Football: Day of decision for O'Neill

Leicester City 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1
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The Independent Online
IF MARTIN O'NEILL does leave Filbert Street, it will surely not be for a side willing to play with such passion for him as Leicester, who came from a goal behind last night to spoil George Graham's hopes of a winning start to his reign as Tottenham's new manager.

O'Neill, saluted by Leicester's fans on a night of high emotions, says he will decide "within the next 24 hours" whether to walk out on the club he joined almost three years ago in order to succeed Graham at Leeds.

"The ball is wholly in my court," he said last night. "The situation as far as the club is concerned has not changed. In order to talk to Leeds I would have to walk away from Leicester. It is a difficult decision but I am most of the way to making up my mind and I promise I will let everyone know within 24 hours."

O'Neill was clearly moved by the sight of thousands of banners urging him to stay but finds himself in a most unenviable position. When he joined Leicester, after both Brian Little and then Mark McGhee had left in mid- contract, O'Neill vowed he would not go in the same circumstances, a pledge he reiterated only last week. But he is deeply disappointed by the the Leicester hierarchy continuing to deny him permission to talk to Leeds.

How much last night's performance was influencing his thoughts only he knows. But Leicester's players demonstrated their commitment to O'Neill as vividly as had the fans.

Les Ferdinand put the London side in front but the splendid Emile Heskey pulled Leicester level with a superb equaliser before Muzzy Izzet capped it with a stunning winning goal five minutes from the end, giving goalkeeper Espen Baardsen no chance with a remarkable volley from 25 yards.

On the field, Leicester were determined to prove themselves worthy and pressed Tottenham with all of their usual commitment, emphasising the work ethic that has always been O'Neill's hallmark. However, they were caught by a counter-attack in the 12th minute as Tottenham seized the advantage.

The goal was cleverly created and simply dispatched. Darren Anderton headed the ball to Ruel Fox and then raced along the right flank to collect the return pass before hitting a curving low cross behind the centre-backs into the path of Les Ferdinand, who scored easily.

But the lead was always under threat as the bustling presence of Emile Heskey tested the fragility of the Tottenham defence. Even before his wonderfully struck equaliser after 31 minutes the young striker was exposing their weaknesses, landing Sol Campbell with a caution when he resorted to stopping him by foul means and later tormenting Ramon Vega.

Nine minutes from the interval, Heskey embarrassed Vega again, collecting Neil Lennon's pass with his back to goal and wheeling away from the Swiss defender before crashing a left-foot shot into the roof of the net. The goal was nothing more than Leicester deserved and had O'Neill, who had been pacing around the technical area like a caged lion, punching the air.

Graham joined him at pitchside for the second half but it was Leicester who regrouped, taking off Gerry Taggart and switching to the 3-5-2 system in which they more regularly operate. The consequence was more pressure on Baardsen's goal.

Graham's new charges were finding it a frustrating experience. Fox went into referee Mike Riley's book after a confrontation with Guppy and David Ginola became the third Tottenham player cautioned, for dissent. The Frenchman had been attended limpet-like by Robert Ullathorne and his ineffectiveness did not impress Graham, who replaced him with Chris Armstrong for the final quarter of the match. Armstrong, sent clear by Anderton, wasted a fine chance to give Tottenham the lead, although Kasey Keller deserves credit for standing his ground as the substitute bore down on him.

Then came Izzet's magnificent winning goal, blasted home from 25 yards after Ferdinand had hooked away Guppy's free-kick. Keller then responded to the high quality of the goal with two excellent saves to foil first Armstrong and then Anderton.

Leicester City (4-4-2): Keller; Sinclair, Elliott, Taggart (Campbell, h-t; Parker, 88), Ullathorne; Savage, Lennon, Izzet, Guppy; Heskey, Cottee. Substitutes not used: Arphexad (gk), Zagorakis, Fenton.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-1-1): Baardsen; Carr, Vega, Campbell, Edinburgh; Fox, Calderwood, Anderton, Clemence (Dominguez, 88); Ginola (Armstrong, 66); Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Walker (gk), Berti, Scales.

Referee: M Riley (Leeds).

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