Alan Birchenall & Sir Bobby Charlton

Former Player Remembers: Alan 'The Birch' Birchenall

At his home in Mountsorrel, Leicester City’s Club Ambassador Alan ‘The Birch’ Birchenall sat down with John Hutchinson to discuss playing against Don Revie’s renowned Leeds United side and his memories of the great Sir Bobby Charlton, who passed away last month.
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Fifty years ago, on 13 October, 1973, Leicester City played Don Revie’s Leeds United at Filbert Street in an old First Division fixture. The match was noteworthy for two reasons. The first was Birch’s goal, which gave Leicester a 2-0 lead. He scored from 30 yards out at the Filbert Street end. This goal, a contender for Goal of the Season in 1973/74, is still shown today on the big screen just before kick-off at each home game.

The second reason was that, on that afternoon, Admiral-sponsored football shirts made their first appearance. This was because the Leeds shirts had been manufactured by a local firm in Wigston called Cook and Hurst, who created the Admiral brand, which went on to be used by many other top flight clubs, including City, as well as by the England national team.

Before signing for Leicester in August 1971, Alan had faced Leeds many times, playing for Shefield United, Chelsea and Crystal Palace. This was when Revie’s Leeds were a major force in England. Promoted to the top flight in 1964, they won the First Division title in 1969 and 1974. They were runners-up in 1965, 1966, 1970, 1971 and 1972.

They also lifted the FA Cup in 1972 and were runners-up in 1965, 1970, and 1973. They won the League Cup in 1968 and the FA Charity (now Community) Shield in 1969. In Europe, they won the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in 1968 and 1971, and were runners-up in the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1973.

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Alan Birchenall

The Birch received the Freedom of Leicester in 2009.

Birch began by recalling that, at one time, it looked as though he might have been signed by Leeds.

“When I was at Sheffield United, I was playing as a striker alongside Mick Jones,” he said. “I was told that Don Revie wanted to pay a £100,000 fee for each of us. John Harris, Sheffield United’s manager said: ‘You can’t have both of them, I’d get lynched in Sheffield. Which one do you want?’

“Mick had just broken into the England side. He was a better player than me anyway, so they selected Mick. I got a bit of the Englebert Humperdinck (the hump) about this, and Leeds then went and got Allan Clarke from Leicester. It worked out for me in the end. A few weeks or months later, I went to Chelsea and then, of course, I ended up here, in 1971.”

When prompted, Birch then recalled his memorable goal against Leeds in 1973.

“I’ve only seen this about a million times,” he joked. “I see it every week on the pre-match big screens and I say to the media team: ‘Haven’t you got any other goals I scored? Anyone would think my whole career revolved around that one goal… I did get a few others you know!’

“When I scored that goal, I remember following up Stringy (Mike Stringfellow). He’s a terrific bloke and he was a terrific wide man as well. He had some injury problems but, at his best, he was tremendous.

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Alan Birchenall & Frank Worthington

In training with Leicester City team-mate Frank Worthington in 1976.

“He backheeled the ball to me, just rolling it back. I just thought, I can’t take anyone on because I wouldn’t beat them, so I’ll give it a whack, even though it might finish up in the city centre. My shot whistled past their ’keeper and then I got mobbed! If nothing else, when I shuffle off this mortal coil, they’ll say: ‘He got a good goal against Leeds’. And someone else will say: ‘Yes but he did little else!”

Alan then went on to consider the players in the Leeds side of that time.

He continued: “With players like Billy Bremner. Eddie Gray, Mick Jones, Paul Reaney, Paul Madeley, Allan Clarke, Norman Hunter, Terry Cooper, Peter Lorimer and Jackie Charlton, they were the Manchester City of our era. Their team was full of quality players. At the time, I was a bit disappointed I hadn’t gone to Leeds.

“I sometimes wonder what it would have been like with me and Jonah (Mick Jones) upfront for Leeds, but it worked out well for me otherwise. That’s life. I had a great time at Chelsea, especially down the Kings Road, but that’s another story! If you just go through their team, it was awesome, but playing against them was a challenge.

There was Billy Bremner. I’ve still got the marks on my forehead when I slipped and instead of jumping over me, he stood on my forehead. To this day, I can feel the indentations! Mick Jones told me that Bremner used to customise his studs so they had sharp bits on them. This was to get a grip on a frosty or icy surface. They wouldn’t play on them today. That Leeds side had all the dark arts. 

“Johnny Giles was a little guy. He was a tremendous player, but he was annoying. Everybody on our side wanted to get him. Whenever I played against him, he always seemed to be picking me up, but he was tremendous. He was the one that damaged me and a few others, but he was a quality player, and a great leader for Leeds. You’d be out there on the pitch with him, and you could see him thumping team-mates and going up to them saying: ‘Come on, we need a bit more!’

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Alan Birchenall

The honour of carrying out the Premier League trophy at King Power Stadium.

“Jack Charlton, with all due respect, was big and skinny and looked like a giraffe to me. He wasn’t fast, but he played deeper so he didn’t have to turn and pick somebody up. He was another leader. Their team was full of them. Then there was Norman Hunter. He was the quiet one of the side. He went about his business methodically. He was a good lad socially and a quality player. They all were.

“I can still see Eddie Gray, their left winger, getting the ball, going at people, dropping his shoulder and checking to go either side of an opponent. You knew what he was going to do, but you couldn’t stop him. He was a really intelligent player and a nice bloke as well. He was the only Leeds player who didn’t kick anybody!

“Don Revie was a good manager. He didn’t have the millions like Manchester City today, but he put that team together. He couldn’t buy the best, but he produced the best. That was the difference. His Leeds side wasn’t bought. It was produced.

“When playing against great players, I never thought about it. They were just an opponent. But when I look back and think about it, it registers that I played against the likes of Denis Law, George Best, Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Greaves, Franz Beckenbauer and Pelé. It was a privilege to play against them. If I go through every club I played against, I now realise that they had players who were legends but, at the time, they were just other players to play against.

“People often ask me if I would like to be playing today with the financial rewards. Back in my day, we were on better than average wages, but not enough that you could retire on when you’d finished playing. But I’d never have changed from what I did. When I turn up my toes and disappear, I’d like to think that I had no regrets.

“I remember that Don Revie made his name initially at Leicester, but I only met him in passing. I never approached managers in those days because they were the hierarchy. You’d have a nod but that was the case with all the managers, from Alf Ramsey downwards. However, with Jimmy Bloomfield at Leicester, it was the early days of calling the manager by his first name. Before that, it was always ‘boss’ or whatever.”

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Alan Birchenall & Bobby Charlton

Up against Manchester United captain Bobby Charlton in a First Division match at Old Trafford in October 1970, during Birchenall's stint at Crystal Palace.

Birch then spoke about Sir Bobby Charlton, who sadly died a few days before this interview.

“He was a few years older than me,” Birch reflected. “But I must have played against him more than a dozen times. As I said earlier, when I played against him, I saw him as just an opponent. Even though I knew what a great player he was, on matchdays, I was on an equal footing with him playing at the same level. He was a great player though. Over the years, people ask me why, after winning England Under-23s caps, I didn’t make the England team and I always joke: ‘It was because some ordinary player called Bobby Charlton was picked instead of me!’

“That was obviously a joke. Nobody could dislike him. One of my proudest moments was walking out with him at Wembley for the Community Shield (in 2016). We were Premier League champions and Manchester United had won the FA Cup. Bobby and I had lunch together and then we went down in the lift together to go out onto the pitch at Wembley.

“I remember thinking: ‘I can’t believe this. I’m the Birch, an average player, and he’s probably one of the greatest players ever and we are both going out onto the pitch at Wembley together’. As we were about to go out onto the pitch, Vards (Jamie Vardy) said to me something like: ‘They’ve got Bobby Charlton and we’ve got the Birch!’

“Gordon Banks should have done it, but unfortunately, he wasn’t too well so the Club asked me to do it. It was still a great honour for me to walk out at Wembley. It was level with me walking out with the Premier League trophy at Leicester for the trophy lift a few weeks before. I’ll treasure those memories for a lifetime.”

Birch concluded by saying: “I’ve enjoyed bringing back these memories. There’s a saying that goes something like: ‘It’s better to have done it, than never to have to done anything at all’. That’s a good life motto! You can finish the article with that!”

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