Rob Ullathorne

Former Player Remembers: Rob Ullathorne (Part One)

A former Leicester City and Norwich City defender, Rob Ullathorne is the latest ex-Foxes star to speak to Club Historian John Hutchinson to recall his career in the game.
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Signed at Filbert Street by Martin O’Neill in February 1997, Rob describes playing for Norwich City in the top flight and in Europe, his move to Spain, where he featured for Rafael Benítez at Osasuna, and the somewhat surprising events leading to him signing for City, where he made a big impact despite two serious injuries. 

Rob, who initially made his name at Norwich, joined Leicester at a time when the Club was establishing itself back in the Premier League and was about to play another top-flight side, Wimbledon, in the semi-final of the League Cup.

Rob began by explaining how his football journey began as a youngster: “I was born in Wakefield but I was brought up in a sleepy town called Goole. When I was a kid, I went to PGL soccer camps. I managed to get through trials for their national soccer team and we travelled abroad playing matches.

“We also played some league clubs too, including Norwich City at under-14s level. I think we beat them 4-1 or 5-1 and they wanted to sign me on schoolboy forms along with two or three others in the same team. I signed schoolboy forms when I was 14. 

“My mum and dad put me on a train to Norwich on my own and I had to make my own way to the digs. I used to go to Norwich in the school holidays and I did this until I was 16, when I signed full-time on the YTS scheme. After two years (in 1990), I was offered professional forms with Norwich.

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Rob Ullathorne

Starting out at Norwich.

“I loved my time there. It’s a great part of the world. Norwich wasn’t a massive club, but they were in the old First Division. The best thing that ever happened was beginning my career at Norwich because they were a club which wanted to get the ball down and pass and move, rather than launch the ball to a big centre-forward.

“I made my first team debut in the old First Division (against Nottingham Forest in April 1991) when I was 19. You don’t get many 19-year-olds playing in the top division now. We had to grow up quickly then.”

Rob played more games in the 1991/92 season when the Canaries finished 18th in the top flight. The next season, managed by Mike Walker, Norwich finished third in the newly-formed Premier League, behind Manchester United and Aston Villa.

This qualified the Canaries for the UEFA Cup the following season when they defeated Bayern Munich away from home before they lost to Inter Milan at the San Siro in the next round. At the end of the season which followed (1994/95), however, Norwich were relegated from the Premier League.

“The year we got relegated was weird,” Rob recalled. “I’m sure we were in the top 10 before Christmas but then we went on this ridiculous, horrible run. For me, football is a confidence game. Players at that level aren’t bad players. it’s about self-confidence. We dug ourselves into a hole and we couldn’t get out of it.

“When we had a few games left at the end of the season we played West Ham away and we were 2-1 up and I’d scored in that game. And then, towards the end of the game, in what must have been the last couple of minutes, we had the ball in their half and one of the lads gave the ball away stupidly.

If I hadn’t back-passed to Emile [Heskey], Leicester wouldn’t have had enough points to go into the play-offs and get back into the Premier League.

Rob Ullathorne

“He tried to cross the ball instead of keeping hold of it and Tony Cottee scored for them and we only came away with a draw. In the last but one game of the season, we were at Leeds, and we needed to win. We were winning but lost two late goals, the second one in the last minute. It was horrible to go down (along with Leicester City and Ipswich Town) but we knew we had to get back up from the Championship.”

Norwich City’s new manager for the new season was Martin O’Neill, but he left the Club in December due to differences with the chairman Robert Chase. This was a pivotal event for both O’Neill and for Leicester City, as Rob explained.

“Martin arrived at Norwich from Wycombe Wanderers at the start of the season,” Rob continued. “We got off to a flyer and were near the top of the league. In December, we were due to play at Leicester and Martin didn’t turn up for the game. We players were saying: ‘Obviously he’s gone. He’s having talks somewhere'. His assistants Steve Walford and Paul Franklin, who was his right-hand man, took over for the game.

“During that game, I played a back-pass to Emile Heskey, who went through and scored and Leicester won. If I hadn’t back-passed to Emile, Leicester wouldn’t have had enough points to go into the play-offs and get back into the Premier League at the end of the season, so I’m taking credit for getting Leicester into the Premier League!”

Almost immediately after this win over the Canaries, O’Neill became the Foxes’ new Manager, replacing the departed Mark McGhee. Ironically, the favourite for the Leicester post until O’Neill left was another ex-Norwich manager, Mike Walker, who had been so successful at Carrow Road and whose son Ian was City’s goalkeeper a few years later. 

“At the end of that season,” Rob continued, “Norwich didn’t make the play-offs and my contract had ended. This was the first year of the Bosman ruling (which allowed players in the EU to move to another club at the end of a contract without a transfer fee being paid). I’d spoken to Norwich about this as well as to another couple of clubs in England.

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Rob Ullathorne

Taking on Wimbledon during a Premier League match for the Foxes in March 1998.

“One day, my agent called me when I was at home to ask me if I fancied going to Italy because Torino were interested in signing me. Then he rang me again to tell me that a Spanish club, Osasuna, were interested too. Neither of us knew where Osasuna was but he did say that it was an exciting time for that club.

“He said: ‘There’s a new young manager who’s come from Real Madrid who’s putting a whole new team together. They’re keen. Do you want to go over for talks?’. I was open for anything. I’d been at Norwich for nine years. That together with other things in my life made me think I needed a change, so why not go abroad?

“So I went over there and it turned out that the new manager was Rafael Benítez, who’d been the manager of Real Madrid’s reserves. His right-hand man was Pako [Ayestarán] who was Benítez’s assistant at Liverpool and who is now assistant head coach at Aston Villa.

“It was an exciting and crazy time. Norwich had started their pre-season training, and although I was out of contract, they threatened to fine me if I didn’t come back to train. Meanwhile I’d flown to Pamplona to sign for Osasuna. We’d got there at about nine o’clock in the morning, but the way they do it over there isn’t for you to go in and sign the forms straightaway.

“They liked to wine and dine with you and I didn’t end up signing until about six in the evening. My agent kept saying: ‘Rob, Norwich keep ringing me asking me where you are!’ In the end, he had to let them know that because of the Bosman ruling, they wouldn’t be able to get any money for me.

“I had a great time in Spain. It was fantastic. I loved living in Pamplona which is a beautiful city. It’s in northern Spain. The people were fantastic. I absolutely loved it. The training ground was great. There were snowcapped mountains in the distance.

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Rob Ullathorne

Making an appearance in the 1999 League Cup Final.

“Later that season (in February 1997), I was pulled into the office and told that Leicester City wanted to sign me and that I wouldn’t be playing in that Sunday’s game. I said I still wanted to play but they said I had to go to the UK. I said: ‘What if I don’t want to go?’. But they had got me on a free transfer and Leicester were offering big money for me.

“Osasuna’s director of football said: ‘Look, Rob. Go and sign for Leicester and we’ll sign you again in three years’ time or when your contract is up’. It was a crazy time. My boy Liam was about three or four. My daughter had only just been born in Pamplona. This discussion was on the Friday. On Saturday, I was driven to Madrid to get on a plane to the UK to have talks with Leicester City.

“It was all just happening too quickly for me. My life had suddenly been turned round. I was enjoying life in Spain. I had to take my son with me to the airport to go to Leicester because my wife had only recently had my daughter. When we got to the airport, there was a problem with the passport for my son to go with me from Madrid, so I had to get the Consulate to come to the airport to sort this out.

“In the end, I just rang and said: ‘I’m not going’. But the fee had been agreed. It had all moved so quickly. I got on the plane and came over and signed for Leicester City.”

In part two of this interview, Rob recalls his life at Filbert Street, which started disastrously, reached the heights of playing at Wembley in the 1999 League Cup Final and ended with a double fracture of the leg. He then recounts his post-Leicester City playing career and reflects on his life after his career ended.

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