Football: O'Neill follows Clough's gospel

Andrew Baker says Europe's new boy has learned from the old master
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The Independent Online
Martin O'Neill has planned carefully before taking his Leicester City side to face Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Cup this week. Concerned that his players might be unnerved by the firework-happy fervour of the Spanish supporters, he arranged a friendly with Olympiakos of Greece, whose supporters seemed to misunderstand the nature of the fixture and showered the visitors with a hail of coins and bottles. It can't have been pleasant at the time, but whatever welcome awaits Heskey and Co in the Estadio Vicente Calderon on Tuesday night will seem affectionate by comparison.

O'Neill and his players are in good heart for the club's first appearance in European competition for 36 years. "They are always confident," Bill Anderson, the Leicester Mercury's football correspondent, observed last week. "Atletico may have Juninho and Christian Vieri, but are they any more frightening than Manchester United?"

None the less the trip will be a novelty for most connected with Leicester City. Alan Birchenall, a long-time favourite with the Filbert Street fans and now a club adviser, was just too young to take part in their only previous European campaign in 1961. But he well expressed the relish that the Foxes and the fans have for their latest adventure. "It's all new for us, it's a new experience for the club and it's just brilliant," he said. "It's what you dream about. Previously when we've thought about going into Europe it has been for an end-of-season holiday trip to Majorca, but now we are right in there with the big boys."

In fact European competition is not an entirely new experience for Leicester City, for Tuesday's fixture is a repeat of a Cup- Winners' Cup Tie in 1961, when they were defeated over two legs by... Atletico Madrid. "That was a pretty good performance," Bill Anderson said. "I think it was 1-1 here and then we lost 2-0 in the return leg, when Gordon Banks saved a penalty. The same result this time would be nothing to be ashamed of."

Certainly not, given the disparity in spending power between the two clubs. Atletico's president, Jesus Gil, laid out pounds 38m in the summer to recruit Juninho from Middlesbrough, Vieri from Juventus, and Jordi Lardin from Espanyol. He could probably have bought Leicester City lock, stock and Claridge for less. In the meantime, O'Neill's total summer outlay was less than pounds 1.4m.

Yet Raddy Antic, Atletico's coach, does not disparage his bargain-basement opponents. "Leicester are the last team we wanted in the first round," he said. "They are a very complex side, and they've started the new season in spectacular style. They have two top-quality strikers in Emile Heskey and Steve Claridge. Leicester are a well- balanced team, and I am extremely worried."

O'Neill is less concerned, according to Bill Anderson, who accompanied him to watch Atletico play Real Valladolid last weekend. "Martin's attitude is the same as Brian Clough's," Anderson said. "Which is that European games are as near as you get to having fun in football. His priority is survival in the Premiership, and that is where the pressure lies. This is a bonus."

Anderson also believes that the difference between the two clubs' stadiums might work in the British team's favour. "Sure, the atmosphere in front of 60,000 Spanish fans is bound to be quite something," he said. "But they won't be relishing the return leg in this little place."

The contrast in crowds is what has stuck in the mind of Gordon Banks, Leicester's 24-year-old goalkeeper in the 1961 fixture, who will be commentating for Eurosport on Tuesday night. "Though Filbert Street was generally full, it was never exactly a big ground," he recalled. "When we got to Madrid, though, the crowd was massive. It didn't frighten us, we weren't overawed but it was certainly not what we were used to." One or two more seasons like the last one, and Leicester's players may have to get used to performing on the European stage.