Dowie was still at the club – and there was me as well," he explains. "I don’t quite know why Harry was doing that, but that’s what we did. At the start of my third season back at the club, I thought I was done.

"I was ready to stay at West Ham. I was back at the club where I wanted to be. I had no intentions of going anywhere, but I was about 31. You’re at that age where you want to play football. I didn’t want to be sitting on the bench.

"Harry had spent a lot of money on getting those boys in, but West Ham were skint. They didn’t have any money. I think the bank manager had been onto Harry and told him he needed to sell someone. There wasn’t that many assets. He didn’t want to sell the new players as they’d just arrived.

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Tony Cottee

Older and more experienced, Cottee scored goals once again for West Ham during his second spell in east London.

"I’m 31 so if you can get something for me, you’d take it. I’m thinking surely someone would take me, maybe not a Premier League club, but maybe a Championship team might come in for me. I think there was a little bit of talk about QPR, but nobody came in for me.

"Eventually Harry called me in and said there was an agent who wanted me to go and play in Malaysia. I’d been out there a couple of times with Everton and I knew how hot it was. The talks went on for a couple of weeks and then it all fell apart and nothing happened.

"About a week later, Harry called me in again and, by this time, I’m back to full fitness. I think I’d made a few substitute appearances, I scored at Barnet in the League Cup, but I wasn’t really fit. I was the type of player who needed half a dozen games to get going.

"He said: ‘There’s another agent who wants you to go to Malaysia’. I spoke to this agent and he said I was flying out tomorrow morning, so I thought: ‘Oh, right, okay!’ I flew out with the missus and it was weird really. They put me under real pressure to sign.

"I didn’t know what to do, the wife didn’t know what to do, and in the end, I weighed it up. I was 31, I wanted to play football and I didn’t want to sit on the bench, picking my money up at West Ham. I took the deal and it was a good deal. On paper, it was good deal.

"My missus fell pregnant with the twins and it got harder and harder and she eventually said she needed to go home. I had six weeks on my own in Malaysia which was really hard. I just thought to myself: ‘I’ve got to get back’."

Tony's dad worked in insurance and provided cover for several people in football, through connections made watching his son over the years. One of those clients was Steve Walford, a former team-mate of Cottee's, and assistant manager to Martin O'Neill at League Cup winners Leicester City. 

"I didn’t realise my dad was still doing his stuff," Tony says. "They just had a chat and Wally asked after me and my dad told him I wasn’t enjoying it out in Malaysia. Wally said he’d speak to Martin.

"My dad told me about the conversation and I said: ‘Dad, there’s no chance of that happening, Leicester are a Premier League club’. They’d just won the League Cup as well. I thought if they were interested in me, they’d have come in for me when I left West Ham.

I’ll never forget, [Martin O'Neill] got a serviette and he wrote out my contract on it! He just said: ‘You’ll get X as a basic and if you score X amount of goals, you’ll get X…’ and then he hands the serviette to me!

Tony Cottee

"You don’t buy someone after they’ve had a bit of a nightmare in Malaysia. They could have bought me when I was West Ham’s most recent top goalscorer. I was fortunate because Leicester had won the cup and they were in Europe.

"When that happens, you have to have a bigger squad, and Martin was keen to get a few players in. I think he signed Graham Fenton and Pegguy Arphexad, and Sav (Robbie Savage) had just arrived as well.

"I wanted Wally to know I was interested and the next thing I know, my dad rings me up and says Leicester wanted to speak to me."

A £500,000 fee was hastily agreed between City and Selangor, where Cottee has scored 17 goals in 31 games. The next thing Cottee knows, he's meeting up with O'Neill and Walford in a cafe at Watford Gap Services to talk through the particulars. 

"I had no agent," he explains. "It was just me, Wally and Martin. We just sat there with a cup of tea in this service station. It’s only 1997, it’s not that long ago, but it was just different then. We were sat there chatting away and Martin’s explaining how he can’t promise me regular game time.

"They had [Emile] Heskey, [Steve] Claridge and [Ian] Marshall in at the time. [Graham] Fenton had just signed, so I was effectively going in to be fifth-choice striker. But he told me if I went in, the Club would look after me and we’d have a good time.

"If I got in the team and I did well, he said I’d stay in the team. I’ll never forget, he got a serviette and he wrote out my contract on it! He just said: ‘You’ll get 'X' as a basic and if you score 'X' amount of goals, you’ll get 'X'…’ and then he hands the serviette to me!

"It’s hilarious really when you look back at that. It’s only 24 years ago. It was a good offer. It was the most I’d ever been offered in terms of a basic wage because the Premier League money had properly taken off."

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Tony Cottee

The 56-year-old finally won a trophy with Leicester City in 2000.

So Cottee was now a Leicester player but, by his own admission, it was a tough start to life at Filbert Street. Despite looking into houses in Leicestershire, with twins on the way, he made the decision along with his wife to commute from Chigwell and prevent his daughter from changing schools.

It would prove to be a contentious issue for O'Neill. 

"That first season, particularly the first six months, was really difficult," Tony says. "Playing in Malaysia is a different type of football. It’s walking-pace football so, fitness-wise, I was miles away. I arrived after pre-season as well. I was sluggish and slow.

"My levels had gone right down, so I had to work really hard to get to being where I needed to be. Me being me, I was always confident in my ability. I knew I was a good enough to be a part of the Leicester team, but I also wasn’t fit enough.

"On the first day of the season, Martin walked in and read out the first XI and I wasn’t in that. He then read out the subs and I wasn’t even on there.

"I thought to myself then: ‘This is going to be a long season’. Of course, if you’re involved and you’re doing the commuting as well, it makes your life really hard. I was playing reserves football mainly and I wasn’t enjoying it."

A rare first team appearance came in October 1997 and saw League Cup holders Leicester crash to a 3-1 defeat at lowly Grimsby Town.

"It was awful," Tony grimaces. "We came in after the game and remember I hadn’t really done anything in training or in the reserves games I’d played. Martin went through the players by number and started at no.1: ‘How can you let three goals in?!’ He started going through the team. I was no.10.

"He got round to me, clicked his fingers and said: ‘Tony, how much did I play for you?’ I looked at him and said: ‘Five-hundred grand, boss’. He went: ‘Well that was five-hundred grand too much’ – with a swear word involved! I couldn’t say anything. He was right.

"I’d given him no return at all on what he’d paid for me. About a week later, he basically called me into the office and I’d like to say he politely said it, but he told me I was going out on loan."

Martin was a European Cup winner. He knew about standards. If you gave Martin 100 per cent effort and the quality he expected and started scoring goals, he’d give you anything.

Tony Cottee

He eventually ended up at Birmingham City on a one-month deal, which would later be extended. Tony wasn't scoring, but he was playing, building a level of fitness. He was recalled just before Christmas. He still didn't play for the Foxes and was back in the reserves – still commuting from Chigwell. 

However, there was a game at Old Trafford on the horizon against Sir Alex Ferguson's great Manchester United team.

"The twins were born on the 27th," Tony recalls. "We had games on the 26th and 28th and we got into the New Year. I remember I was picked for a reserves game at Notts County. It was a Tuesday or Wednesday night.

"I thought: ‘Why did you recall me? What did you do that for? Just leave me at Birmingham when I’m fit and I’ve scored loads of goals’. He brought me back and didn’t play me. I got the hump with that, but I knew Martin was going to come to the reserves game.

"We’re sitting on the bus, waiting to go to Notts Country and Martin did his usual. He was always late. Sometimes I’m sure he did it deliberately. We’re sitting there and it’s 10 minutes, 15 minutes… he turns up about 20 minutes late and gets on the bus and calls out: ‘Tony!’

"He signals over to me and I think to myself: ‘What have I done now?!’ I get off the bus and walk into Filbert Street, into his office, and he sits me down: ‘Let’s forget everything else. You’re playing tonight. If you play well tonight, you are playing and starting against Man Utd at Old Trafford’.

"I think we won the reserves game 1-0, I scored the goal, and then of course the Old Trafford game comes around on the Saturday and the rest is history. That was the catalyst for everything I achieved at Leicester. It was special for me because I’d never scored at Old Trafford.

"I scored and we won 1-0. Normally, you don’t even get a shot at Old Trafford, yet alone score a goal. I played there as a 17-year-old in 1983 and this game was in 1998. I’d had 15 years of trying to score there so, personally, to score was wonderful.

"To win the game as a team was an amazing achievement. It took Leicester until this year to win there again. That was the first time since. It shows you how difficult it is to do it."

Slowly, Cottee was getting there at Leicester. He ended 1997/98 on five goals for the Foxes, In 1998/99, the tally rose to 16. For the majority of his early time in the East Midlands, Martin would barely even acknowledge him at Belvoir Drive, but things were improving, albeit gradually.

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Tony Cottee

After originally struggling at Leicester, Tony became a reliable source of goals for the Foxes.

"The transformation with Martin was interesting because, in those six months, he wasn’t happy with me commuting," Tony says. "There were times when we’d play someone like Arsenal. Instead of letting me leave my car at Watford Gap, which would make sense for me, he’d say I had to go back to Filbert Street.

"I’d drive up to Filbert Street from Essex, get the coach and then, on the way back, get dropped off at Filbert Street and go back down to Essex. It was ridiculous. But when I got into the team and I was giving something to Martin and to the Club, he let me leave my car at Watford Gap and pick me up.

"Martin was a European Cup winner. He knew about standards. If you gave Martin 100 per cent effort and the quality he expected and started scoring goals, he’d give you anything. He’d certainly give you the Watford Gap stuff and he’d let you have a few days off.

"If you’re not in the team, you are no use to him whatsoever. There was couple of times in the mornings, I’d walk past him and say: ‘Morning, boss’. He’d walk straight past me, he wouldn’t even acknowledge me. It was weird, but it was Martin’s way of saying, if you’re injured, you’re no use to him.

"Would it work nowadays? I don’t know. If you’re not in the team, you’re no use to the Club, so he’s saying to you: get in the team and then I’ll say good morning to you. Listen, I grew up in a hard school. For me, that was an incentive. One day I’d get a ‘good morning’ and I got there in the end. I only got there because I achieved on the field of play."

There was heartache to come, though. City had reached the final of the League Cup for the second time in three years. Cottee wasn't at the Club when Steve Claridge's extra-time volley secured glory for the Foxes against Middlesbrough at Hillsborough in 1997.

For a player who had left his boyhood team in search of silverware at Everton, only to be left empty handed, this was a precious opportunity. It simply couldn't be allowed to pass him by. Tottenham were the opponents at Wembley and went a man down when Justin Edinburgh was sent off. 

It was in Leicester's hands, right up until the very point it wasn't, when Allan Nielsen broke free and beat Kasey Keller in the City goal beneath the Twin Towers in the 90th minute. Tottenham Hotspur 1 Leicester City 0. In a heartbeat, Cottee's one and only chance had blown away in the wind.

"I didn’t particularly like Spurs, of course, they’re local rivals for West Ham," Cottee explains. "Everything was ready for us to win the trophy. In the game, Sav (Robbie Savage) had his little altercation with Justin Edinburgh and they’re down to 10 men.

"You’re, again, thinking: ‘This is it’. I had a few half chances in the game, but I didn’t have the chance. I thought, as the game went on, or in extra-time, it would come and I’d get the glory. If you do that, score a winner at Wembley, you can become immortalised.

"That’s the dream for every player and I was so confident, but then they broke on us. The ball was in the back of the net and you look at the clock and it says 90 minutes. We just didn’t have any time to recover and get back in the game.

"It wasn’t a particularly good Spurs team. They were a decent team, but it wasn’t like a Man Utd or Arsenal of that time. It was a winnable game and to lose it was just awful. The final whistle goes and I was just wallowing in my own self pity.

The one thing I did know, the age I was at, if Martin went, I wouldn’t survive another manager.

Tony Cottee

"I had my head in my hands and I wanted people to just leave me alone. Marshy (Ian Marshall) came up to me and put his arm around me. Ian Walker, the Spurs goalkeeper, was good to be fair. I then had another arm around me. I just wanted to be in my own space.

"Let me have a little moment and then I’ll come back into the real world. An Irish accent said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be back next season’. I realised it was Martin and I said: ‘Gaffer, I’m 33, that’s it. I’m done. It’s not going to happen again for me’. He went: ‘I promise you, we’ll be back next year’."

Leicester had missed out on the trophy and Cottee had every reason to believe he'd never know what it feels like to walk up the steps at Wembley, with a medal around his neck, and lift a cup in front of adoring fans. As we're speaking, though, there's a framed picture on the wall of him doing just that. 

Just as O'Neill had promised, Leicester were back a year later – and it was a less daunting proposition in 2000 – second-tier side Tranmere Rovers. Matt Elliott got the goals in a 2-1 win, O'Neill's legendary status at the Club was cemented further and Tony had his medal. Change, though, was afoot at Leicester.

"It was amazing management," he says. "I was in my lowest moment as a Leicester player and you’ve got the manager telling you you’ll be back next season and then he delivers as well. To go from the disappointment of that, to winning the trophy, was incredible.

"I’ve got the photo of me lifting the trophy on the wall here. To have that moment, with a great bunch of lads, what a tremendous squad of players… sometimes people have a dig at that side. I think: 'Hang on a second, it was a team full of internationals which won stuff'.

"Yes, sometimes we were direct, but what’s wrong with that? I get a little frustrated with that because we had such a good team. It was an amazing feeling. In a way, you almost knew that Martin had delivered what he set out to at the Club and there was speculation about him leaving.

"He nearly went to Leeds and then we had all the Celtic speculation as well. The one thing I did know, the age I was at, if Martin went, I wouldn’t survive another manager."

While Leicester fans don't hold it against O'Neill, they still lament his decision to leave for Celtic in the summer of 2000. It started an era of decline for the Club which, despite occasional false dawns, would not be truly repaired until over a decade later.

The former Gillingham and England Under-21s manager Peter Taylor was his replacement at Filbert Street. Steve Walsh, a team-mate of Cottee's and an icon to a generation of Leicester fans, though, was interested in the post. He wanted Tony to be his assistant. 

"I got on really well with Walshy," Tony explains. "We were a similar age. We roomed together at times. When Martin left, we spoke to each other and Walshy wanted to be the manager. He said he wanted me to be his assistant. I’d always wanted to go into management.

"We weren’t qualified as such, but Garry Parker had just started doing his coaching. He was a fundamental part of what was going on. We arranged an interview at the Club.

"We’d done a really good interview, me and Walshy, and we spoke about how we’d get this player and that player and keep the team spirit as it was. There were a few players coming to an end, but we could keep that spirit and bring in newer players.

"Why change it? It had been successful. The manager had gone, but why not bring someone in who will try and carry on that Martin O’Neill tradition? That is what Walshy would have done. We presented to the Club and the problem we had, I think, is that they’d already made their mind up.

Expand photo
Tony Cottee

Cottee scored 29 goals in all competitions for Leicester City.

"To be fair to Peter, he’d done really well with the England Under-21s, he had a good record of bringing through youngsters. They’re the things clubs will look at. Maybe the Club wanted a change of direction, I don’t know, but they appointed Peter Taylor.

"Someone from the Club said to me and Walshy: ‘We can’t believe how good the presentation was and how much good stuff you spoke about’. But it never happened. Things could have been so different. My life could have been so different.

"As a result of that, me and Walshy ended up at Norwich, which neither of us really enjoyed. I retired at the end of that season and went into Sky Sports, but I could have been at Leicester and things like the Wycombe game (an FA Cup Quarter-Final defeat in 2001) could have been different.

"I look back with unbelievably great pride at what I achieved at Leicester and what we achieved as a team.

"It’s an amazing club, with fantastic fans, and I had three years there which I never expected in a million years. I’m so grateful that Leicester gave me the opportunity to have those three years because I was done and dusted when I went to Malaysia. To have those extra years was brilliant."

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