After pulling up trees with Wycombe Wanderers in the early to mid-nineties, Martin O’Neill was a manager in high demand so it wasn’t a surprise when Norwich City came calling.
The Canaries had long had a reputation for taking a chance on coaching talent and more so, the Northern Irishman had plied his trade at Carrow Road as a creative midfielder a decade earlier. In every regard, it was a good fit.
Almost from the off however the match-up proved to be anything but. With Norwich attempting to make an immediate return to the top-flight O’Neill persistently clashed with chairman Robert Chase over team funding and when he was denied £750,000 to lure striker Dean Windass to Norfolk it all came to a head. O’Neill resigned and Norwich’s promotion hopes prompted went with him.
In the event, the headstrong, somewhat eccentric, impossible-to-dislike two-time European Cup winner wasn’t out of the game for long. Just a week later he resurfaced at Leicester City, replacing Mark McGee whose defection to Wolves still rankles with the Foxes faithful, but you’ll be hard pushed to find much press coverage of this appointment.
It was, after all, a lower league gaffer whose stock had slightly dipped, joining a club on the fringes of the play-offs. There was not a lot to see.
Fast forward just a few years to October 1998 and speculation was rife that O’Neill was wanted by Leeds United. The Yorkshire club had recently cut their ties with George Graham and were desperate to break into the top four and with the man from Kilrea proving such a success in the Midlands it was decided he was the right figure to take them there. It seemed a good fit.
According to numerous reports an official approach had been made by the time Spurs turned up for a mid-week game and ahead of kick-off Alan Birchenall – a leading light for Leicester back in the seventies and now a beloved matchday announcer – walked onto the pitch to fulfil his customary duties, one of which was to welcome O’Neill to the dug-out.
Only on this occasion, he beckoned the coach to join him in the centre-circle at which point a packed-out Filbert Street rose as one, holding aloft thousands of signs reading ‘Don’t Go Martin’ that had been distributed by the Leicestershire Mercury. Balloons were released. A chant began that was deafening. A few days later it was announced that O’Neill was staying put.
So what exactly happened between that perfectly ordinary beginning, installed without too much fuss into the Foxes hot-seat, and the 46-year-old attaining saviour status? In order to best determine this, it is necessary to start with a wonder strike at Wembley from the shin pad-less shin of Steve Claridge.
Though not just yet. First, we must back up a little to O’Neill’s opening few months in charge that saw him compensating for his frustrations at Norwich’s parsimony by splashing out nearly two million quid on Claridge from neighbours Birmingham and Neil Lennon from Crewe.
The Chelsea reserves meanwhile were plundered for Muzzy Izzet, a fizz-bomb of a midfielder who would go on to become arguably the most underrated player of his era and if these three signings signalled a serious statement of intent O’Neill also turned to the youth ranks. Promoted into the first-team that season was a formidable teenage striker with the middle name of Ivanhoe.
Claridge, Lennon, Izzet and Emile Heskey – name a better, immediate upgrade the Championship has ever witnessed. We’ll wait.
Yet surprisingly it took a good while for everything to click. O’Neill’s reign spluttered into life with ten games minus a win and the natives were getting restless until a late surge of results secured them a play-off spot. In the semis, Stoke were overcome with some difficulty and that brought Crystal Palace in a winner takes all encounter beneath the twin towers.
There was just thirty seconds left to play of extra-time when O’Neill pulled off a managerial masterstroke substituting one goalkeeper for another ahead of pens. It was a move designed to psychologically effect the opposition and it certainly did that, better than even he could have imagined in fact, when just moments later – with Palace’s minds on the switch – space was granted to Claridge twenty yards from goal as the ball sat up nicely. One swing of a cramped leg later Leicester were back in the promised land.
What was expected of them at best the following season? Survival presumably. Maybe a memorable upset of a Liverpool or Manchester United into the bargain. Instead, Leicester firmly established themselves as a Premier League force finishing ninth while that spring they returned to Wembley winning the League Cup, their first trophy for 33 years.
It was a truly outstanding season but in hindsight, not a surprising one, forged as it was on the granite-like defensive unit of Steve Walsh and Matt Elliott, each as old-school as they come yet blessed with deceptive nuance. Did we say earlier that Izzet was the most underrated player of his generation? Elliott ran him close.
In midfield Lennon and Izzet took quantum leaps forward; the former taking great joy in dismantling the reputation of supposed hard men on a weekly basis; the latter gaining international recognition with Turkey that took him to a World Cup semi-final.
On the wing, Steve Guppy required scant time or space to whip across devilish deliveries and all of this – all of O’Neill’s creation – was built around the focal point of Heskey whose hold-up play back then should be shown in schools for budding strikers.
Every player knew their job and every player did their job brilliantly and when those two things combine football begins to look very simple and very effective.
The following year saw another mid-table finish, this time with the addition of Robbie Savage who, despite the jibes about his hair back then and his punditry now covered every blade of grass twice every game and there was European competition to savour too as Atletico Madrid came to town.
It would be intriguing to know what Juninho and Kiko made of Leicester’s midfield trio: perfectly balanced and a maelstrom of bustle. They would almost certainly not have encountered anything similar in La Liga.
In O’Neill’s final two seasons before succumbing to his dream job at Celtic, the club he supported as a boy, the Foxes attained two more decent league placings (10th and 8th) and incredibly reached Wembley twice more, losing one League Cup final to Spurs but winning the other to make themselves forever associated with the tournament.
All told it was five years of highly organized fun, with trophies celebrated and doubters routinely put in their place, from a team that retains a special place in the hearts of many.
Oh Norwich, just look at what you could have won.