Former Player Remembers: Steve Guppy
He was only one of four City players to play in all four of the Club’s UEFA Cup games, which were two-legged affairs against Atletico Madrid in 1997 and Red Star Belgrade in 2000. The other three were Matt Elliott, Muzzy Izzet and Neil Lennon. Steve signed for Leicester City in February 1997.
Manager Martin O’Neill knew him well because Steve had been a key member of his Wycombe Wanderers side which had won the Conference and the FA trophy double in 1993 and a further promotion to the third tier of the Football League a year later.
Steve’s performances on the left wing for second tier side Port Vale between November 1994 and February 1997 made him a legend at Vale Park and prompted his old manager from his Wycombe Wanderers days to pay nearly £1 million to bring him to Filbert Street.
City at that time were consolidating their position in their first season back in the Premier League. As part of this process, Oxford United’s Elliott had signed for a Club record fee a month earlier. When Steve signed, the Foxes were fighting their way through to the League Cup Final at Wembley.
Both Steve and Matt were cup-tied so they missed out on playing in the team which famously beat Middlesbrough in the replay at Hillsborough. This victory, though, qualified the Club for the next season’s UEFA Cup, which in those days was a straight knockout competition.
Their opponents were Atletico Madrid, who City will play this season in the UEFA Champions League. Steve takes up the story by looking back to a unique time at the Club.
“Martin O’Neill had signed a number of us from lower leagues. We were glad to have the opportunity of playing in the Premier League. To get the chance of proving ourselves in that league was a brilliant period in all of our careers. To win the League Cup and all that that meant was something very special to us.
"For us, these things seemed to happen very quickly in a short space of time. We just felt we were going from one great adventure onto another one. It is the same for the Leicester team today. They have the benefits of winning the league and now they have got European football.
“I remember we were training when the draw came out. It was Atletico Madrid. It was a plum draw. They were probably one of the biggest spenders in Europe at the time. They had a fabulous, star-studded side. It was always going to be a difficult tie. In that first leg in Madrid we started off really well.
"Ian Marshall was playing up front that night. Early on he was causing them all sorts of trouble which culminated in us going ahead from a free kick I crossed it onto Steve Walsh’s head and there was Marshy to smash it in. It was great. Sadly for us Ian Marshall got himself injured about ten minutes after that. He pulled his hamstring or his thigh. They got their tails up.”
Juninho (who had played against Leicester for Middlesbrough in the League Cup Final) equalised for Atletico Madrid in the second half and then Christian Vieri got the second goal with a disputed penalty to make a final score of 2-1 in the first leg.
“I gave the penalty away. It was a blatant dive from their player. I went to tackle and I timed it wrong so I pulled my leg away. He followed my leg and just fell over. It was one of those incidents that you would get penalised for in Europe but not in the Premier League.
"I should have stayed on my feet. I did notice a few years later one of their players (Geli) scored an own goal (for Alaves) against Liverpool in the UEFA Cup final which lost his team the game. I thought, what goes round comes around. He got his comeuppance in the end!
“We were used to playing in front of big crowds at that point and it was a really good atmosphere in Madrid. Leicester took thousands of supporters with them which was great for us and it would have been a new experience for most of those fans as well. They were relishing it as much as we were.”
Leicester City’s 2-0 defeat in the return leg, in front of a capacity crowd, turned out to be one of Filbert Street’s most memorable floodlit occasions. Eventually succumbing to two late goals (from Juninho in the 71st minute and by Kiko two minutes from time) Leicester had earlier been denied three clear cut penalties for fouls on Muzzy Izzet.
To add insult to injury, Garry Parker was sent off for a second offence after having been judged to take a free-kick too quickly. The fact that the French referee Remi Harrel, (who had also sent off Atletico’s Lopez early in the second half) was suspended by UEFA for his performance, was little consolation.
Steve remembers the occasion very well indeed: “That match was a bitter sweet memory. The return leg was one of those amazing nights which make you wish you could turn the clock back. It was absolutely sensational. Sometimes when you are on the pitch you get a feel for how the game is going and how the opposition is feeling and honestly, hand on heart, it felt as that they were cracking under our pressure.
"We were really on top. The crowd was behind us. It was an absolutely stunning night. We just got the feeling that they were ready to go. Then of course the referee stepped in and we lost Garry Parker, sent off for a second yellow, after taking a free kick too quickly.
"Before that there had been a few penalty shouts that had gone against us. We were building pressure but when you start getting that many penalty shouts turned down you realise that you are spending a lot of time in their half and around their box with opportunities arising.
"When I look back now I think that on another night we would have won that game. They had fabulous players like Juninho and Vieri. Once we went down to 10 men, that gave them the boost that they needed and their quality shone through at the end.
"But I look back now and still think it was a great experience, although there is always the feeling of ’if only’. It was so close against one of Europe’s top sides but it didn’t happen. It was still a great experience though, not only for the players but for the supporters as well. We all enjoyed that little passage of time.”
Three years later, Leicester City, who had qualified for the UEFA Cup again by winning League Cup again in 2000, were drawn in a two-legged knockout tie against Yugoslavian champions Red Star Belgrade. The first leg was at Filbert Street. This was during Peter Taylor’s honeymoon period as Leicester City’s new manager.
For Steve this second campaign in Europe felt very different from the one in 1997.
“We had won League Cup again at Wembley but then Martin O’Neill moved on to Celtic at the end of that season and we had a new manager, Peter Taylor. It was strange. There were new players coming in and some of the mainstays of the team were leaving. It did feel completely different if I’m honest.
"Once again, it was a very difficult draw for us to play against Red Star Belgrade. If I look over the two legs, we had our chances but most teams can say that every week.”
One of the strange experiences Steve referred to was that as kick-off approached for the first leg at Filbert Street, smoke from the flares set off by the Red Star fans as the teams came out completely enveloped the Double Decker end and delayed the kick off briefly.
Leicester’s plan to prevent Red Star scoring an away goal was ruined when, after fifty seconds, Acimovic scored with a long range shot from 35 yards. Tim Flowers, in the Leicester goal, had his view obscured by the bank of smoke enveloping the south end of the ground.
Just before half time, Leicester City equalised when Gerry Taggart flicked in a header from Steve’s cross. However, the home side didn’t do enough to win the game which ended in a 1-1 draw. The City could not break down the well organised and highly skilled Red Star side, even after Glogovac was sent off for a second bookable tackle with fifteen minutes to go.
UEFA had ruled that the second leg was to be played at the Gerhard Hanappi Stadium in Vienna, because of the security risk in Belgrade in the aftermath of the Yugoslavian civil wars. Steve remembers that Red Star’s own stadium could hardly have been more hostile.
“We played the second leg in a neutral ground in Vienna. The Red Star supporters were particularly vicious that night. You expect fans to be waiting for you before the game. They did, and they singled out a few of our players for abuse. What sticks with me is that the Red Star fans still waited for us at the end even though they had beaten us 3-1.
"We got a load of abuse getting back on the bus. Normally when teams beat you the fans lose a bit of interest and they are off. It was one of those strange things that you remember.
“As for the game itself, I don’t remember too much about it to be honest. We had a good go. It wasn’t as exciting as the Atletico match. For the Atletico game we had all come through experiences together whereas for this tie we had a new manager, new ideas and new players. It felt a little bit disjointed. That’s how it was.
"They were a decent side. They were no mugs and they deserved to go through in the end.”
For the record, the Yugoslavian champions went ahead in the 22nd minute when Drulic beat Tim Flowers with an angled shot but Muzzy Izzet equalised just before half time. However, two minutes into the second half, Gvozdenovic put Red Star ahead and Drulic made it 3-1 with half an hour to go.
Reflecting on playing in Europe, Steve continued: “In Europe, you were playing against players you had never played against before. In the Premier League you get to know the players you are up against. You know their strengths and weaknesses. You get to learn whether the full backs like to be attacked down the line or inside, things like that, whereas in European games, it was all bit fresh and new.
"You didn’t have Wyscout (a football platform of data and video available on-line) that the players have at their disposal these days. There just wasn’t that much information available.”
In August 2001, Steve left Leicester City to play once again for O’Neill, this time at Celtic. His time at Leicester had been very distinguished indeed. His performances as a wing-back saw him rewarded with an England cap in 1999. Indeed, as Steve modestly recalled, when prompted, he played every single minute of every game for a season and a half in Premier League.
“This was a record until Frank Lampard beat it”, he laughs. He hardly missed a game in his four-and-a-half-years at Leicester prior to his move to Celtic Park.
Two and a half years later, he then briefly rejoined Leicester City before short spells at Leeds United, Stoke City Wycombe Wanderers and Stevenage Borough. He also had spells in the USA with DC United in the MSL and with Rochester Rhinos. When he finished playing, he worked with O’Neill again, assisting him with coaching at Sunderland and with the Republic of Ireland.
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