A crisis in April, promotion in May: Steve Walsh watched Martin O’Neill calmly revive Leicester’s fortunes 16 years ago. He tells Neil Cameron why he thinks history could repeat itself on Wearside
THERE wasn’t much laughing and joking to be had at Filbert Street on April Fools’ Day in 1996.
Leicester City’s season was in a tailspin and a sack of letters delivered that day to Martin O’Neill, the relatively recently appointed manager, let him know exactly what the supporters thought of him.
He read some of the correspondence, it was anything but fan mail, and left the majority of letters unopened. He would deal with them later.
Two days before, Leicester had lost 2-0 at home to Sheffield United and slipped out of the play-off places. Morale was rock bottom among the supporters as results showed no sign of improvement.
“Martin is taking over the best squad of players in the First Division,” so said Mark McGhee upon leaving Leicester for Wolves. The Foxes were top of the table and looking good for promotion. What could possibly go wrong?
In a word, everything. By the time Sheffield United had taken three points away from Filbert Street, O’Neill’s record as manager was beneath poor. It read three wins, eight draws and six defeats; all but two of these results came in the league.
The exceptions were a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup against Manchester City, which was followed by a 5-0 defeat in a replay.
By now, O’Neill had 11 games to save the season and his job. It makes his current situation at Sunderland seem like a minor blip. The way he dealt with that crisis should give the Black Cats’ support some much-needed hope that this campaign can be saved.
O’Neill’s captain at Leicester back then was Steve Walsh (pictured below), who remembers clearly 16 years on from that time just how much pressure his manager was under – and how he literally answered every one of his critics.
Walsh said: “Losing to Sheffield United was the final straw for some of the fans. In fact, it felt like everyone was against him.
“It is funny to look back now because Martin is probably the best manager Leicester ever had, but a lot of supporters wanted him out. They actually protested outside the main stand that Saturday night. It was a desperate time.
“It has gone down in club folklore that he kept every letter – and I do mean every one – that was sent to him in the days after that match. I know for a fact that’s true.
“We went on to win promotion that season and that’s when he replied to every last one of those letters, basically asking the man or woman who wrote in what they thought of him now.
“I would love to know what he said. The criticism got quite personal and yet he dug deep and never stopped believing in the players, which meant we stayed with him. That was the key.”
What happened after that defeat was this; Leicester won seven and drew two of their remaining games. That was enough to see them scrape into a play-off place.
Watford and Stoke were dealt with before a goal from Steve Claridge in the last minute of injury time secured a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace at Wembley.