Mark Wallington on Life With Leicester City

Excerpt from an interview that first appeared in The FOX No 157 – Oct/Nov ’07…

FOX: Do you remember your debut for City?
MW: Wooh do I?!  West Ham at home, 11th March 1972?
I remember getting my hand trodden on by the centre-forward and I jumped up, not really to have a go, but just to say something. I realised it was Clyde Best, so I just said ‘sorry’.
I was extremely nervous because it was a huge step up to the First Division. I had been thrown straight in so I didn’t know any of the lads. But they wanted to help me settle in and they would do anything for me. I knew straight away it was a good club, with very good supporters.
Fortunately I kept a clean sheet and Nishy got two – they played him up front that day, but he could play anywhere really couldn’t he? 

FOX: You were obviously an understudy to Peter Shilton for a few seasons, was that a good thing for you. Did he take time out to help you?

MW: I was very appreciative of Peter’s time and the work that he put in on me was first class. I think he could afford to do that for one because I wasn’t a threat. He was so well-established, and he is one of the most confident self-believing chaps that you would ever meet. It was what I needed because I had missed out on all that professional training before and I needed to catch up very quickly: to work under the England keeper was super for me. But I knew at one stage I would be pushing him, because I also had great self-belief and great self-confidence. I wasn’t there to be his understudy forever. After I had been at the club about a year I began to hear whispers that he was unhappy and later he made it clear that he wanted to move on and Leicester wasn’t big enough. I’m not sure that Stoke was any bigger was it?
Perhaps they had some money at the time, they signed Geoff Salmons and Alan Hudson and Jimmy Greenhoff. Then they got Shilts, but it wasn’t the Liverpools or Manchesters that I thought he would have gone for.
So I had an inkling that things would open for me and Shilts was good enough to tell me: “Look Mark, I think I might be moving on so work hard at it, prove you can take over, don’t let them sign anybody else.” And that was the attitude I had.

 FOX: There was always a feeling with Jimmy Bloomfield’s team that they should have achieved more, would you agree with that?

MW: Yes, I do, because the ability in the team, they were some of the best players that I ever had the privilege of playing with – as individuals. Playing against the top sides they seemed to draw it out of us, but we couldn’t always turn it on against the lower sides. I think we were playing to our best maybe one in three games, always much better when we were allowed to play. I felt that if we met a more physical side then they could ride us a bit. Possibly we didn’t have the mixture quite right. I always thought, and Jimmy would say this too, we were always two players short.
I mean we had four internationals out there, and there was myself, Steve Whitworth, Dennis Rofe, all England under-23s, Jeff Blockley, Frank Worthington, Keith Weller, Birch, Stevie Kember…  we had the experience and a phenomenal amount of ability out there but if one or two dropped out we didn’t have the strength in depth.   

FOX: There also seemed to be a feeling among fans that Jimmy didn’t have a tight rein on the players.. is that how you saw it?

MW: I thought he did, he had a lot of respect from the players. Jim would always give the benefit of the doubt to a player – he would never see bad in anybody. No matter how poorly someone had played he would always say: “Well at least he put in a lot of effort” or “At least he’s got a good left foot”. He always saw the good in people. After he departed I began to appreciate what a very good manager he was. He wasn’t a bawler and shouter, he was a first rate man: very conscientious about his work and always wanted to play the right type of football. He was a lovely bloke.

FOX:  There were many classic performance under Bloomfield, and we will come on to some of those later, but it was also a side quite capable of taking a good stuffing from time to time. Do you remember the 6-2 at home to Birmingham?

MW: Did we score two that day? I thought it was 6-0. There was a reason behind that – the preparation was absolutely awful. We were told the match was off, around quarter to two, no chance said the ref. At quarter to three we were sitting around in our suits and someone comes in and says: “The match is on.” We all said: “WHAT?!”
We hadn’t been out for a warm up, we hadn’t done our studs, we hadn’t done this, we hadn’t done that. Suddenly it was on. Birmingham had been out there and had their footwear sorted. We were mentally off the ball.

FOX: Perhaps the presence of the TV cameras ensured it went ahead?

MW: I would think that was the reason it was played. Perhaps some persuasion put on somebody somewhere!

FOX: Were you disappointed when Jimmy Bloomfield left Leicester?

MW: Yes…

FOX: Were all the players?

MW: No. I’ve got to be honest there I think we were disappointed that we hadn’t achieved more and we were also disappointed that we never got those two or three players we needed to strengthen the squad and push on. Some players thought it was time they went, and maybe lost a little bit of respect for Jimmy towards the end. In retrospect it was a sad day for me.

FOX: Ironically Frank McLintock came in with a bit to spend but it didn’t work out…

MW: Absolutely. I like Frank McLintock – he’s a great bloke and was a superb player. But the step up from player at QPR to manager at Leicester over a Summer was too much. A lack of experience showed through and I think he still thought he could be a bit of a player and have a player’s mentality instead of being the Boss.
I know he wouldn’t make the same mistakes if he had his time again, but some of his signings, even the players were going: “WHAT?!”
But you’ve got to go with it haven’t you, and you try and support it, but you can imagine what a season that was for a goalkeeper!It was horrendous. Every time we conceded a goal, we knew we were going to lose, because we couldn’t score.
What did we get, 20-odd goals in the season was it?

FOX: Top scorers were Geoff Salmons and Roger Davies with four each…

MW: I mean that is horrendous in that class of football.
The minute we conceded you just thought: “OH NO!” and there seemed to be no end to it. I mean you can smile in adversity – you have to… one memory that stands out was a couple of things we worked out on the training ground.
Defending a free-kick, if we were going to catch them offside there was a signal.
If Brian Alderson stood in the centre-circle we were all going to push up.
If Brian stood outside the centre-circle then we would defend it.
But Brian, God bless his cotton socks, had this habit of getting a bit distracted during the game. As we were defending a free-kick Brian was standing there looking at the crowd, one foot inside the centre-circle, one foot outside. Two defenders went up, two dropped off, it was bloody mayhem!
Roger Davies came up with a cracking plan where he would do a special whistle when we were to push up. That might have worked alright on the training ground but if you were somewhere like Old Trafford with 60,000 people in there and his mouth was dry, you could sort of just about hear a raspberry sound: “Thruuuurpp!”
Another classic… I shouldn’t be telling you these. And I shouldn’t be laughing , but really… we had a free-kick worked out where one would run over the ball and then run down the side of the wall, the next man would run over the ball and go to the left, the third man would back-heel it and the fourth man would have a shot.
So we tried it, the first man gone right, the second man has gone left, the third one has run over it, the fourth one back-heels it… and there is nobody left.
I am stood in the goal with my white handkerchief out because there are eight of them running at me!
You shouldn’t laugh, but it happens.

FOX: Did you actually have any specialist goalkeeping coaches back then?  

MW: No we didn’t, but fortunately for me Shilts was very conscientious about working on and analysing his own game and that taught me an awful lot. The biggest and best critic you can have is yourself. At the time we had a coach, who was the reserve team manager, a lad called Dave Coates. Dave would spend hour after hour with us, Peter, myself and the younger keepers. If we wanted anything specific like, for instance, a shot to the left six yards out driven in low then Dave could put a ball on a sixpence and he would spend hours putting a ball just where we wanted them.
But a lot of it was self analysis and Peter used to coach me and we used to help each other. He was magnanimous enough to say to me: “Mark, do you think my position was right?” and we used to think an awful lot about the game. We got on very, very well. Obviously a lot of the benefit came my way but we did used to help each other out. 

FOX: Moving on to the Jock Wallace era, how did you cope with the sandhills?

MW: I didn’t! I was injured at that time. 

FOX: Weren’t you excused from training due to a skin allergy?

MW: Oh thanks lads, I’ve tried to forget all about that and you’ve reminded me. I need to take a minute now…
It was weird. It was during Jimmy Bloomfield’s time. I had been refurbishing a house at Syston, which was an old sort of Edwardian job, 1900’s, and it had got this old style plaster wattling. It was red hot and I only had my shorts on, all my pores were open… the dust got into my skin and my whole body just blew up! It was horrendous. I had to go to Harley Street in the end. It really was bad – I had to come home every day and sit in the bath with this emulsion in it and then have a coal tar paste lathered on. It was literally from head to toe, my whole body erupted with it. At the time I was in bed all week, training very lightly on a Friday and then playing on the Saturday.
I was playing for the England Under-23s as well. Can you imagine going and meeting up with everyone there: “You’re looking well Mark, why did you pour a cauldron of boiling fat over your body though?”
Psychologically it was awful too, because you are out in the public eye and being photographed all the time.
I must have been like it for about a month, then we went to Harley Street and they cleared it up in a week to ten days. It was put down to a dust allergy. 

FOX: Moving on to Jock, he was a very different character to Jimmy and Gary Lineker remembers being up against the wall with Jock’s hand round his neck. Did he ever blow up at you?

MW: Oh yes. And yet he is probably the man I have admired most in the game. He had incredible charisma, he was a man’s man. You could have the biggest blow up – and there were times when I thought it was going to get properly physical, seriously thought I might get headbutted – but I think he respected me because I would step up to him. But I found him a fantastic manager to work with. We had our ups and downs but he would always talk to me, ask me what I thought about this and that. I’m not saying he ever took any notice but he made you feel as though you were a part of it. He managed the whole club and always said that the washing lady was as important as his top centre forward. He taught me so much about life.
As skipper of the club one of my jobs was to check the apprentices bank books on a Monday. If there was too much drawn out then I would have to ask them what was going on. They’d say: “Oh I had to go out and you know…” and I’d say: “Well you’d better pretend you’ve forgotten to bring this in because I’m not taking that to him.”
He always used to say that at eighteen, 90% of those boys were not going to make it. But as long as they knew how to behave, how to dress, how to shave, and how to look after their money properly, we hadn’t let them down. He had as great a concern for those boys as he did for his first team. He was rough and he was gruff but he taught me an awful lot did Jock. We couldn’t understand a word he was saying for the first two years and we got promoted and then as soon as we worked out how to understand his accent we were relegated!
An absolutely brilliant bloke and I loved it at Leicester during his time.

FOX: He made you captain didn’t he? 

MW: I think he saw a bit of experience in me, and I could see everything from the back, and I was only too willing to take that on, I thought it was a hell of a privilege.
I tried to be captain like he managed, getting involved with everyone.
I remember at the end of my career I was playing for Lincoln and Jock was a consultant for Cambridge United. We played them at Sincil Bank and I didn’t realise he had made the trip up. I went in to the Player’s Lounge after the game and there he was with a big tumbler of whisky waiting for me and he said: “There you go big man!” It was brilliant to see him. He had that old gleam in his eye.
One of the saddest moments of my life was at the dinner for Jock at Leicester. Alex Ferguson came down and spoke. Jock was very ill by then and in a bad way, I don’t think he even recognised me. This was such a huge man who walked into a room and lit it up, he had such a way about him. What a great man. 

FOX: Jock got City promoted in his second season, but then we came straight back down. Was it a case of too little experience in the side?

MW: I think it was simply that. We thought we could run them. We were a little naïve, in fact we were a lot naïve.
We had a taste of that the season after when we played Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final. We had reached that semi by hunting in packs, but when we went man for man against Ardiles and Hoddle, they were just going to drop the shoulder and ping a ball through and we are going to have three blokes out of the game. And I think it was the same in that First Division season. Tactically were weren’t quite wired up to it, and we didn’t have enough experience. Our youth and our running capacity and our general enthusiasm and exuberance weren’t quite enough in the end. Though it upset a few teams on the way, we beat Liverpool twice and FA Cup winners Spurs twice.   
We always seemed to do well against Liverpool. One of the best ones I remember up there, despite the senile dementia, must have been about 1984-ish. We were 2-0 up, I think Grobelaar had gifted us a goal and then Lawrenson gifted us another. We were two nil up with about a quarter of an hour to go and we were defending the Kop end. But Liverpool had this beautiful knack of turning the pressure on. They didn’t alter their style of play, they just made it that yard quicker, just up it a bit and moved the ball a little bit quicker than normal. And when the other side is fading in that last ten minutes after hanging on it really is a killer. They got back to two each. For the equaliser, Kenny Dalglish was coming in on the angle and I’m going: “Yes, yer bugger you aren’t going to beat me on my near post…” and then suddenly he has cut the ball back to sort of nowhere, and its in the ‘D’. Ian Rush has delayed his run and then arrives from nowhere to sidefoot it in, because I have been drawn out of the middle of my goal… tremendous vision. Anyone else with a few minutes to go would have had a crack at goal, but that showed you the quality of Dalglish.
Its 2-2 then and Grobelaar launches one down the pitch and it’s bounced once, and I have timed my jump to perfection to collect it, and Rush has come in and hit me and I hear the whistle go. I’m thinking, ‘Brilliant’. I can knock the free-kick out wide, get it back and kill the game off. Then I see the ref pointing at the penalty spot, which is absolutely ridiculous. Graeme Souness picked the ball up to take the penalty and he eyeballed me, never took his eyes off me as he placed it on the spot and I was staring back and he had such a grin on his face. I thought: “Just put it the way I am going to dive, PLEASE, just put it the way I am going to dive because I am off to my right like nobody’s business.” He put it to my right. And I saved it in front of the Kop and we got the draw. I thoroughly enjoyed that.
The first time I ever played at Liverpool was back in the seventies and Bill Shankly had just retired. He came back to Anfield for one last lap of honour and the big send off and there were 56,000 rabid Scousers there to see it. We took the kick off and within 19 seconds we were a goal down. Usually we went backwards from the kick off and then someone would wallop it forward. This time it went back but Crossy or one of the centre-halves played it square to Stevie Whitworth, only it didn’t reach him and Steve Heighway nipped in. I went down at his feet and he didn’t bother to follow the ball but tripped over my hands. The crowd were going mental and there was no way the ref wasn’t giving a penalty. Alec Lindsay scored and I thought: “Oh god here we go.” My first game at Anfield and we are going to get stuffed. But we only lost 2-1 with the other being another Lindsay penalty.

 FOX: You had quite a good record of penalty saves…

MW: Yes, I did well. I worked at it like everything else. You would try and work out which way they were going by the angle they ran up. Whether they were midfielders who would place it or centre-halves or full backs who were going to whack it. Obviously it didn’t work every time but you could often work out by the way they played on the park whether they were wallopers or passers. 

FOX: Did you always commit yourself…

MW: Yes, I always did. I know that these days you might do well to stay put, but back in those days only very rarely would anyone put one down the middle of the goal. They just didn’t. I think that these days a keeper will try and come out a little and see how much he can get away with.; At worst a retake will put more pressure on penalty taker. Whereas, of course, in our day we never used to cheat. Ever…! 

FOX: Which centre-halves did you most enjoy playing behind?

MW: I don’t think I could single out any particular pair. The first pairing was John Sjoberg and Graham Cross and sometimes Malcolm Manley. Because I was fresh into the game they used to teach me an awful lot. Then there was Jeff Blockley who was good and later there was Larry May and John O’Neill. I always had a good relationship with my centre-halves and we worked well together. We had that triangle the three of us and we could work most things. They all had different styles… some thought they could play a bit of football and they couldn’t. Some thought they could and they could. Some knew their limitations but they were as solid as rocks. If they went for a header you knew they were going to get it. Which made it difficult later on when I moved to Lincoln at the end of my career. I would take my position as a goalkeeper off my centre-halves. If he was rising to meet a ball with his head then I would know that it would be going twenty yards in a certain direction and I would have to position myself in case someone could meet it on the volley from there. When I got to Lincoln the centre-halves –God bless them – would go up for a ball, I’d position myself – it would skim off his head and suddenly someone would be there to larrup it into the net with me standing over there hung out to dry and everyone saying, what the hell are you doing over there? Pretty quickly I had to learn to be reactive not proactive. I had to stop anticipating and start waiting and seeing.

FOX: One of the most memorable games you were involved in was the Shrewsbury FA Cup quarter final in 1982. You had played 331 consecutive games when Chic Bates came along and put a stud hole in your leg. He didn’t seem that remorseful at the time, did he ever ask if you were okay?

MW: No I don’t think he did! Funnily enough my first game back after that was against Shrewsbury in the league up at Gay Meadow. The first ball that came in, and I knew it was going to happen, he belted me again. No, I wouldn’t really expect him to make any mention of it, it was just part and parcel of the game. He did it on purpose, I know it was deliberate. He saw me coming and he just looked after himself and put his foot up, but as a keeper you can’t afford to see anything bar the ball. What actually caught me out, I think it was from a free-kick, and it clipped Eddie Kelly’s head which altered the pace and the flight of the ball. Once I was committed I had to keep going and collect the ball. 

FOX: What was the conversation out there because there was a long stoppage?

MW: We were trying to strap it up, it wasn’t bleeding it was just a hole! We were trying to get me through to half time which was about ten minutes away so we could have a proper look at it, but I hadn’t realised how much it had incapacitated me. After a couple of minutes the pain started to come and then after five minutes I was in bloody agony with it. Then they scored and I was thinking this is bloody ridiculous but let’s get to half time. Then we lost a second because I couldn’t move, I was like a floundering fish in the goalmouth. 
After the second one then I took the decision upon myself and threw my gloves off and off I went. It was no good.
But then we got an equaliser just before half time when they scored an own goal. 

FOX: Did you see the second half when we got revenge with a 5-2 win?

MW: No, I spent the rest of the game in the bath. We knew nothing was broken, it was merely a flesh wound so I didn’t bother going to hospital. We had to clean it up, because if you remember it was always very sandy up that end of the ground.
Tommy Williams and myself used to have a good laugh together and as I was lying there in the penalty area Tommy came up and poked his finger right in the stud hole and said: “Yeah Wall, I think that could be trouble.” I said: “Really? Well thanks Tom.”
Another incident like that shows you how crackers players have to be. Do you remember David Cross the big striker who was at West Ham, Norwich and West Brom? He was the original Psycho. My little mate Dennis Rofe – God bless him I’ve spent many a happy hour in Sid’s company – went up for a header with Cross while we were playing at West Brom. Dennis was at full stretch and Crossy caught him with an elbow right across the jaw line. He was down and I went across to see if he was alright. Now Dennis was hard as nails but if there was one thing he hated it was having stitches and as I reached him I went: “Oooooooo Sid, that’s going to be a twelver.” He had a four inch cut along his jaw but he refused to go off and had some butterfly stitches in until half time. At the break they wouldn’t let him go back out like that and I was laughing my socks off at him because he had to have all those stitches.
Then in the second half it was getting frosty. I went up to collect a cross and the little winger Willie Johnstone came under me and knocked my legs away, he claimed he couldn’t stop in time. When I came back down I landed on my eyebrow! At the end of the game I had to sit there and have four stitches above my eye while Dennis was laughing his head off at me. I said: “I’ve only got four, you’ve got as dozen mate!” like kids we were. That’s how it was, you would look after each other, run through brick walls for each other. 

FOX: The win over Shrewsbury earned City a semi-final against Spurs. You have already touched on why we lost but the real killer was Ian Wilson’s own goal. Does it ever get mentioned now?

MW: I don’t see Ian very often now. He shinned it without a doubt. I called for it and he was trying to play it back to me around the penalty spot, but it lopped up and over me. On the day I suppose you could say we were lucky to keep it to two because I don’t think we were ever at the races from what I can remember. I think we had about one chance in a one on one, was it Jimmy Melrose? Clemence just beat him to it. I was disappointed because we had done so well to get there and we let ourselves down. We didn’t give as we should have done. You know they were a very good side, one of the best in the country then. They had Hoddle, Ardiles and Villa… although Villa didn’t play that day as the Falklands War had just started.

FOX: Before you bumped into Chic Bates managed to play 331 consecutive games… how did you manage that?

MW: Well I was very lucky as regards injuries. You would get your knocks, your bruises, your broken fingers all the time but you could play with those. You would always make it. I think a lot of it was fear of losing your place. There wasn’t any rotation then, you were either in or you were out.
There was also the pride you took in being a first team player. We used to say there were a hell of a lot of training ground players. But once they got out there in front of a crowd against real opposition then nerves could get the better of them – I never had that problem. I didn’t allow myself the tiniest shred of self doubt, even if I made the most awful howler I would say to myself, right sod it, that’s gone now, on with it. I had the ability to do that no matter how low things got. If you let one in you’d say, well I’m not conceding another one. If you let four in then you’d say there’s no way they are getting a fifth…
I think a sense of self belief and also a sense of humour could get you through it.
We were at Highbury one day and it was David O’Leary’s debut. We were three-nil down within about eight minutes. After the third went in I said to myself: “Bloody hell Mark, this is ridiculous. This is going to end up 27-0 at this rate and we can’t have that.” So I went down on the edge of the box, in the ‘D’ and put my arm in the air. The referee came running back and said: “What’s the problem?”
I looked up at him and said: “To be honest with you we aren’t quite ready yet, could we start again?” He wasn’t at all happy, but we had to have some kind of stoppage or something had to happen to give us a break and that was the only thing I could think of. I got booked, but we didn’t let any more goals in. 

FOX: You always looked as though you enjoyed playing…

MW: I loved it…

FOX: …which you don’t see now. Players are all very serious now, you never see them laughing. You always looked like if you hadn’t been paid you would have gone out there anyway.

MW: Well that was exactly the attitude I had. You never expected anything, you never assumed you were going to play in the next game, you treated each game as though it might be your last because you might get badly injured or you might lose your form. I had a very balanced outlook on it, possibly because I came very late into professional football and hadn’t been indoctrinated as a kid.
It used to frustrate Jimmy Bloomfield so much because he always thought I still had a student attitude and didn’t take it seriously enough, but if only he knew how seriously I took it. I had a wife and a family and an opportunity to do something for a living that I really enjoyed anyway. There were a lot of players, including goalkeepers who were better than me or more able, but they didn’t have that inner strength that I had and my determination to hold on to my place.

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