Born in Lochgelly in Fife in 1896, Duncan signed for Raith Rovers in 1916, captaining them to third place in the Scottish League in 1922. That year, Peter Hodge, his old Raith Rovers manager before becoming Leicester City’s manager in 1919, brought him to Filbert Street with his brother Tom for a fee of £1,500.
Playing as a goalscoring inside-forward, famously scoring six goals against Port Vale on Christmas Day 1924, Johnny captained Leicester City to the Second Division title in 1925, scoring 30 goals in the process.
He was capped by Scotland in October 1925, making his international debut alongside his ex-Raith Rovers teammate (and future Arsenal legend), Alex James. Playing at right-half, he captained Leicester City to third place in the top flight in 1928 and then to runners-up in 1929.
Duncan's playing career ended prematurely in 1930. The Club refused him permission to be a publican and effectively prevented him from playing elsewhere. He took over the Turk’s Head which stood opposite the prison gates. It quickly became Leicester’s premier sports pub with framed pictures of Duncan’s football career displayed on the walls. His daughter Jenny Blackhurst, who is still a season ticket holder, remembers serving City, Tigers and County players, local bookies, media people such as John Arlott, David Coleman and Jimmy Hill, and celebrities such as Alex James and Matt Busby.
Johnny Duncan leads Leicester City out at Wembley in 1949.
In March 1946, whilst he was still working as a publican, Leicester City appointed Duncan as manager. His task was to prepare for the resumption of the Football League after the Second World War.
Resuming in the Second Division in August 1946, Leicester City finished a respectable ninth in the following two seasons. However, in Duncan’s third and final full season as manager, Leicester City were nearly relegated to the Third Division for the first time in their history.
Paradoxically, this near disaster was accompanied by Duncan’s greatest managerial triumph when he led lowly Leicester City to their first ever FA Cup Final, after defeating League Champions Portsmouth in the semi-final. Despite losing 3-1 to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the final, reaching Wembley was a huge achievement, especially as the Club then narrowly avoided relegation, having to play three matches to secure safety in the week after the Final.
The new season (1949/50) started badly. There was dressing room unrest. Jimmy Harrison left for Aston Villa. Cup Final captain Norman Plummer was dropped. Joint trainer Billy McLean left the club. The new captain Don Revie requested a transfer. In October, with Leicester City again near the foot of the Second Division table, Johnny Duncan was asked to resign.
The families of his players have since commented on his distinctive style of management. He did not like players owning cars. Ted Jelly’s wife Doreen had to keep her pregnancy secret leading up to the 1949 FA Cup Final because Duncan believed a player’s form was affected if his wife was pregnant.
Duncan continued as landlord of the Turk’s Head until his death in 1966.
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