Mark Draper

Former Player Remembers: Mark Draper

England Under-21s international midfielder Mark Draper became Leicester City’s first million-pound player when Brian Little signed him for a record fee of £1.25M in July 1994.
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Last month, Mark spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his early career at Notts County, for whom he played in the top flight, his international experiences and his Premier League career not only at Leicester City.

Mark joined Notts County as a nine-year-old, became an apprentice in 1987 and was given his first team debut as a 17-year-old by manager John Barnwell in a third tier match against Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1988. 

He was key member of Neil Warnock’s Notts County side which gained back-to-back promotions in 1990 and 1991 to achieve top-flight status for a season before being relegated in 1992.

By this time, Mark had become an England Under-21s international. He spent two more years at Meadow Lane, playing for the Magpies in the 1994 Anglo Italian Cup Final at Wembley against a Brescia side which contained Barcelona-bound Gheorghe Hagi, a star of the 1994 FIFA World Cup and considered at the time to be one of the best players in the world. By the time Mark joined Leicester City in July 1994, he had made 270 appearances and scored 50 goals. 

At Meadow Lane, Mark experienced two high profile managers, Jimmy Sirrel and Neil Warnock. 

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Mark Draper

Mark Draper helped City to promotion via the play-offs.

“I was a schoolboy when Jimmy Sirrel was there,” Mark began. “He used to watch us kids play on Sunday mornings. Not many managers did that. He’d pull you to the side of the pitch and give you tips. He was some character!

“When Neil Warnock became the manager, we won back-to-back promotions in 1990 and 1991 to reach the old First Division. They were fantastic times. 

“While I was at Notts I got three England Under-21s caps. I would have got a few more but I had to pull out of the Toulon Tournament in the summer of 1991 because we were in the play-offs, which we won, for a place in the top flight.”

In July 1994 Mark joined Brian Little’s Leicester City side, which had just won promotion to the recently formed Premier League.

Thinking back, Mark recalled: “There’d been a lot of talk about Derby wanting to buy me if they went up to the Premier League, but Leicester beat them in the play-off final so I went to Leicester instead. 

“I spoke to Brian and we got on straightaway. Moving to Leicester seemed like a good step for me. It seemed like a good fit.

“However, the fee had to be set by a tribunal. Notts wanted £2M and Leicester offered something like £250,000. Martin George the Chairman, Brian Little the manager and myself went to the tribunal in the Chairman’s car. 

“Notts County’s manager and chairman were also there. The panel looked at things like my age, my appearances and my stats. We were probably in there for about an hour or so. it’s like being in court. I think we all got a bit of a shock when they set the price at £1.25M. When we got back in the car, Brian said to me: ‘You’d better be good!’ “

Leicester City’s season in the Premier League, in its third season, was difficult. 

“Even though that season was a tough one,” Mark recalled, “I still really enjoyed it and I look back at Leicester with good memories. There were a lot of great lads there.

“My Leicester debut was at Filbert Street against Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United. There was a big crowd and it was a massive game on Sky. We ended up getting beaten 3-1 and I missed a penalty! It wasn’t the best start.

“The team’s first point was in the fourth game,” Mark continued. “It was a 1-1 home draw against Queens Park Rangers and the first victory was a 3-1 home win against Tottenham Hotspur. Julian Joachim scored a couple and David Lowe scored too. Jürgen Klinsmann scored for Spurs.” 

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Mark Draper

Leicester's first stint in the Premier League was a short one.

However, the team gained only nine points from their first 14 games. They were never out of the bottom two from November onwards. Despite this, Mark wasn’t downhearted. 

“I felt that I was playing well, so I just kept cracking on really,” he added. “I still enjoyed the season, even though we got relegated. I loved my time at Leicester. There’s no doubt that I would have stayed if they’d survived in the Premier League.”

In November 1994, the Club and the fans were shocked by the sudden departure of Little when he and his coaching team left Filbert Street to take over the reins at Aston Villa. 

“I was gutted to see him go,” Mark said. “Brian was one of the reasons I went to Leicester and when a manager signs you and then leaves soon afterwards it’s a blow. I always got on with Brian. I still do to this day. 

“He’s a great bloke. You can't not get on with Brian. You can’t knock him for leaving Leicester. He said at the time that Villa was the only club he'd leave for. It was where he’d made his name as a player. It was an impossible job for him to turn down. He was a Villa legend.”

Leicester fans were angry about Little’s departure, though.

“When he returned to Filbert Street as Aston Villa’s manager just over a week later,” Mark recalled, “there was a photograph taken of Brian and the Villa team getting off the bus being surrounded by Leicester fans giving him some abuse. 

“The crowd had loads of banners on display during the game saying things like ‘Judas’ and ‘Traitor’. We drew 1-1. The next month we went to Villa Park. That was a mad game. It was a 4-4 draw after we were 4-1 down. It was a crazy night.”

Reading’s manager Mark McGhee replaced Little as manager at Filbert Street in mid-December.

“We weren’t in a great position,” Mark continued. “But we could still have stayed up. Brian’s departure was a blow, and everything seemed to go a little flat. It was tough for Mark. He tried to change things round, but it didn’t quite work. He brought in striker Mark Robins for £1M and he also signed midfielder ‘Parks’ (Garry Parker). 

“‘Parks’ was a great player. He came from Villa on the January deadline day. The clubs were trying to do a swap deal with me going to Villa, because Brian wanted me there. In the end, I agreed to stay at Leicester to help them stay up. The agreement was that Leicester would let me go at the end of the season if the Club was relegated. It wasn’t a written agreement, but that seemed to be the deal.”

During his season at Filbert Street, Mark became involved with Terry Venables’ England national team.

He explained: “I didn’t play but I was at a couple of training camps. Being involved with England was always something you dream of as a kid. I’d had a taste with the Under-21s team.” 

At the end of the season, Leicester City were relegated, along with Crystal Palace, Norwich City and Ipswich Town.

“My stay at Leicester was short-lived,” Mark continued. “In an ideal world, we would have stayed up and I probably wouldn’t have left Filbert Street but I wanted to stay in the Premier League, so I went to Villa and played there for five years. 

“In my first year at Villa Park (1995/96), we got off to an amazing start and then we never really looked back. We finished fourth, won the League Cup, qualified for the UEFA Cup and reached the FA Cup Semi-Finals.

“Brian Little was very calm and calculated. He’d lose his temper now and again, but he was quite calm with everybody and built a good team spirit. He picked players to do a certain job in the team and it all just gelled for us at Villa. 

“We had a brilliant side. Dwight Yorke was top-class. There was also Paul McGrath, Gareth Southgate, Ugo Ehiogu and Savo Milošević, who was only a kid, but he was class. We had Andy Townsend, who was the Irish captain, Ian Taylor and Alan Wright, a left-back who played about 400 games for Villa and who should have played for England. We also had Mark Bosnich in goal.

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Mark Draper

Draper's time at Villa was largely very successful.

“Things also went really well in my second season at Villa and I was picked by Glenn Hoddle for the England squad after somebody dropped out. I got a call from Glenn on a Sunday afternoon. He told me that I would be picked up the next day for the match in Moldova for a World Cup qualifier. 

“Getting picked for an England squad is the pinnacle of anyone’s career. It was some squad to get into! The four other midfielders in there were Paul Ince, Paul Scholes. Gazza (Paul Gascoigne), and Matt Le Tissier! I was sub for that game but didn’t play. It was David Beckham’s first game for England.

“In my third season at Villa, Brian left. John Gregory took over and things were never really quite the same for me. I was still playing regularly, and the team did well, but then it started to break up a little bit.”

Mark stayed at Villa until July 2000, when Hoddle signed him for Southampton.

“I’d fallen out with John Gregory a little bit,” Mark continued. “He wasn’t playing me as much. There was a chance I’d go to Glasgow Rangers on loan but that fell through. In January 2000, on deadline day in Spain, I joined Rayo Vallecano until the end of the season. I enjoyed it. It was an experience that I’m glad I had. 

“When I returned, Glenn Hoddle, who knew me from England, signed me for Southampton. I really enjoyed my first season there but then I started getting wear and tear injuries and it was the beginning of the end of my playing career. I had quite a few operations and made a few comebacks, but I was struggling with knee and ankle injuries and I never did quite get back to full fitness. I was 34 when I decided to retire having played over 500 games in my career.” 

After retiring to Spain for a couple of years, Mark returned to England, did his coaching badges and worked in the academies at Notts County and Stoke City before setting up a coaching school with his ex-Notts County team-mate David Norton, also getting involved with an Under-19s football academy at Nottingham University. 

He also regularly watches his daughter Denny play. She is an England Under-16s international striker who plays for LCFC Women’s Academy side. 

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