Richie Norman, Howard Riley, Hugh McIlmoyle & Alan Birchenall

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

Last month, Richie Norman, Howard Riley and Hugh McIlmoyle, who all played for Leicester City in the 1960s, were given a tour of LCFC Training Ground in Seagrave by Club Ambassador Alan ‘The Birch’ Birchenall.

During the tour, the ex-players spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about their impressions of the new world-class facility they were visiting and about how it compared with the training grounds that existed in their day. 

Left full-back Norman, outside-right Riley and centre-forward McIlmoyle all played in City’s FA Cup final side in 1961 against Tottenham Hotspur. Richie and Howard also played in the 1963 FA Cup final against Manchester United and were League Cup winners in 1964.

Newcastle-born Richie made 365 league and cup appearances for the Foxes before having a career as a manager, coach and physiotherapist. Wigston-born Howard was a dynamic right winger with a powerful shot who made his first-team debut in the top flight four days after his 17th birthday.

He went on to play for the British Army, the England youth and Under-23s sides and make 233 appearances for the Foxes before going part-time at the age of 25 to train as a teacher. He later played for Atlanta Chiefs, before returning to Leicestershire to teach and to feature in local football.

After he retired from teaching, he became an education and welfare officer at Leicester City’s Academy. Hugh, who was a late replacement in the FA Cup final for Wales international centre-forward Ken Leek, went on to play for Rotherham United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bristol City, Middlesbrough, Preston North End and Greenock Morton.

He also had three spells at Carlisle United, where he was so successful that they erected a statue of him outside their stadium. We’ll talk about that later. 

Accompanied by Hugh’s son Alan, the ex-players were met at the gates to the impressive 180-acre training ground complex by The Birch, who was a key member of Jimmy Bloomfield’s sides in the 1970s.  

For the next three hours, Birch, in his uniquely inimitable style, conducted a tour of Seagrave for the three FA Cup finalists from over 60 years ago.

After saying that it was unusual for him to be with players who were older than he was, Birch began his tour with an overview of the site with its meticulously prepared pitches and gardens.

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Richie Norman, Howard Riley, Hugh McIlmoyle & Alan Birchenall

The Birch explains the significance of a 'living wall' which leads from main reception through to the players' dining room.

He pointed out the indoor pitch in the impressive King Power Centre, the floodlit stadium for Development Squad matches, the Sports Turf Academy, the numerous training pitches, the media centre, the landscaped gardens, the nine-hole golf course, the thousands of newly planted trees and much else besides.

Commenting on the size of the complex and on the superbly maintained pitches, Birch said: “The groundsmen have all the latest equipment. The site is so vast there are about 20 buggies to get you around it. I still can’t get my head round it and I’ve been here nearly a year!”

Birch then led the group into the huge Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha Building. Earlier this year, photographs were taken of the players at the plaque outside the main entrance commemorating the official opening ceremony of the training ground.

Howard, Richie and Hugh were then shown the impressive reception area, complete with an imposing sculpture. This was followed by a tour of the various offices, which are very spacious, including floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the first team training area.

One of these offices is Birch’s, which has framed team pictures on the wall of each Leicester City team covering each of the 51 years he has been associated with the Club. The players’ games room with dartboards, snooker and table tennis tables and an outside balcony overlooking the training fields, was next on the list. So too was the adjacent dining room, which is very well appointed, commands a great view and serves a wide range of delicious meals.

Walking along tastefully decorated corridors, with framed pictures on many of the walls, Birch then took the group down a level to show us the analysts’ and sports scientists’ room, with its numerous computer screens, and the incredibly impressive gym, crammed full of state of the art equipment.

The group also saw the physio’s room, which was of particular interest to Richie, who spent several decades as a physio. Then it was the steam room, the sauna, the swimming pool, the kit room, the laundry room and the access to the pitches and gardens outside.

A highlight of this particular section of the tour was the impressive circular changing room, which looks as though it comes from a set from Star Trek. While the ex-players were photographed sitting in front of some of the individual changing spaces allocated to the players, a team from BBC East Midlands arrived who, seizing the moment, spent some time talking to the players about their impressions of Seagrave.

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Richie Norman, Howard Riley, Hugh McIlmoyle & Alan Birchenall
Richie Norman, Howard Riley, Hugh McIlmoyle & Alan Birchenall

More memories were shared inside LCFC Training Ground's spacious dining space.

Leaving the changing room, the Birch also described the top class players’ accommodation on the top floor level of the building we were in.

The experience of visiting LCFC Training Ground was mind-blowing, not only because of the extent of the facility but also because every feature is of the very highest quality. The Birch actually said: “It’s not five-star standard, it’s 10-star!”

This overwhelming experience prompted Richie, Howard and Hugh to remember how different training conditions had been for them in their day.

Thinking back to how he trained in the 1950s and 60s, Howard recalled: “In pre-season, we started off at Bradgate Park. I quite enjoyed the flat bit but then we had to go up the hill to Old John. Most of the training though was at Filbert Street. We did laps around the pitch, sometimes with a skipping rope.”

Mention of running laps around the Filbert Street pitch sparked off a memory for Richie.

“I’ve still got my spikes I used for running,” Richie said. “I remember once, in training, the lads put me up to run against the Olympic 400-yard sprinter Malcolm Yardley! We were to have a race down one side of the pitch. Jimmy Walsh and Oggie (John Ogilvie) set up a book. Yardley had thighs like tree trunks. When he came out for the race, he had these wooden blocks and a big hammer! He hammered these starting blocks into the ground and then put his spikes on. He was really up for it! I was given a 10-yard start. He was out of those blocks like lightning. He caught me at the tunnel. My legs went and he beat me. I got some stick after that because a lot of lads lost money on that!”

“Indoors, we had a gymnasium,” Howard continued. “It was nothing like the one here with all of its top-class equipment. “It was really just a concrete floor under the Main Stand at Filbert Street, next to the dressing room. They’d give you a mat and you’d do sit-ups and press-ups.”

Richie added: “We did fitness work with the trainer, Dave Jones, on Tuesdays and we did ball work on Thursdays.

“Ball work came in more when Bert Johnson arrived, as a coach, with Matt Gillies,” Howard interjected. “He encouraged people to think about the game, and work things out like free-kicks.”

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Richie Norman, Howard Riley, Hugh McIlmoyle & Alan Birchenall
Richie Norman, Howard Riley, Hugh McIlmoyle & Alan Birchenall

The Birch shows off his office's vantage point.

Richie added: “We had practice matches on the Filbert Street car park. Those games got a bit tasty! They were on Fridays, the day before a match. They were five-a-side. We had a lot of Scottish lads at the Club and we used to have England vs. Scotland matches. There were no holds barred!

“Once, after a bad First Division game, Matt Gillies said in the team talk that if we’d played like we had in the car park in our England vs. Scotland matches, that would have been a lot better than we’d played on Saturday! The car park’s surface was ashes. You’d get your knees scraped and lads would get injured when they got tripped up and fell down.”

“We used the Granby Halls when it was bad weather, or snowing. We also sometimes went to the Saffron Lane Stadium. When we moved to our new training ground at Belvoir Drive in 1963, which has been developed a lot since, we’d get changed at Filbert Street, carry our boots under our arm and jog along Aylestone Road up to Belvoir Drive. When we finished our training, we had to jog back to Filbert Street because, in those days 60 years ago, there were no showers at Belvoir Drive, only a hut!”

The Birch, who was in the next generation of players in the 1970s, also remembered the hut. “We also had to run to Belvoir Drive from Filbert Street,” he laughed. “Then we’d have to put our kit in that stupid hut with panels missing and then run back to Filbert Street! If we’d been beaten on the Saturday, it was horrendous running down Aylestone Road, because all the lorry drivers would shout out: ‘You were useless on Saturday, Birchenall!’ But if you’d won, they’d just drive on by!”

The ex-players also mentioned another feature of training in their day, the café on the corner of Filbert Street.

“On training days, everybody used to gather there,” Richie remembered. “We used to go there virtually every day. The chap behind the counter might just as well have been in on our team talks because he must have picked up so much information from overhearing us talking. That was where Gordon Banks, who was late arriving one day, told us he’d been put up for transfer. He wasn’t happy!”

In marked contrast to the cramped old Filbert Street café, with its bacon burgers and other unhealthy food, the Birch’s tour concluded with a first-class meal in the spacious and well-appointed first team dining room, with its carefully prepared healthy menus and panoramic views.

Over lunch, the ex-players summed up their impressions of their morning spent at Seagrave.

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Richie Norman, Howard Riley, Hugh McIlmoyle & Alan Birchenall

A look at the state of the art swimming pool in Seagrave.

The Birch said: “Every day I come here I’m flabbergasted at the facility we have here at Seagrave. These great players from yesteryear have been blown away as well. It’s been a pleasure and an honour to have them here. It’s amazing how far our football club has come from the days when we played. These lads never expected anything like this.”

Hugh agreed: “I played for a lot of clubs. The size of the site, the facilities, the swimming pool, the changing room, the number of pitches, the restaurant, the gym: all of these are unlike anything I ever experienced. When I saw the gym, I was amazed. It’s exceeded anything I expected. It’s got to be the best in the country, if not Europe.”

Reflecting on what he’d seen, Richie said: “It’s out of this world really. I’ve been in the game a long time and I’ve seen a lot of things, but this is the best I’ve ever seen. I’ve been round the world and seen football in Europe and in Africa. The amount of equipment in this place is incredible. It can only be good for the lads. Everything is of the highest standard. As for the gym, when Birch opened the doors, I had to take a step back because of the amount of equipment. All we had at Filbert Street was a weighing machine!”

It had been a memorable morning. In their day, Richie, Howard, Hugh and Birch had been elite players. However, the contrast between their training conditions and those enjoyed by today’s players couldn’t be greater.

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