John Sjoberg

Former Player Remembered: John Sjoberg

A key figure at the heart of Leicester City’s defence of the 1960s and early 1970s, John Sjoberg was a warrior for the Foxes, playing a total of 413 games, placing him ninth in all the all-time peacetime appearances charts at the Club.
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Sadly, John died in 2008, but in an interview never published before, his late wife Cynthia explained her husband’s incredible career to Club Historian John Hutchinson.

“John was born in Aberdeen,” Cynthia began. “He played Junior football for Banks O’Dee, which was a prestigious club at the time. A lot of their players went on to play professional football. John had the chance to go to Glasgow Rangers but he was put off because he was asked to fill in a questionnaire about his religion. In those days, there was a lot of sectarianism. It was very divisive then.

“He also had the chance to go to Aston Villa, but in 1958, he chose to come to Leicester as a 17-year-old. It was very brave of his parents to let him come.”

When John arrived at Filbert Street, City were about to embark on their second season back in the old First Division. The Manager who signed him in August 1958 was the ex-Sunderland and Arsenal striker David Halliday, who had been Aberdeen’s coach until he moved to Filbert Street in 1955, before leading Leicester to the top flight as Second Division champions in 1957.

Three months after signing, John was joined at Filbert Street by another young defender, Richie Norman. These two went on to make a combined total of nearly 800 games for City in the years which followed.

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John Sjoberg

Facing Mansfield Town at Field Mill in March 1969.

“When he came to Leicester, he lived in digs,” Cynthia continued. “At the time, he was doing an accountancy course. He worked full-time so he trained in the evening, as did Frank McLintock (a painter and decorator) and Ian White, who both had full-time jobs. Quite a few of them just trained in the evenings. In those days, players had to think what was going to happen to them when they were in their thirties.

“It was a lot harder for players then. They didn’t have agents. They had to negotiate their own contracts which were only for one season in those days. The club owned you lock stock and barrel. If you wanted to leave and the club wanted to keep you, you couldn’t play for anybody else.

“John worked for an accountancy firm called John Rowley and Co. That’s where I met him, because I worked there too. I went there with a view to train as an accountant. He wasn’t articled because of his football interest. He was in the reserves then.

“John made his debut (in October 1960) at right full-back. He was the first Scotsman to make his debut for an English Club in Wales. The Leicester Evening Mail and the Leicester Mercury took photographs of him studying his accountancy books.

“He’d come to Leicester as a wing-half but he was so good at heading, he played at centre-half in the reserves. He got into the First Team at right full-back. This wasn’t his natural position, but he played there until they signed Peter Rodrigues (in December 1965), when he moved back to centre-half in the middle of the defence.”

Still a young reserve, John wasn’t in the City side which played in the 1961 FA Cup Final but he was in the squad which went to Wembley.  

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John Sjoberg

Arms outstretched during a First Division fixture against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park in September 1964.

“John was so proud because he was given a Club blazer,” Cynthia remembered. “The team stayed at the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane. The wives and girlfriends went too. I shared a room with (reserve) Jack Lornie’s girlfriend. I was just a little girl from Leicester, but it was just like something out of a film!”

John established himself in the First Team in December 1962, when he took over the right-back position from Len Chalmers. That season, Leicester City were realistic contenders for the league and FA Cup double.

With only five games to go until the end of the season, they were top of the old First Division and were also FA Cup finalists against relegation-threatened Manchester United. However, they lost the final and they only got one point from the last five games, to finish fourth in the league. 

Thinking back, Cynthia said: “When that team went out to play, they always believed that they were going to win, no matter who the opponent was. In the semi-final against Liverpool, their defence held out for about 80 minutes after Mike Stringfellow had scored. Gordon Banks was brilliant that day. In those days the only chance you had to play for your club at Wembley was the final.

“I remember that the players were bitterly, bitterly disappointed to lose the 1963 Final because they went in with high hopes, but they hadn’t played that well for the previous two or three games. They peaked a little bit too soon. The season had taken its toll. There weren’t big squads then, so players couldn’t be rested. They played every game unless they were injured.”

For the next two seasons after the defeat at Wembley, John, playing at right full-back was a stalwart in the side which defeated Stoke City in the League Cup Final in 1964 and reached the showpiece again in 1965, when they were narrowly defeated by Chelsea.

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John Sjoberg

Meeting Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Leicester City’s Manager and Assistant Manager throughout most of the 1960s were Matt Gillies and Bert Johnson.

When asked about these two, Cynthia said: “They were in complete control. The players were dictated to about everything. They had to wear a collar and tie to training. There was no casualness at all. When they had a pre-match meal, they had a fillet steak and rice pudding, which was probably about the worst thing they could have had! Everything was just so completely different.”

In 1964/65, John moved from full-back to centre-half, where he formed a formidable centre-back partnership with Graham Cross for the next seven seasons.

“John and Graham were really good friends,” Cynthia recalled. “They knitted together really well on the field. Each knew what the other one was good at and so they played to each other’s strengths. They had a great understanding. John was fearless. He never held back. He was a great header of the ball and a tough tackler.

“That’s why he had injuries. He broke his nose. He broke his cheekbone. He also broke his jaw playing in a match against Glasgow Rangers. It was just part and parcel of his game. It was also John who partially deafened (the ex-QPR, Manchester City and England striker) Rodney Marsh. They went to head the ball, but John headed the side of Marsh’s head. It wasn’t done intentionally.”

In the season following the departure of the popular Northern Ireland international striker Derek Dougan, John showed his versatility by having a brief spell at centre-forward. “He scored quite a few goals for Leicester including one at Manchester United,” Cynthia said. “He scored a lot of them from set-pieces.”

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John Sjoberg

Battling for the ball with Arsenal's Peter Storey during a First Division match at Highbury in 1971.

The following season (1968/69) was a frustrating one for John. His injuries began to catch up with him and it’s no coincidence that the team struggled after 12 seasons in the top flight. Gillies and Johnson left in November 1968 with Frank O’Farrell taking over as Manager.

Despite struggling near the foot of the table though, City, under their new Manager, fought their way through to their third FA Cup Final in nine seasons to face the previous season’s league champions Manchester City.

John was a tower of strength in defence in every game in the cup run to Wembley but had to miss the final due to an injury suffered against Arsenal in April, which caused him to miss the rest of the season, ending in relegation.     

“John was devastated to miss the final,” Cynthia remembered. “It was unfortunate because Frank O’Farrell made them all play in a practice match about two days before. George Preston, the physio, said that if John hadn’t played in that game, he would have made the final. He was bitterly disappointed.

“It’s probably not correct to say this but if he’d played, I don’t think Manchester City would have got that goal which won the match for them. Having said that, Peter Rodrigues and Andy Lochhead missed chances for Leicester.”

City had five matches after the final to try to avoid relegation but a 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford in the last match of the season condemned the Club to the Second Division for the first time since 1957.

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John Sjoberg

Up against Crystal Palace's Gerry Queen during a First Division match at Filbert Street in October 1971.

The next season, with John a virtual ever-present in the side, the Foxes just missed promotion by finishing third in 1970 before winning the Second Division title in 1971.

“When you go down a level, you have to adjust when you’ve been used to playing against the likes of Jeff Astle and Denis Law,” Cynthia continued. “Allan Clarke left but most of the others stayed. John had chances to leave but he was loyal. Also, we’d got young children at school, we’d got a printing business and I was from Leicester. For what we would have gained, it wouldn’t have been worth it.”

Shortly after winning the Second Division title, John had a testimonial match against Deby County.

“That was a fantastic night,” Cynthia recalled. “They presented the Second Division trophy that night. There were 22,000 people there. I think he got £9,000. You could buy a four-bedroom detached house with that. It was the biggest financial reward he ever got from football.

“Also, the Supporters’ Club rang me up and asked what they could buy him and, out of the blue I said: ‘Oh, he’d love a camera’. They bought him one!”

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Leicester City 1971

John is far left on the middle row of this LCFC squad photo from the 1971 season.

With Jimmy Bloomfield now the Manager, John continued to play an important role as the team consolidated its position back In the top flight in the 1971/72 season.

The following season, 13 years after his First Team debut, John played his 413th and final game for Leicester in an FA Cup Third Round tie against Arsenal at Filbert Street. A knee injury was causing problems but, as Cynthia said: “John had a brilliant game. Jimmy Bloomfield wanted to play him in the replay the following week, but there was no way he could play with his knee and that was it. It was a good game to go out on.

“At the end of the season, John signed for Rotherham in the Fourth Division, but his knee gave out. He just couldn’t do it. I think he only played about seven games, and gave up about Christmas time. They stuck needles in him to try to get him on the pitch but he was in too much pain.

“Two or three years before he stopped playing, John and my brother, who was a printer, started a printing business called Beaumanor Press. It was a very lucrative business for a while. It was far kinder to us financially than football had been. It started off in Beaumanor Road. Then they had a unit at to the old Central Railway Station before moving to a new modern premises in Bath Lane. We eventually sold the business when John retired.”

John, a true Leicester City legend in every sense of the word, died after a short illness, aged 67, in October 2008.

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