Gary Mills

Former Player Remembers: Gary Mills

Earlier this year, ex-Leicester City captain Gary Mills, who also played for Saturday's pre-season opponents Notts County, spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his lengthy career in football.

An England youth and Under-21 international, Gary arrived at Filbert Street as a European Cup winner and a finalist in NASL Soccer Bowl.

Twice voted City’s Player of the Year, he played in the 1992 and 1993 Wembley Play-Off Finals. His 61 appearances in 1992/93 is a Club record and he subsequently went on to have a 22-year career in management.

Gary began by explaining how he came to make his first team debut as a 16-year-old for Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in 1978.

“I played for England schoolboys at both football and rugby [at full-back]," he said. "When I was 15, I scored a goal at Wembley for England and a couple of months later I scored a try for England at Twickenham!

“At the same time I was playing for Forest in the Central League. I made my debut in this league when I was 14. This experience enabled me to make my first team debut at 16.

"Brian Clough was turning me into a man. I remember his words. ‘You might as well learn at 14 as at 24 son'.

“I made my debut when I was 16 at home to Arsenal, the team I supported. We won 2-1.

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Mills Gary
Mills Gary

 “That season, Nottingham Forest went on to win the first of their two successive European Cups.

“When we reached the 1979 European Cup final in Munich, I didn’t play but Cloughie said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Your turn will come’. Sure enough, 12 months later, I started in the European Cup final against Hamburg in the Bernabeu Stadium.

"Stan Bowles didn’t turn up for the final so we only had four subs that night. I was up front with Gary Birtles. After five minutes the gaffer put me back in midfield.

"I was playing next to Martin O’Neill (who later managed City). We ended up winning 1-0. I was 18!”

In March 1982, Gary went on loan to Seattle Sounders in the North American Soccer League.

"It was a bit daunting because I was only 20. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

"We got to the Soccer Bowl final against New York Cosmos. We lost 1-0. Pele was there. He didn’t play but Carlos Alberto did. I got his shirt in the end!

"It was a major final for me in America a couple of years after the European Cup Final.

“When I came back from America I went on loan to Derby for six months [in October 1982], and then I went back to Seattle [in April 1983].

"Unfortunately I broke my leg. It was a horrendous break. I was out for 12 months. I was 21.”

When Gary recovered, he re-established himself in Nottingham Forest’s first team.

We’d beaten Blackburn in the League at Ewood Park in April when ‘Rooster’ [Kevin Russell] scored very late on. He was a bit of a cult hero. I remember kissing his bald head when he scored against Cambridge United in the Play-Off Semi-Final.

Gary Mills

“I then had what were possibly my best years at Forest,” Gary reflected. “We reached the semi-final of the UEFA Cup."

In August 1987, Gary crossed the River Trent to join Notts County.

“I had a good time there. John Barnwell was the manager. I remember winning Player of the Year in my first season. We should have gone up automatically but we lost in the Play-Offs to Walsall.”

In March 1989, Gary joined Second Division Leicester City, managed by David Pleat, as he explained.

“In my second year at Meadow Lane, Notts County sacked John Barnwell and Neil Warnock came in. I’d been used to passing the ball. Neil just wanted me to bang the ball.

“I remember going to Neil and saying ‘Gaffer, no disrespect, but I can’t play for you and I need to go on the transfer list’. West Brom came in for me. I was speaking to them but then I got a message that Leicester were interested. I’ve never been one for travelling.

"I lived near Nottingham then which was only 25 minutes away. Leicester paid £300,000 for me and Phil Turner went the other way to Notts County as part of the deal.”

Gary played in 13 games to the end of the season, when Leicester City finished 15th in the table. In his first full season (1989/90) at Filbert Street, Gary won the first of his Leicester City Player of the Year awards.

Amongst others, his team-mates included Martin Hodge, Alan Paris, Ali Mauchlen, Steve Walsh, Paul Ramsey, Paul Reid, Gary McAllister, David Oldfield and Paul Kitson.

Thinking back, Gary remembered: “David Pleat was a lovely, lovely man. He wanted to play the game the way I was used to playing. David was obsessed, in the same mould as Cloughie.

"He would ask me at times, ‘What would Cloughie do?’ I’ve got to be honest though. At times I think David overplayed and over complicated things, without having the real desire to win games in an ugly way when you needed to.

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Gary Mills
Gary Mills

Mills played for Leicester against Swindon in the Play-Off final.

"I remember one game we lost heavily at Middlesbrough. He came into the dressing room at the end and said. ‘Well played lads’. Martin Hodge who was in goal threw his gloves down and asked him, in no uncertain terms, ‘What are you talking about?’ David was obsessed with pure football, even in training. He was the complete opposite to Neil Warnock."

The next season (1990/91), Gary only missed one league game. However, the team struggled. Pleat left Leicester in January 1991 with the team near the foot of the Second Division.

Gordon Lee took over until the end of the season. Leicester City entered their last match of the season, against Oxford United at Filbert Street, with relegation to the Third Division for the first time in the Club’s history a real possibility.

Thinking back to this, Gary added: “I still think that one of the most important games I played at Leicester - and I played over 200 games - was that game against Oxford. Gordon Lee had taken over. He was superb to be honest. Our fate in that game was out of our hands.

"If West Brom won their game against Bristol Rovers, even if we won, we would have been down. The tension that day was unbelievable. Tony James scored for us quite early on.

"At Filbert Street the players were close to the fans. Every time you went to take a throw in, the crowd would tell you that West Brom were winning. Then, with about ten minutes to go, Devon White scored an equaliser for Bristol Rovers who were down to 10 men, against West Brom.

"I remember coming in at the end of the game. I hugged Alan Birchenall. We were both in tears. The success we had with Brian Little would never have happened if we had lost that day, or if West Brom had won.”

Little was appointed manager in May 1991 and he set about completely transforming Leicester City’s fortunes over the next three seasons.

It was a great season. We just had a great group of players and when you have that, you always feel you can be successful. We started to believe we could get into the Premier League, either automatically or through the Play-offs.

Gary Mills

“When Brian Little came in”, Gary recalled, “I didn’t know him personally. I knew that he had managed Darlington out of the Conference into the Football League and then won the Fourth Division the next season.”

Little began his first season with five new signings. These were Colin Gordon, Paul Fitzpatrick, Kevin Poole, Ashley Ward, and Nicky Platnauer.

In a startling contrast to the previous season when David Pleat’s City won only three points out of the first 24, Little’s new side gained 13 points from the first five games.

Three of his Darlington players, Gary Coatsworth, Jimmy Willis and Michael Trotter had joined him at Filbert Street by the turn of the year.

In March and April, a run of seven wins in eight games led ultimately to the Play-offs for a place in the Premier League, by which time Phil Gee, Ian Ormondroyd, Simon Grayson and Mike Whitlow had been added to Leicester City’s squad.

A Play-off Semi-Final victory over Cambridge United was followed by a Wembley final against Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn Rovers.

The game became notorious for David Speedie’s dive which resulted in Mike Newell’s penalty, which in turn secured a 1-0 win for Blackburn Rovers. Gary’s memories of the season are clear.

He continued: “It was a great season. We just had a great group of players and when you have that, you always feel you can be successful. We started to believe we could get into the Premier League, either automatically or through the Play-offs.

"We’d beaten Blackburn in the League at Ewood Park in April when ‘Rooster’ [Kevin Russell] scored very late on. He was a bit of a cult hero. I remember kissing his bald head when he scored against Cambridge United in the Play-Off Semi-Final.

I’ve been lucky enough to have got to Wembley so many times, as a player and a manager, but you’ve got to win there. We went 3-0 down and got back to 3-3. I just thought we were going on to win. Then, like it had been against Blackburn, we lost to a penalty. We were deflated after that. We still weren’t in the Premier League.

Gary Mills

 "Cambridge had beaten us 5-1 earlier in the season so to beat them 5-0 in the second leg of the semi-final at Filbert Street, after a 1-1 draw at their place, made it a special night.”

Despite the disappointment of losing the Play-Off Final, Gary has good memories of that season.

“Everything was going well for me. I played every game, that year. My 61 games that season is still a Club record for playing the most games in one season. I won the Player of the Year again as well.”

The following season, Gary captained Leicester City to a second Wembley Play-Off final, this time against Glenn Hoddle’s Swindon Town.

Seven successive wins in the spring of 1993 did much secure a Play-Off place for the second successive season. At Wembley, Glenn Hoddle’s side took a 3-0 lead. Leicester recovered to make it 3-3, only to lose 4-3 to a controversial late penalty.

Gary reflected: “I’ve been lucky enough to have got to Wembley so many times, as a player and a manager, but you’ve got to win there. We went 3-0 down and got back to 3-3. I just thought we were going on to win. Then, like it had been against Blackburn, we lost to a penalty. We were deflated after that. We still weren’t in the Premier League.

"We wanted that for the Football Club and for our careers. Leicester City was like a happy family. The supporters were incredible.”

Leicester City were back at Wembley the following season, when a 2-1 Wembley Play-Off victory over Derby County finally secured Leicester City a place in the Premier League.

Little had added to the squad by controversially signing David Speedie, the villain in Leicester City’s 1992 Wembley defeat against Blackburn Rovers.

In November, Huddersfield Town striker Iwan Roberts arrived at Filbert Street for a fee of £300,000 following Steve Walsh’s cruciate ligament injury which kept him out for most of the season until his dramatic comeback at Wembley.

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Gary Mills
Gary Mills

Walsh had been playing as a striker instead of his usual defensive role, and had been the top scorer the previous season. Gary who was still captain of the side, picked up a hamstring injury in February and missed the rest of the season at a time when several other players, including Roberts, were also missing through injury. Mark Blake was signed in March to alleviate the pressure.

Nevertheless, injury-hit City qualified for the Play-Offs, despite only winning two of their last 12 league games.

For the Play-Off Final against favourites Derby County, Little took a risk on the fitness of Walsh and Roberts. He played them up front with Ian Ormondroyd. In front of a Wembley crowd of over 73,000, Walsh famously scored twice in a 2-1 victory.

Despite missing the final through injury, Gary was still very much part of the day at Wembley, as he explained.

“I had the honour of leading the team out against Derby at Wembley. That was incredible and unexpected. I’d travelled down with the team. The night before the game, I was sitting in the hotel with Speedie.

"He couldn’t play either because he was suspended. I remember asking the gaffer if it was alright for me and Speedie to have a beer and we sat talking.

“Next morning, the gaffer pulled me to one side at lunchtime and asked me if I would like to do the honour of leading the team out! To be honest, I just got shivers down the back of my neck.

"I said that I would love to. I remember going back to the hotel and phoning my wife to tell her. I had a few tears. I walked the team out, which was incredible. It showed what the gaffer thought of me. He knew how much I was hurting missing the game.

“From there I went up to the gantry to do the radio commentary. When Walshy scored the late winner I got carried away! Even though I wasn’t playing I was caught up in the emotion of it all. When the winning goal went in, I went mad. I forgot that we were commentating on the game. I just grabbed everybody. No one could really talk. I didn’t realise what I was doing! I’ve still got a tape of that.

“Thinking back, I really felt part of the achievement. It wasn’t just the final, it was the whole season. I was part of it. To get to the Premier League was really special!”

However, the following season was a disappointment for Gary who left for Notts County a month into the new season.

“I was looking forward to playing in the Premier League. I played one game and then I was told that I wouldn’t be travelling to Wimbledon for the next game. I asked Brian if I was in his plans, and he was honest enough to say I should get another club if I could.

"I never wanted to leave, but when you are told that, it is time to move on. When you have such an affinity with a club it is hard to leave. I am rich in memories though.

"You can never take those away. For me Leicester City is a special club, with special people. I’d enjoyed my football there from day one. I had the best five years of my playing career there. Brian’s time at the Club was an incredible period and it was a special time for me, helping get the Club back into the Premier League.”

It sounds daft but after all these years I still feel part of the Club. I know what I achieved at Forest winning the European Cup but I played my best football at Leicester. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.

Gary Mills

 At Notts County, Gary won the Anglo-Italian Cup at Wembley in 1995 before a ruptured hamstring ended his career.

After retiring as a player, Gary then spent 22 years as a manager. His clubs included Grantham Town, King’s Lynn, Boston United, Notts County, Alfreton Town, Tamworth, Gateshead, Wrexham and York City.

“I got to Wembley four times with my teams," he said. "At York City, in 2012, we won the FA Trophy and the Conference Play-off Final on successive Saturdays at Wembley. Taking York City from the Conference back into the Football League was similar to Brian Little’s achievement at Darlington.

"In 2013 I went to Gateshead. We got to the Conference Play-Off final at Wembley but unfortunately lost 2-1 to Cambridge.

"I was gutted that we missed out although I was named Non-League Manager of the Year. In 2016. I went back to York and in 2017 we got to the Trophy Final again when we beat Macclesfield 3-2 at Wembley.”

Gary concluded by turning his thoughts back to his time at Leicester City.

“It’s always lovely to go back to Leicester”, he said. “It sounds daft but after all these years I still feel part of the Club. I know what I achieved at Forest winning the European Cup but I played my best football at Leicester. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.”

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