Parallel lions of Leicester high life

Return to the summit after 37 years is still founded on the indomitable spirit that links McLintock and Elliott
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The Independent Online

The last time Leicester City were League leaders, they were regarded in much the same way as they are now. Matt Gillies' men were gate-crashers, unlikely guests at the top table. Not content with being members of the élite division, the Foxes had the gall to challenge the big cats for a share of the spoils. It has been a long wait, but after 37 years Peter Taylor's team are at it again.

The last time Leicester City were League leaders, they were regarded in much the same way as they are now. Matt Gillies' men were gate-crashers, unlikely guests at the top table. Not content with being members of the élite division, the Foxes had the gall to challenge the big cats for a share of the spoils. It has been a long wait, but after 37 years Peter Taylor's team are at it again.

Leicester's fortunes dipped considerably between the high points of 1963 and the current successful era, but one aspect that has remained intact is their image. Financial constraints mean that spirit and passion have always been the buzz-words at Filbert Street.

Whether it be the class of '63 or the new generation, Leicester have achieved their results through hard work. There can be no two better examples of the parallelsbetween then and now than Frank McLintock and Matt Elliott. Both were unknown when they signed for Leicester - McLintock a 17-year-old builder, Elliott a labouring centre-back. Both, too, made their names at the club. McLintock, of course, went on to even bigger and better things during his time with Arsenal, but like Elliott he retains nothing but good memories from his eight years in the Midlands.

"They were the happiest days of my career," said the captain of Arsenal's Double-winning team of 1971. "The camaraderie was incredible."

Elliott, the current captain and symbol of the Leicester revival, echoes those sentiments: "We know we have surprised a few people who are now asking how far we can go," he said. "I'd love to be able to answer that but I can't. What I can point to is how far we have come in the few years I've been here. When I arrived clubs like this would make survival their target."

Martin O'Neill changed the club's expectations. The former manager, who left for Celtic in the summer, instilled rigour and discipline during his five years in charge. What followed was beyond the supporters' wildest dreams, as two League Cup wins and a losing final were accompanied by back-to-back top-10 finishes in the Premiership. Peter Taylor, who replaced O'Neill, has kept the ball rolling by building on those solid foundations rather than starting from scratch.

"Leicester basically play in the same way now as they did when Martin O'Neill was in charge," McLintock said. "That's also the exact system which Brian Clough [who managed O'Neill for several years] favoured at Nottingham Forest 20 years ago. Tight in defence, tight in midfield, tight up front."

Under Clough, Forest were extremely difficult to break down. This was football with military precision. The team were well organised, with each player knowing exactly what he had to do, both when in and out of possession. "It's simple, really," he said. "If the opposition have the ball, unless you can win it back immediately, let them have it.

"Everybody retreats into their own half, including the two forwards, and then waits for the other side to get close. By the time the opposition are within 25 yards of your goal, there are two banks of players aligned in front of the penalty box. Suddenly, your opponents are faced with eight players and a goalkeeper, all intent on shielding the danger zone. That makes it very difficult to score."

The statistics support that assessment. Leicester have conceded just one goal in open play so far in the Premiership and have kept more clean sheets than any other club this season. It might not always be pretty, but it works. As Chelsea discovered when they lost 2-0 at home, Leicester are the masters at soaking up pressure and then striking on the break.

The strength of Leicester's system, McLintock believes, is that it is simple and relatively easy to adapt to. Unlike the4-4-2 formation, which requires two good centre-halves, the3-5-2 approach allows more flexibility. "Take Gerry Taggart, for example," he said. "He's an OK defender, but he has the added luxury of knowing he can make a mistake and probably be covered by someone like Elliott. If you have a penalty box packed with Leicester players, the chances are any loose ball will fall to one of them. It's simple but effective - pure Cloughie."

Football systems may not have changed much, but times have. When McLintock first joined Leicester in 1956, he was still a teenager. He had come down from Scotland, hoping to join an English club. After impressing during a one-week trial, he signed on his 17th birthday. "I remember being so excited," he said. "I was paid virtually nothing and I was only part-time, but this was a dream come true." McLintock had to supplement his income by working in the building trade. "I would get up at 6.30am, cycle to a site, work there for eight hours, then cycle to Filbert Street, train for two or three hours and cycle home at about 10.30 at night. I'd always be exhausted at the end of the day, but by the next morning I'd be fully refreshed."

He added: "There was something special about playing for Leicester. Putting on that blue shirt for the first time was just unbelievable. Because it's a small town, people recognise you very quickly and come up to you in the street to shake your hand. It gives you a real sense of pride, of belonging. Honestly, those were the best years of my life."

McLintock's team of 1963 actually went close to the Double, losing out in the League to Everton and in the FA Cup to Manchester United. He does not see Taylor's men emulating those achievements, but remains confident Leicester will qualify for Europe for the third time in four seasons. That unshakable belief is shared by Elliott. "When you are playing well and winning then you cannot be surprised at where you are," the 31-year-old Scotland international said.

"But our resources still fall behind the Manchester Uniteds, Arsenals and Chelseas, so it would be ludicrous to talk about titles at this stage. The simple fact is we're not up to the level of these clubs. That said, we can match them in commitment and the way we work for each other. The Leicester spirit can take us far."

Does that ring a bell, Frank?

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