Alan Woollett

Former Player Remembers: Alan Woollett

Wigston-born defender Alan Woollett, who was an extremely effective man-marker, played 260 games for Leicester City between 1967 and 1978.
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Most of these were in the old First Division and he also featured in the 1969 FA Cup Final against Manchester City. Last month, he spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about touring abroad with the Foxes, and playing for managers Matt Gillies, Frank O’Farrell, Jimmy Bloomfield and Frank McLintock.

Sitting in his lounge at his home, and prompted by Zambia international Patson Daka’s recent goalscoring feats, Alan began by reminiscing about City’s tour to Zambia 53 years ago.

Between 18 May and 6 June in 1968, the Club was invited by the National Sport Foundation of Zambia to visit to the country together with a party of 15 FA player/coaches.

The aim of the tour was to promote and develop the game in Zambia, which had gained independence from Great Britain only four years earlier.

Alan, who had broken into the first team during the previous season, was included in the 16-strong playing party headed by Leicester City’s assistant manager, Bert Johnson.

Alan began by recalling one of the memorable matches on the tour.

“The game was played in a stadium which was a bowl with grass banks all around it for the fans,” he said. “During the game, the ref made some ridiculous decisions in our favour. This riled the crowd and they started throwing things at us like apples and oranges.

“Willie Bell (Leicester City’s left full-back) picked up an orange, started peeling it and that prompted the crowd to throw cans and bottles at us. As a result, a message was got through to the players that at the final whistle, we had to go to the centre circle so that the police could escort us off the pitch.

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Alan Woollett

Meeting royalty ahead of the 1969 FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium.

“I was on the bench with Crossy (Graham Cross) and we didn’t get the message. At the end of the game, some of the fans set fire to part of the grass bank, so Crossy and I dashed to the changing room as soon as the ref had blown the final whistle. We shut ourselves in and locked the door. The fans were banging on the reinforced glass windows. We left the lights off, kept quiet and waited for the team to team to return. Nobody came. Eventually the fans went and it all quietened down. The police had escorted the team straight back to the hotel. They didn’t miss Crossy and me until they got to the hotel! They had to come back for us!

“Later in the tour, we played a game in Ndola (in Zambia’s Copper belt). We travelled on a two-engine plane like an old Dakota, the sort you see in war films. In those days, the planes landed on a grass track.

“I was very ill in Zambia. When they took us to a game reserve, we travelled in two small buses. I was unlucky enough to be in the second one. In those days, the roads were dust tracks and, in the second bus, we had to keep all the windows closed because of all the dust being thrown up by the first bus. We were bouncing up and down and I felt as sick as a dog. When we eventually stopped, I was that bad that I just collapsed onto the bed in one of the bungalows we were staying in, being sick.

“The best time to see the animals is first thing in the morning at about 6 o’clock, but I was spark out and didn’t go. Those who did go went to a waterhole to see the animals but didn’t see many.

“They also took us the Victoria Falls. That was a heck of a sight. It’s something you remember for a long time. Peter Shilton had a box camera and, for a bit of fun, we kept telling him: ‘A bit further back Pete’ to keep him going back towards the edge, before shouting: ‘Get back here! Don’t go too far, you’ll fall over!’”

Leicester City played six games on the tour, winning all six.

“We also met the State President,” Alan continued. “And at the end of the tour they gave each of us a copper tankard with our name inscribed on it. I’ve still got it. It’s a nice keepsake.”

“We also went on tour with Southampton to Malaya (in May and June 1967),” Alan remembered. “We landed in Kuala Lumpur at night-time. It’s a big city now but, in those days, our hotel was only about 400 yards away from the jungle. One day, we were standing outside the hotel. It was belting down with rain. When it rains there, it really does rain and then it’s gone in five minutes. Across the road from us were shops selling clothes. This bloke shouted across the road to us: ‘Do you boys want shorts?’ When we said yes he measured us and said they would be ready by 4 o’clock. Incredibly, he had them all made for us by then!

“We also played a couple of matches in Singapore (against Asian All Stars and against Southampton). We kicked off at midnight there when it was cooler.

“Although I look back now and say we went to these places, I’d have been quite happy not doing these tours. I’d sooner be out with my dogs, walking in the country or on a beach, or having a game of golf. That was more my cup of tea.

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Alan Woollett

His industrious playing style is shown in this image from a clash with Manchester United in 1976.

“I remember, in Jimmy Bloomfield’s time, the manager asked if we wanted to go to Kuwait. Birch (Alan Birchenall) and Co., who loved tours said,=: ‘Come on, we want to go’. I’d been to Kuwait twice before. It was too hot in the daytime and too cold at night. There was nothing to do there. No bars, no pictures, nothing. I said I didn’t want to go and suggested one of the young lads went for the experience, but Bloomfield made me go and this didn’t help my relationship with him.

“Bloomfield was good at looking at a game and changing it if necessary. However, I did have some disputes with him. One was over my testimonial match (in 1977). It was about the opposition, Chelsea, who could only come on the same night as the Player of the Year presentation at Bailey’s nightclub. People weren’t going to both things and there was also Speedway on the same night at Blackbird Road, and Speedway was dead popular then.

“We also disagreed when he played Jeff Blockley and Steve Sims together in defence. They were both good players, but they were both ball winners but there was no one to do my job which was to play off them and mop up. We also disagreed when I didn’t get a promised bonus. There were no hard feelings but we didn’t particularly get on.

“There was also an issue between us when I had the possibility of moving to Birmingham City at a time when he wasn’t playing me, but he wouldn’t let me go because both teams were struggling. He said: ‘If you go there and help them stay up it will look bad, mate’. It got to the point when he’d come into the changing room in the morning and I’d start singing Englebert Humperdinck’s ‘Please Release Me, Let me go!’”

As well as Jimmy Bloomfield, Alan played for three other Leicester City managers.

His first manager was Matt Gillies.

“I was on the ground staff as a youngster,” Alan recalled. “He called me in and said he’d take me on as a professional, starting at £22 per week. I trusted him and I signed a blank contract.

“In March 1968, I had a bad game at home against Everton and that ruined me for a while. I had an absolute nightmare. I was too young and couldn’t handle it. The crowd got on my back and Gillies called me in to tell me he wasn’t going to play me at home for a while as the crowd would give me hell.

“At Easter, I had a marvellous game at Burnley and, the next day, when we played them again at Filbert Street, I came on as a sub when we were losing. As soon as I came on, I was booed any time I came near the ball. Gibbo (Davie Gibson) was disgusted and he wrote to the Leicester Mercury to say that against Everton I was just a young lad who had a bad game, and that I wasn’t the only one. After that, it began to change and I gradually won the crowd over.”

Frank O’Farrell succeeded Matt Gillies as Leicester City manager in December 1968.

“Frank was straight up and down,” Alan explained. “I’ll always be grateful to him for playing me in the (1969) FA Cup Final. At the that time, everybody in football wanted to play in an FA Cup Final. To play at Wembley was marvellous, although it was unfortunate for John [Sjoberg], who was injured. You don’t remember enough of it though. They (Manchester City) were expected to murder us. They didn’t but we lost 1-0.

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Alan Woollett

Woollett's man-marking game was particularly impressive during his spell with the Foxes.

“For years I tried to get a DVD of the final until a friend of mine got one for me. A few years ago, when Frank O’Farrell came to Leicester for a book signing, I had a chat with him and told him about the DVD. He said he’d like to have a copy as he hadn’t got one. He later rang me and I gave him the number so he could get a copy.”

After playing for Jimmy Bloomfield for six years, Alan’s next manager at Filbert Street was Frank McLintock, who had played in two FA Cup Finals for Leicester City and had captained Arsenal to the League and FA Cup double in 1971.

“Frank hadn’t got experience of managing and the team had a bad time,” Alan continued. “Then I was injured with a suspect cartilage and wasn’t playing so he signed Webby (David Webb) who had been brilliant for Chelsea. Steve Sims, playing at centre-back alongside Webby, was a great player when you were encouraging him, but Webby never spoke on the pitch and Simsy lost form.

“One day, when I was still injured, Frank asked me who I would play to do my job and I said Tommy Williams as he was the sort of player who can do the sweep-up job alongside a ball winner. So I got Tommy his debut, and he probably doesn’t know that to this day.”

With Leicester City doomed to relegation, Frank McLintock left Filbert Street in April 1978.

“My contract was up at the end of the season,” Alan said. “I was offered another year’s contract but was informed that the new manager would be told that I was about finished. So I thought I might as well have a free transfer and go.

“Grimsby, Chesterfield and Northampton were interested and I went to Fourth Division Northampton, who offered me £125 per week, which was £5 more than I was getting at Leicester! John Farrington, who I’d played with at Leicester, was there and we’d share lifts with another player who lived in Stoke. It was a very different set-up from Leicester: for example when I was injured, I couldn’t get treatment in the afternoon because the physio had private patients!“

Alan retired as a player after one season at Northampton and subsequently worked in the prison service.

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