Football: Chance for Walsh to be as happy as Larry

Simon Turnbull says the rock of Leicester has a solid foundation
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The Independent Online
IN A CORNER of the gym at Leicester City's training ground on Thursday lunchtime, Steve Walsh was being asked about his Worthington Cup final prospects. It was not the first time Larry Lloyd had pursued that particular line of enquiry with the talismanic Lancastrian who will lead out the Foxes at Wembley this afternoon. It was Lloyd who gave Walsh his first-class football baptism in the League Cup half a lifetime ago, handing the 17-year-old his own Wigan No 5 shirt for a second-round tie at Maine Road in October 1982.

"We've just been talking about it actually," Lloyd said, the former Wigan player-manager having been present at Belvoir Road in his capacity as the Century 106 radio man on the East Midlands football beat. "I'd tweaked a hamstring in the first leg against Manchester City and when we got to Maine Road I walked around the pitch with Steve and said, `You're playing'. He said, `What?' I said, `You're playing'. He says he's never forgotten that. He says he's still got a picture of me handing over the No 5 shirt to him, too."

Lloyd, a giant of a central defender in his heyday with Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, was so impressed with his young deputy he gave him the shirt off his back for good. "I was coming to the end of my playing career," he recalled, "and I was looking for someone like me, a bit rough if you want, who didn't take any prisoners and could head the ball and was left-footed. Word had got to me about this big young lad playing Sunday morning park football in Preston and when I saw Steve he fitted the bill to a tee.

"I could see then that he had the makings of a decent centre-back and he's still going strong at 34. Sometimes he's gone on more or less on one leg but he's a big, brave lad, isn't he? He wins the ball for you and without the ball you can't play. You need the Steve Walshes of this world."

The 32,000 Filbert Street aficionados bound for Wembley today would find difficulty imagining their boys in blue without this inspirational fixture of a No 5. Since moving from Wigan for pounds 100,000 in June 1986, Walsh has served City as a rock-solid centre-back, a swashbuckling centre-forward and even as a sweeping caretaker, having shared temporary management duties with David Nish and Chris Turner after Mark McGhee's departure.

His lofty position in the Foxes' folklore will be further elevated today if he becomes the first Leicester captain to lift a major trophy at Wembley. When Walsh hoisted the League Cup two years ago it was after a replay with Middlesbrough at Hillsborough. And when Colin Appleton raised the same silverware back in 1964 it was at Filbert Street, after the second part of a two-legged final against Stoke.

"Yeah, it would mean a lot to me," Walsh pondered, no doubt picturing a blue and white be-ribboned trophy at the top of the 39 steps. "I've been captain a long time. The League Cup is a major trophy. It would be fantastic if we could lift it."

It would be a seventh heaven for Walsh, who has experienced the highs and the lows of six big days out at Wembley. A Freight Rover Trophy winner with Wigan against Brentford in 1985, he is a veteran of four play-off finals with Leicester (losing to Blackburn in 1992 and to Swindon in 1993, scoring the two goals that beat Derby in 1994 and captaining the team that beat Crystal Palace in 1996) and skippered the City team that drew with Middlesbrough in the League Cup final two years ago.

"Of course it's still special for me to play at Wembley," he said. "I've had mixed fortunes there, certainly, but I'm looking forward to going back. If we win this one it will give me more wins than losses there."

If the one-time chess champion of Ashton-in-Ribble High School is to finish on the winning side, though, he and his colleagues will have to find a way to outmanoeuvre the Gallic genius in the Tottenham No 14 shirt. "That's what everyone has been telling us," Walsh said. "Obviously, David Ginola's right in form at the moment and he's one player we're going to need to watch. I don't know what the manager's going to do, to be honest. But it would be wrong just to single out Ginola, because Tottenham are a good strong team now. They've got Sol Campbell, Les Ferdinand, Darren Anderton. I don't think the focus can be solely on Ginola, though obviously he is going to be one of the main threats.

"I wouldn't say all the attention on Ginola and Tottenham has taken the pressure off us. The pressure is on to go out and win. If we don't win, it's a waste of time being at Wembley. There's only one thing to be at Wembley, and that's a winner."

Those expecting Leicester to be given a stuffing might be interested to note that the City captain once made his living as an upholsterer. Turned down by Blackpool and Preston North End, Walsh started his working life as an apprentice with True Line Upholstery in his native Preston. "I always thought I could make the grade as a footballer," he said. "I just needed a break and it was Larry Lloyd over there who gave it to me."

And it will be Larry Lloyd behind the Century 106 mike at Wembley today, telling the East Midlands whether the player he picked as his own successor has succeeded in his latest League Cup mission.