Rodney Fern

Former Player Remembers: Rodney Fern

Leicester City cult hero Rodney Fern spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his career in football in a previously unpublished full interview.
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Rodney made his Leicester City debut against Don Revie’s Leeds United 54 years ago last month. Between 1968 and 1974, he went on to play 187 games for Leicester City, including the 1969 FA Cup Final. He also scored 40 goals for the Club. His skilful, unorthodox and creative attacking play made him a firm fans’ favourite. Rodney sadly died in 2018, aged 69. 

Sitting in his home in Appleby Magna, Burton-born Rodney began by explaining how he came to join Leicester City as an 18 year-old in December 1966.

“I went to Ashby Grammar School, where David Nish (Leicester City’s captain in the 1969 FA Cup Final), who was a year older than me, was also a pupil. I played local football for Measham Welfare and moved up from there.

"Phil Aston, a good old amateur player had contacts with Leicester City and they kept their eye on me for a while. but I wasn’t getting signed. Then West Brom started showing an interest in me and so Leicester signed me initially on a month loan (in December 1966).

"Leicester was where I wanted to be because it was my nearest club. George Dewis (an ex-Leicester City striker and a very respected youth coach) coached the younger players. He hammered you physically but he did well for us.

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Rodney Fern

Fern spent five years as a professional at Leicester.

“When I was in Leicester’s ‘A’ team as a youngster, Banksy (Gordon Banks), who was the world’s top goalkeeper, used to race us round the track. He was good on sprints, on short distances. He was absolutely brilliant. When he left (in April 1967) he didn’t want to go, but when you’ve got two goalkeepers and the other was Peter Shilton, what do you do?

“I made my first team debut when I was 19. It was against Leeds United who were on something like their eighth successive win. I’d grown physically but first thing that happened to me, in the very first minute, was that Norman Hunter kicked me up in the air on the halfway line when I was no danger to anybody! Stringy (Mike Stringfellow) scored from a Bobby Roberts free kick. 

"Their midfielder Johnny Giles was small but he was hard and vicious. He was worse than big Jack Charlton. He was a good player but he would top you! But do you know what? I found it easier playing against the likes of Billy Bremner and Giles than I did when I was playing local football because I’d grown physically.”

After Stringfellow’s opening goal, Giles equalised for Leeds in the 62nd minute. Ten minutes later, Davie Gibson’s high floating centre went into the goal, but three minutes after that Paul Madeley scored another equaliser for Leeds. The final score was 2-2. After his debut, Rodney quickly established himself as a first team regular.

Just over a fortnight later he scored his first goal in a famous victory over Manchester City, who won the league title that year, in an FA Cup replay in front of a near capacity crowd at a packed Filbert Street.

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Rodney Fern

Coming up against Fulham's Barry Lloyd during his time with City.

“The 1968 cup tie against Manchester City was soon after my debut against Leeds,” Rodney continued. “I was only 19. We drew 0-0 at Maine Road in front of over 50,000. After that we thought we got a chance because we had a strong side.

“Two days later we won the replay 4-3 after being 2-0 down. I scored a left-footed half volley which went into the roof of the net to make it 2-1. It was my first goal for the first team. Then Frank Large, who was a very hard man, scored two and David Nish also scored.

"Frank had come from Third Division Northampton and he was effective because opponents weren’t used to how he played. There were over 40,000 at Filbert Street that night and it was a great atmosphere. The fans loved their cup games. 

"Frank Large left at the end of the season as part of the deal which brought Allan Clarke to Leicester (for a British transfer record of £150,000) but he desperately didn’t want to go.

“During the game our trainer David Jones had a heart attack. He was a hard man who didn’t mind upsetting you. As we came down the tunnel at half time they were taking him off to hospital. Fortunately he recovered.

“Then, the following Saturday I scored at Anfield and the week after that I also scored against Sheffield United."

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Frank Large & Rodney Fern

The famous celebration following Fern's goal against Sheffield United.

The celebration of his goal against Sheffield United, when he was upended by Large who slung him over his shoulder, was captured by the Leicester Mercury’s Richard Mitchell in an award-winning photograph. The accompanying report stated that Leicester had ‘undoubtedly unearthed a young forward with great finishing power in Rodney Fern'.

“We had good players in the team,” Rodney reflected. “And many like Peter Shilton, David Nish, Alan Woollett and Alan Tewley were local like myself. They thought Shilton was going to be too small for a 'keeper but they stretched his arms and all manner of things like that! We’d all grown up together and it was a shame when we started losing them.

“The following season we reached the FA Cup Final against Manchester City. It was the biggest game I ever played in. On the way to Wembley we had beaten Liverpool in a replay at Anfield when Andy Lochhead scored.

“I scored the goal that beat Mansfield Town in the next round and I also got concussed. In my career I got concussed six times. Allan Clarke, a brilliant player, scored the winner in the semi-final at Hillsborough against West Brom. He was a brilliant player but playing for Leicester was a stepping stone for him before he went onto play for Leeds.

“It was great knowing that we were going to Wembley to play Manchester City. We trained at Bisham Abbey during the week before the final. John Sjoberg had to concede that he wasn’t fit. He knew he wasn’t right. So did Stringy (Mike Stringfellow). He was a good player. His cartilage used to pop out and he’d push it back again!   

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Leicester City

City's 1971 squad featured the likes of Peter Shilton, Bobby Kellard and Mike Stringfellow.

“On the day of the match it was in the papers that my old headmaster at Ashby Grammar School had written in a school report that I must get down to some serious work at school because I’d never make my living at football!

“We should have won that final. We had the chances. I remember Peter Rodrigues swivelling to try to score himself. If he had pushed it to me, I’m pretty sure I would have scored.

“I don’t remember too much about collecting the runners-up medal afterwards but I did watch the match back a few months ago on video, which is the first time I’d watched it. When we got back to Leicester, we had an open top bus tour but we didn’t win, did we?”

After the final, Leicester City had to play five games in 19 days to avoid relegation after 12 years in the top flight. The team beat Tottenham Hotspur, lost to Ipswich Town, defeated Sunderland and then drew against Everton in the penultimate game in front of a Filbert Street crowd of over 41,000.

Survival depended on beating Manchester United in the last game of the season at Old Trafford. It was the legendary Manchester United manager Matt Busby’s last match. Thinking back, Rodney said: “I remember Alistair Brown scoring twice on his debut against Sunderland.

"In the last game at Old Trafford, David Nish scored in the first minute but we were 2-1 down soon afterwards. I scored as well but we lost 3-2 and we were relegated.”

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Rodney Fern

Leicester were relegated from the top flight after defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford, despite Fern's goal.

Under manager Frank O’Farrell, Leicester City finished third in their first season back in the second tier, just missing out on promotion. In those pre-play-off days, only the top two sides were promoted.

“In our first game in the Second Division we beat Birmingham City 3-0 at Filbert Street,” Rodney remembered. “I scored with an overhead kick. I was top scorer that season. In fact, I was top scorer at most of the clubs I went to. but I should have scored more.

"I sometimes played out wide but playing off a main striker like Frank Large or Andy Lochhead was my favourite position, because you can see that you’ve got a lot of options playing there. You can see more of everything.”

The following season (1970/71) Leicester City won the Second Division title. O’Farrell left to manage Manchester United and Jimmy Bloomfield replaced him as manager. The new manager’s first game in charge was the Charity Shield against Liverpool. The match was played at Filbert Street and Leicester City won 1-0 with young full-back and future England international Steve Whitworth scoring. 

Rodney was a regular in Bloomfield’s side as they consolidated their position back in the top division in 1971/72. In what was to be his final season at Leicester he played alongside Keith Weller, whom he regards as the best player he ever played with.

“That season, I played more in midfield which I enjoyed," he continued. "Keith Weller was awesome. He was a magnificent player. He was a nice fella too, with no airs and graces. Jon Sammels was a good player too. He hit lots of great long balls. Alan Birchenall was also there. He played up front in those days. He was a decent player too.”

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Rodney Fern

Fern in action for City during the 1971 FA Cup Quarter Final tie against Arsenal at Filbert Street.

At the end of the season, Rodney moved to Second Division Luton Town.

He commented: “I’d played well against Luton in the promotion season when they had ‘Supermac’ Malcolm MacDonald in their side, but I shouldn’t have gone there. It was a bad move for me.

"I was disappointed to leave Filbert Street, but Luton offered me more money and Leicester were releasing their local players because they needed money to sign players like Weller, Sammels and Birchenall. When I left, I realised what a good club Leicester was.”

Rodney’s next move was to Arthur Cox’s Chesterfield in 1975 for four years before moving to Rotherham United in 1979 where he won the Third Division title in 1981.

Rodney recalled: “Rotherham’s manager Jimmy McGuigan increased my wages and told me he was going to build a side around me. It was brilliant there. I scored loads of goals playing with Ronnie Moore. When I was at Rotherham, I went into the pub trade near Ashby.

"The plan was to play one year, but I finished playing there for three extra years so my wife Linda had the pressure of the pub. I left Rotherham in 1981 to concentrate on the pub but after a while it took its toll and I went on to develop a coal merchant business.”

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