Howard Riley & Richie Norman

Former Players Remember: Howard Riley, Richie Norman & Alan Birchenall

Leicester City’s state-of-the-art training ground in Seagrave is a world away from the facilities used in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s by Leicester City stars Howard Riley, Richie Norman and Alan ‘The Birch’ Birchenall.
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All three talked to Club Historian John Hutchinson about how training in their day was so different from that of today.

Richie began by saying: “Before the move to Belvoir Drive in 1964, training was based largely at Filbert Street. It was nearly always concentrated fitness work in the gym with the trainer Dave Jones who had been an army fitness instructor.”

Howard continued: “In the gym at Filbert Street, we had a mat each. We would do sit-ups and press-ups. There was no equipment like you would see nowadays. There was hardly any weight training but I do remember a weightlifting champion from London came down once to show us how to weight lift. Also the heavyweight boxer Alex Barrow trained with us once.

“We used to have head tennis competitions. We also played badminton in the gym as well snooker and billiards, assuming that you could get on the table with big Arthur [Rowley] and Derek [Hines] claiming seniority!

“We also had the shooting gallery. I have never seen anything like it! It was a long narrow room under the Main Stand. It was boarded up on the sides. The dust! I’d come out of there choking! The idea was to hit powerful shots against the wall at the far end. I can’t remember if there were any targets on the wall. It was very basic.

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Richie Norman

Norman pictured in training at Filbert Street.

 “We did laps and sprinting around the pitch, sometimes using skipping ropes or hurdles. We also ran up and down the Main Stand terraces. There wasn’t the variety that there is now. Pre-season, it was always running in Bradgate Park.

“It had been for years and was for years to come. We’d run along the path from Newtown Linford down to the reservoir and then run up to Old John. That was a killer! It would have been nice if they had varied the runs because there is some nice countryside around there.

“We also did a lot of running by the canal. We ran out from Filbert Street to Liberty Shoes. My dad worked there so he probably saw us. Then we would go down the steps to the tow path and then on towards Aylestone Playing Fields.”

Richie then recounted a story about his running prowess: “At that time I was about as fit as anybody could be. I’ve seen players physically sick after double runs round the pitch and sprints. I remember the Olympic athlete Malcolm Yardley coming one day. I had a race against him! I had a ten-yard start at the side of the pitch for a 100-yards race. Footballers are trained to sprint 20 to 30 yards, not 100 yards.

“It was a laugh. (Team-mates) Len Chalmers and Ken Keyworth were the bookies. Jimmy Walsh put a fiver on me to win. I was taking the race seriously. I put on my spiked running shoes.  I’ve still got them. Then Malcolm Yardley came out with his coach. He had legs like tree trunks.

In the gym at Filbert Street, we had a mat each. We would do sit-ups and press-ups. There was no equipment like you would see nowadays.

Howard Riley

“He had starting blocks! He was taking it seriously too. I didn’t have starting blocks! When the gun went, I was off but he was on me because he had got the blocks which fired him out. We were belting along but by the time I got to the tunnel, my legs went all over the shop. He beat me!”

Training also included some coaching and ball work, as Howard recalled: “We used to have practice matches between the first team against the reserves on a Tuesday or a Wednesday morning on the pitch at Filbert Street. Bert Johnson coached us. There wasn’t much coaching before Bert came.

“He would start coaching discussions off and we would talk about what we could do from free kicks and throw-ins. A lot of ideas came from the players themselves. I remember talking to Dave Gibbo (inside-forward Davie Gibson) and the forwards about how to work a free kick.

“But we didn’t really do a lot of ball work except when we came back in the afternoons. I remember coming back with Richie and Gordon Banks. This was voluntary provided that the groundsman Bill Taylor would let us on the pitch!”

At this point, Richie laughed. “He would only let us on the pitch under duress. His job was to keep the pitch nice! I always remember Howard doing a lot of crossing in these sessions.”

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Howard Riley

Howard Riley in action for the Foxes at Filbert Street.

Richie continued: “After morning training we would play five-a-side on the Filbert Street car park. This was a bonus, especially if it had been all running in training. We played England against Scotland. The trouble was that the surface was all cinders. If you went down you tore your knee off! Even an accidental trip could do damage.

“You had to be very clever to play on that surface and not get injured. Players today wouldn’t believe this if you told them. You could be out injured for weeks after one of these games. They were great games. There were fights and punch-ups.”

Although the vast majority of training was based at Filbert Street before the move to Belvoir Drive, Howard and Richie also recalled training at Granby Halls in bad weather. Other training locations included the Electricity Ground on Aylestone Road, the University Ground on Welford Road, Rushey Mead and Saffron Lane (for the ‘A’ team). Sometimes on a Wednesday, the players played golf at either Rothley or Kirby Muxloe.

Howard added: “After training we would congregate in a café on the corner of Filbert Street. It was run by Mrs T. She would come out with soup, eggs and things like that. It was just a small room really. The public used to come in if there was room when we were there. Ken Keyworth and Len Chalmers liked a smoke there.”

Howard and Richie then turned their attention to the move to the new Belvoir Ground Training Ground in early 1964. The Club’s archives reveal that in December 1963 the Directors purchased the Belvoir Drive Sports Ground belonging to a firm of shoe retailers called Stead and Simpson for £17,000 (about £300,000 in today’s values). They paid an extra £250 for the groundsman’s machinery and equipment and employed Stead and Simpson’s groundsman, Mr A. Matthews, on a weekly wage of £12.

The trouble was that the surface was all cinders. If you went down you tore your knee off! Even an accidental trip could do damage. You had to be very clever to play on that and not get injured.

Richie Norman

Richie remembers the move very well: “Belvoir Drive was very basic in those days, but even this was a huge improvement on what had gone before,” he said. “A few of the Scottish lads used to call it Bel-voir. There were no facilities there so the routine was for us to get changed at Filbert Street, pick up our boots and jog up to Belvoir Drive. There was a ramshackle hut there where we put our boots on.

“There was one pitch and that was lopsided with a slope from side to side. But we felt that it was really good to have our own training ground. We liked it. It was grass. It took us off that car park! There were no showers there so after training we would jog back to Filbert Street.

“As time went on it got a bit more sophisticated. They did the shed up a lot better and we began to park our cars there. I had a Morris Minor, Howard had a Triumph Herald and Gordon Banks had a Standard Eight. Jogging from Filbert Street was knocked on the head. From then on we did most of the running at Belvoir Drive.”

After distinguished first-team careers which included two FA Cup Finals each, Howard and Richie had both left Filbert Street, in 1965 and 1968 respectively. The Birch arrived at Filbert Street from Crystal Palace in 1971. Sitting in his office at home surrounded by memorabilia relating to his very full life, he thought back to his memories of training and of the training ground.

“In 1971 when I arrived at Leicester,” he began. “I remember being driven up to Belvoir Drive. People still call it Belvoir Drive today and that entrance has been shut off for the last 25 years. People still arrive at that gate today trying to get in!”

Like Howard and Richie, Birch also remembers the hut at Belvoir Drive. “There was a hut near the double gates,” the Club Ambassador recalled. “It was basic and it was so ramshackle you could see outside when you were inside putting your boots on because all the planks had rotted.

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Filbert Street Tent

Birchenall recounts the infamous Filbert Street tent used in the 1970s.

“We would arrive at Filbert Street at 8:30 or 9 o’clock and park there. All the lads used to go to the café on the corner of Filbert Street for breakfast. We’d order a bacon and egg butty and a cup of tea. We’d stuff ourselves. Then we’d go into Filbert Street and get changed. The kit would be laid out. It was basic kit. You had that kit for the week. You had to look after it.

“They only had the main pitch at Belvoir Drive then. It was a completely different size from the one at Filbert Street unlike today when the pitches are exactly the same in size and condition, even down to cutting the grass exactly the same. The pitch at the back belonged to the YMCA then. There was also a pitch at the side where the brickwork is now but it was on a slope of about 40 degrees!

“The big gym was there when I arrived but there was nothing round it. There were no offices or outbuildings. It was just plonked on its own. It was an empty shell. Inside it was just a sandy surface. If it was inclement outside we’d go in there.”

Sometimes in bad weather, the players would train under a polyurethane inflatable covering at Filbert Street  known as ‘the tent’. When inflated, its centre was 15 feet high. It had a capacity of 720,000 cubic feet and with the aid of hot air blowers, it protected the pitch in freezing weather. It weighed 24 hundred weight (about 1,200 kilograms) and took 15 men two hours to lay it out.

“The tent was a bit of a joke,” laughed Birch. “There were hot air blowers at the Filbert Street end. When the tent came down, they rolled it in alongside the Main Stand. Once a week we used to train in running spikes down that side of the pitch for speed. Inevitably, we punctured the tent with our spikes because a part of it was hanging out by the side of the pitch. When the tent went up the heat would escape through the holes. It was also lopsided. In a way it worked a little bit but it certainly wasn’t as sophisticated as the undersoil heating today!

“Some days we trained at Filbert Street just for a change, to break the monotony. There were no warm-ups on bikes. We got changed and went straight into training.  They used to hang balls on a rope for heading practice and we used the outside track around the pitch for running and sprinting. To get the heart pumping we would run up and down the Double Decker terracing. It was a nightmare. We hated that.”

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