At some point, every empire reaches its apex. It may not be obvious in the moment; the beginning of the decline may not be immediately clear and other achievements may have more glory attached to them but there is always that one point which the history books will ultimately show was the peak.
That moment for Martin O’Neill’s Leicester was March 5th 2000, the day when the team he described as the best he’d managed at Filbert Street beat Sunderland 5-2. And live on telly to boot.
It might seem an odd choice given that just seven days before the club lifted the League Cup for the second time in four years, but that 2-1 win was against First Division Tranmere and the team did not include Leicester’s recent, cup-tied signing Stan Collymore. He would make his debut in the Sunderland match and crowned the victory with an electrifying hat trick.
Collymore had announced his arrival on a free transfer from Aston Villa by letting off a fire extinguisher in a hotel bar during a pre-Wembley trip to La Manga. The team was sent home in disgrace and the new boy fined; the perfect preparation for that cup final win.
La Manga was just one incident in many from a highly memorable season for the Foxes, which also saw penalty wins over Arsenal in the FA Cup and Fulham and Leeds in the League Cup. In the Premier League they signed off with 55 points and eighth-place – their best position and points tally under O’Neill.
The match itself was fantastic with Leicester coming out on top despite being pushed all the way by the Black Cats. To put the result into perspective it was not the Sunderland of Mick McCarthy which whimpered out of the Premier League with 15 points in 2006 and 19 in 2003, but Peter Reid’s Sunderland.
This was the Sunderland which saw Kevin Phillips pick up the European Golden boot while notching up 44 goals with his strike partner Niall Quinn. Eventually they finished a place and three points higher than Leicester. Quinn and Phillips both scored in the match but the day belonged to Collymore and his strike partner Emile Heskey who also scored. Stefan Oakes provided the cherry on the icing with a superb last-minute free kick.
Collymore had announced his arrival on a free transfer from Aston Villa by letting off a fire extinguisher in a hotel bar.
The game wasn’t a play-off final win. It didn’t see Leicester lift a trophy, as they did twice under O’Neill but it was our best performance under him. It was the culmination of four fantastic seasons of improvement in the Premier League and provided a tantalising, agonising glimpse of what might have been.
Before City took to the pitch again Heskey, who had recently broken into the England team, moved to Liverpool for £12m in a long-mooted move. Four games after that Collymore broke his leg in a horrific freak accident at Derby County. He played just six games of the following season before moving to Bradford.
In the close season O’Neill left too, the lure of managing Celtic, who he supported as a boy, proving too great to resist. By December, Neil Lennon had followed the Ulsterman to Scotland.
Peter Taylor was the man brought in to replace O’Neill and he took early plaudits when in reality he was just riding a wave of momentum generated by his predecessor. After eight games Leicester were unbeaten and top of the table and that November Taylor was even asked to fill in as England boss for a game in the gap between the Kevin Keegan and Sven-Goran Eriksson regimes. Middlesbrough’s Steve McClaren was his assistant.
At the start of March when Wycombe came to Filbert Street for an FA Cup quarter final Leicester were still fourth, but a close look would have shown worrying cracks beginning to appear. Early in the season Collymore was released after a row with the new boss and Steve Walsh and Tony Cottee, who both applied for the vacant manager’s job, were also quickly shown the door. The loss of their experience played a part as City went four months without an away win and lost six of their last 10 games before the Wycombe match.
Ahh, the Wycombe match; what should have been a routine, if hard-fought, win turned into a disaster. Roy Essandoh, a man signed by the Wanderers after he answered an advert on Ceefax, scored the last-minute winner and City went into meltdown losing nine of the 10 League games they had left to play.
Things didn’t improve at the start of the following season as the club lost seven and won just one of the first 10 games. Taylor was quickly sacked but City were still relegated. The O’Neill Empire had fallen and, despite a season in the Premiership under Micky Adams, the club has never recovered even briefly dropping into the third tier of English football for a season.
How different might have Leicester’s recent past been had O’Neill stayed? Well, Collymore and Lennon probably would have done the same and I suspect Heskey would have been replaced by Chris Sutton who O’Neill had long admired (the player was his answer when he was asked by The Fox fanzine who he would buy if he had £10m to spend on a player and wages weren’t an issue). Indeed Sutton was his first purchase when he moved to Celtic Park.
Instead we got Ade Akinbyi. Ahh well…
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