Rob Ullathorne

Former Player Remembers: Rob Ullathorne (Part Two)

In the second instalment of a feature-length interview with Club Historian John Hutchinson, former Leicester City defender Rob Ullathorne reflects on his life at Filbert Street.
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In a wide-ranging conversation, continued from the Norwich City edition on Monday, Ullathorne takes stock on working with Martin O’Neill, a debut to forget, serious injuries and playing in a League Cup Final.

In Monday’s programme, Rob described his early career at Norwich City and in Spain, playing for Rafael Benítez at Osasuna. He also explained how he came to return from Spain at very short notice in order sign for Leicester City in February 1997 for a reported fee of £600,000.

Leicester’s Manager was Martin O’Neill, who for a few months had been Rob’s coach at Norwich City in 1995.

“I got on well with Martin at Norwich,” Rob recalled. “He seemed to like me. He was playing me which was great and, when I came to Leicester, he was the same again. He made it quite clear that he wanted me to play. 

“Obviously you want to play at the highest level. Osasuna were in the Spanish Second Division when I was over there, but there had been whispers that a few La Liga sides were looking at me, and something I really wanted to do was to play at the top level in Spain. I’d played in the Premier League with Norwich so it wasn’t really about moving to Leicester to play in the Premier League. The main reason I came to Leicester was that it gave me a chance to play in a cup final at Wembley because not many players got to do that. With Leicester already in the League Cup last four, it meant that I had a chance to play at Wembley. That was the biggest enticement for me to come to Leicester.” 

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Rob Ullathorne

Shortly after signing for O’Neill, Rob made his Foxes debut on 18 February, 1997 in the first leg of the semi-final against Wimbledon, who were then a Premier League side. 

“Leicester were very keen for me to get my clearance pushed through so that I could play in the semi- final,” Rob remembered. “Even after I’d signed and went to the hotel, they were still waiting for clearance for me to play. Looking back, bearing in mind what was about to happen, I wish they hadn’t got it!

“Things happen for a reason in life. As everyone knows, I was on the pitch for about 15 minutes on my debut when I snapped everything in the left side of my leg.

“A couple of minutes before this happened, one of the Wimbledon lads had tried to slide the ball out wide and I slid to cut it out. For some unknown reason, he then tried it again and I thought to myself: ‘I don’t need to slide. I can just lunge for it and cut it out’. But my studs got caught in the ground, and with my weight, my foot was embedded in the ground. I snapped my fibular, dislocated my ankle and snapped my medial in my left ankle as well. Everything just went.

“It was weird really. Playing in Spain, in Pamplona, it gets quite wet and cold in the winter and in my last game there I’d asked the kit man to change my studs to longer ones, because the pitch was quite heavy, and when I went back to Spain for a while, a month or so after my injury, I went back to the club and the kit man was in tears because he blamed himself for my injury. Pontus Kåmark, a lovely lad, had been badly injured on his debut too over a year earlier and I think that Stef Oakes also did his leg in a youth team game at about the same time of my injury.”

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Rob Ullathorne

It was to be well over a year before Rob had recovered properly enough to play in the First Team.

“Back in my time, when I think about my injuries, I had no counselling,” Rob explained. “There was no one really there to help. You obviously had family and friends to try to help out.

“It was a strange time and I got depressed. The worst thing for me was that I’d really been enjoying life in Spain and then I’d come back and the injury happened. I was in a hotel for six months and that didn’t help. The time between getting injured and finally getting back to playing again was not a good time. I was very, very low but at the end of the day, it’s supposed to make you stronger and you just got on with it. 

“They did try to get me involved when the Club reached Wembley for the League Cup Final against Middlesbrough, and then at the replay at Hillsborough, but I didn’t feel part of it to be honest. I just wanted to play football again, hopefully at some point during the next season.” 

Still recovering, Rob only managed six appearances the following season, but in the campaign after that (1998/99), he missed only one game between September and April, when he broke his leg at Chelsea.

“I didn’t play much that year following the injury on my debut,” he said. “Both Martin and myself were frustrated with my fitness. At that point I was desperate to leave Leicester as it didn’t look as though I was going to be involved, and then all of a sudden early the next season, (in September 1998) I was picked to play against Chesterfield away in the League Cup. The really good thing about Martin was that he had faith in his players. He’s a very intelligent man who knows how to get the best out of the players he had. When he told me I was playing it was a big shock. I’d been on the bench the week before and I knew I wasn’t 100 per cent fit but he said to me: ‘All I want is for you to go out there. Just give me 70 minutes’. I managed to have a decent game and then carried on from there.

“That season (1998/99), I played everywhere apart from up front and in goal. I played left-back, left wing-back, right wing-back and centre-back. I played centre midfield with Muzzy [Izzet] and Lenny (Neil Lennon) in the League Cup Semi-Final against Sunderland and as a sweeper with Matty [Elliott] and Walshy (Steve Walsh) or Tags (Gerry Taggart). l took it as a compliment that Martin had faith in me to play in those positions. Part of me thought it wasn’t great being a utility player but it makes you a better player because you see different positions and it gives you confidence that the manager has faith in you.”

That season, Rob also achieved his ambition of playing at Wembley in the League Cup Final against Tottenham Hotspur. 

“TC (Tony Cottee) scored in both legs of the semi-final against Sunderland,” Rob continued. “I’d finally got to Wembley, so it had been worth it for me to come back from Spain. Before the final I think we stayed at Bisham Abbey. I remember being at the hotel. No one knew what the team was going to be. Then, at dinner, [First Team Coach] Steve Walford told me that Martin wanted a word with me. After dinner, I had a walk with Martin and he told me: ‘I haven’t named the team but you’re playing tomorrow. You’re man-marking David Ginola. He plays on the left, so you’ll start on the right’. I’m left- footed but Martin said: ‘He’ll start on the left so you’ll start as right wing-back, but don’t worry about it because after 10 minutes he’ll move over to the right and you’ll be back on the left hand side’. I don’t think he moved to the right-hand side until the last five minutes! It was hilarious!” 

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Rob Ullathorne

Rob was about to be named Man of the Match at Wembley for containing Ginola but then Allan Nielsen scored the only goal of the game for Tottenham in the last few seconds of the game, so the award was switched to him instead.

He said: “It was a great day, apart from the result. It went too quickly. It went in a blur.  I tried to take everything in, but I didn’t, because as a sportsman, I was focusing on the game. So although I tried to enjoy it and look for my family, my mind was solely on my job in the game. I just look back on it as an experience.”

Four weeks later, having had such a good season, Rob broke his leg in two places in a Premier League match at Stamford Bridge, when he collided with goalkeeper Kasey Keller while trying to prevent a Gianfranco Zola goal.

“That was a big blow,” he continued. “I was looking forward to the end of the season. It was just one of those things. I’ve always given 100 per cent when I played. I wasn’t technically brilliant, but I always worked hard. When I look back at the Chelsea incident, should I have chased Zola back? No one else did apart from muggins here! I collided with Kasey and I broke my leg in two places. 

“It was one of those things. It was bad luck, but I totally believe that what happens to you in your life happens for a reason. Had this not happened, I could have signed again for Leicester or moved elsewhere for a nice contract, but then I wouldn’t have ended up where I am now or met the people that I have. Breaking my leg again was unfortunate but you try to flip it round. If you don’t, you go crazy. 

“That was my last game for Leicester. After my leg break, I went to Spain for three months of rehab and then the rest of my career happened.”

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Rob Ullathorne

This involved coming back from rehab, training and playing in the reserves with Bobby Robson’s Newcastle United (2000-01) before turning down the offer of a contract there. He then spent two seasons playing for Neil Warnock at Sheffield United (2001-2003) before half a season at Northampton Town, helping them to the fourth-tier play-offs. His final two seasons as a player were at Notts County (2004-06).

Rob retired from playing in 2006. He took a couple of years out playing golf, going round the world and seeing friends. He then became a licensed player agent, worked with a sports management company, and set up a lifestyle management company with his wife. His last job was working for Mercedes in the VIP department. 

Rob concluded by saying: “I had good times at Leicester. The team we had and the camaraderie there was second to none. We just ground out results. We were very strong on set pieces. We’d go to places where we weren’t expected to get results and then get them. We used to say we were like sponges. We’d soak up the pressure and then hit back. Martin had got together a group of players who all worked hard, with everyone working for each other.”

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