1988/89 Leicester City team

Former Player Remembers: Tony Spearing

Between 1988 and 1991, full-back Tony Spearing made 79 appearances for at Leicester City. When he spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson, he discussed his varied career at several clubs as a player, coach, scout and Head of Recruitment.
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For several seasons, Tony (front row, second from right) also played for Leicester City in the national six-a-side Masters’ tournament for ex-players, winning the trophy in 2005.

Thinking back to his early days in football, Romford-born Tony started by describing how he became part of a successful Norwich City youth team, before graduating to the first team at Carrow Road.

“When I was playing on a local park, as a youngster, I was approached and asked if I would be interested in a trial match at Norwich City," he said. "I was playing left-side midfield then, but at the trial the left-back didn’t turn up. I went to left-back and I did okay. They invited me up again and before I knew it that became my position.

“We had an outstanding youth team at Norwich. We won everything we ever played in. We were very strong with players like Jeremy Goss and Louie Donowa in the team. I was also lucky enough to break into the England side for that age group.

“Ken Brown and Mel Machin were outstanding coaches. They really educated me about the way the game was played. Mel Machin was miles ahead of where coaches were at that time. I broke into the first team under those guys so I owe them a lot.

“We beat Everton in the 1983 Youth Cup Final which was played over two legs. We won 3-2 at Carrow Road and lost 3-2 at Goodison Park. We lost the toss and had to go back to Everton for the replay in front of about 25,000, which was a bigger crowd than Norwich’s first team were getting at the time. We won 1-0. It was a very short trip home after the game, believe me! We had a party at the back of the bus. It was an outstanding achievement for a club of Norwich’s size."

While at Norwich, Tony had a couple of loan spells at Stoke City and Oxford United.

“In those days, loans weren’t very commonplace like they are today," he said. "I had broken into the first team at Norwich (in 1983/84), but broke my leg at Liverpool. During my comeback, I struggled to get back into the first team. I was getting back to full fitness in the reserves when Stoke, who, like Norwich were in the old First Division, came for me.

“I went there for three months, the maximum allowed at the time. Apart from missing a couple of matches when I was sent off, I played in every game. I loved it. I would have signed for Stoke. I really enjoyed my time there.

David Pleat is an incredibly knowledgeable guy. He knows every player on the planet. I love hearing him on the radio. I think he comes across really well. He formed a very good team at Leicester

Tony Spearing

“When my loan period finished I went back to Norwich and on the Monday, Oxford United came in for me. They were top of what is now the Championship. I went there for a couple of months. Again, I enjoyed it because we were top of the table."

At the end of that 1984/85 season, Oxford United were promoted to the top flight, replacing Norwich City who were relegated, although the Canaries did win the League Cup while Tony was out on loan at Oxford.

Back at Carrow Road, Tony returned to the first team which was promoted back to the top flight after just one season. Then, in July 1988, after two seasons playing in the old First Division, Tony signed for David Pleat’s Second Division Leicester City. 

Tony explained: “The Norwich manager who sold me to Leicester City for £100,000 was Dave Stringer. I was a regular in the team with Dave but then I got a hamstring injury and I couldn’t get back in to the side. That really frustrated me because I wanted to play.

“In my time we didn’t have agents. I had nobody really to guide me and tell me to calm down and that my time would come. I was a little bit boisterous. In hindsight I should have acted differently. I was upset because I desperately wanted to play. If you were fit, it was a real disappointment if you didn’t get in the first team.

“I made my Leicester City debut against Ron Atkinson’s West Brom. It was the first game of the 1988/89 season and we drew 1-1 at Filbert Street. It was a good, close game. I think I did alright on my debut.

“David Pleat is an incredibly knowledgeable guy. He knows every player on the planet. I love hearing him on the radio. I think he comes across really well. He formed a very good team at Leicester. Mike Newell, Gary McAllister, Ali Mauchlen, Paul Ramsey, Tommy Wright and Peter Weir were in the side.

“If I am honest, we totally underperformed. I definitely underachieved. It’s difficult to say why. I reflect on my time at Leicester and it was enjoyable but on a personal level I just wish I achieved a little bit more there. I should have done a lot better for Leicester than I did.

“My last game for Leicester was the famous one against Oxford United (in May 1991). That game was probably the turning point for the football club. We needed to win the game and for other results to go our way to keep us out of the old Third Division. Oxford had been on a long unbeaten run.

“It was a mighty relief to the players that we stayed up. For everybody connected to the Club, staying up was a must. The fans at Leicester were always great. To go from where we were then to when they won the Premier League is an absolute fairytale."

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Tony Spearing

Tony started his career at Norwich before joining Leicester City permanently in 1988.

That close season, Tony was transferred to Plymouth Argyle.

He said: “I got a free transfer. It was on the cards really. David Pleat had left the Club halfway through my last season at Filbert Street. Gordon Lee took over for the rest of that season. He offered me another year, but I just thought that going to Plymouth, who were in the same Division as Leicester, was an opportunity for me to open up some new avenues. Plymouth is a great place to live. I really loved it there.

“In my second year at Plymouth Peter Shilton came in as manager. I started the season with Peter and then I broke my toe really badly and I was out for four months. When I came back, Peterborough, who were in the Championship, came in for me. I spent five years there. It was good for me because I could live in Norwich where my house was. I enjoyed my time there. We were always the underdogs but we finished 10th in the Championship, the highest in their history. 

“Barry Fry came in. To this day, I get on extremely well with Baz. He made me player-coach for the reserves. I was playing in the first team on a Saturday and taking the reserves and the disgruntled pros during the week. I loved it but unfortunately, when I was playing against Notts County, I injured my back and that was the end of my playing career in the league. I had to retire at the end of the 1996/97 season. I trapped a nerve and I wasn’t going to be able to train everyday so I had to step away from it. I was nearly 33."

Tony has nevertheless had a career in football ever since.

“The next season, I went to Kings Lynn which is a big club locally in East Anglia," he said. "I was there for three or four years. I was manager twice. It was intense and the crowd was demanding but I really enjoyed it. I left there when I got the sack as manager, which happens to managers unfortunately!

“Then I went to Sudbury in 2002/03. We got to the FA Vase Cup Final. This should have been at Wembley, but they were rebuilding the Stadium so the final was at West Ham, the team I supported when I was a kid. I had played there many times, but I had never played at Wembley so I was disappointed.

“When I went to play for Great Yarmouth for a year (2004/05), I absolutely enjoyed it. The lads were fantastic and we had such a laugh. I played at the very top and I also gave my time and energy to teams lower down and I didn’t regret it at all. No matter where you play, or how much you are earning, football banter is the same in all dressing rooms."

Tony also played for Leicester City in the Sky Masters Indoor League, a six-a-side competition, televised live, for players aged over 35 who had been chosen to represent a senior club for which they had played.

“I played in several Masters tournaments. We had players like Mark Wallington, Steve Walsh, Ali Mauchlen, Tommy Williams, Tommy Wright, Simon Grayson, Paul Ramsey, Garry Parker, Winston White and Alan Paris in the side," he said. "On my last appearance, in 2005, we got to the final and were lucky enough to win it, beating Chelsea.

When Leicester City became Premier league champions, it turned the Premier League on its head. It showed where passion and commitment and togetherness can take you.

Rob Spearing

“About this time, I got a call from Rob Newman, a big mate of mine, although I had never played with him. He was manager of Cambridge United and he asked me to go down and help out pre-season. He said he had no money, no players, and no staff.

“I thought that if I did this, it would help my mate out and keep me fit, so I did it. Within a couple of weeks I was assistant manager. I spent about 18 months there (2005 to September 2006). It got me back into full time football.

“Two weeks after leaving Cambridge, I got a call from Mike Rigg the Chief Scout at Blackburn Rovers. That’s where I started my scouting career. I stayed at Blackburn for two and a half years and then Dan Ashworth got in touch. He was the Technical Director at West Brom. He asked me if I would be interested in going for an interview. I did, and I got the job. Blackburn tried to get me to stay, but I left.

“I was at West Brom for eight seasons. I was Head of European Recruitment. I worked under a very tight budget. I had a very fair but demanding Chairman called Jeremy Peace. He was absolutely fantastic with me for the eight seasons I was there. He wanted things done a certain way. It was his football club. He was very successful.

“When I went there we were in the Championship. We went up that year (2008) then we went down (2009) and then back up again to the Premier League (2010) and were still there when I left (in January 2015). As West Brom’s Head of European recruitment I headed a department which had scouts all over Europe who I had to go out and see every weekend.

“I also went to South America, North America, in fact everywhere on the planet! When I left the Hawthorns they looked after me extremely well. There was no hostility. It was all done properly.

“I worked for the manager Steve Clarke when I was at West Brom. Steve told me that when he made his debut for Chelsea it was against Norwich at Carrow Road and he was up against me! He liked the way I did things and he became manager of Reading.

“As soon as I got released by West Brom, he phoned my straightaway and asked me to go down to Reading (as Head of Scouting and Recruitment) which I did. I was there for just over a year, I really enjoyed it. It was a friendly, well run club.

“Then, out of the blue (in April 2016) I got a call from Norwich asking me to take over as Head of Football Recruitment. I live in Norwich and the football club is very dear to me so that’s what I do now. Although I ran the department, it wasn’t me that got the players in, it was my department. We shared the accolades and we shared the blame!”

Tony, who subsequently worked for a spell as head of recruitment at Kilmarnock, concluded by saying: “When Leicester City became Premier league champions, it turned the Premier League on its head. It showed where passion and commitment and togetherness can take you. I was the same as everybody else thinking Leicester would at some stage blow up, but they never did! As an ex-player who always looks out for their results, I was delighted for them, I really was."

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