Leicester City yesterday reflected with pride and astonishment on the European adventure which awaits them following their 1-0 victory over Middlesbrough in Wednesday's Coca-Cola Cup final replay at Hillsborough.
The win, which came courtesy of a volley from Steve Claridge midway through extra time, has propelled Leicester into Continental competition for only the second time in their history. Judging by the reaction of bookmakers' William Hill, who yesterday installed Leicester at 66-1 to win the Uefa Cup, the current team are expected to fare little better than their predecessors, who lost to Atletico Madrid in the second round of the Cup-Winners' Cup 36 years ago.
However, Martin O'Neill's team demonstrated on Wednesday the sort of spirit and organisation which should serve them admirably against continental opposition. Although fortunate when Emerson squandered a chance to equalise in the closing minutes, Leicester subdued the creative hub of Middlesbrough's team, restricting Juninho to one long-range effort.
"A lot of teams have been disappointing in Europe, but we're a hard-working team and will give it our best shot," the Leicester midfielder Garry Parker said. "We are a hard team to beat; we work for each other, and we'll just see what happens. But Leicester in Europe? Who would have believed it at the start of the season?"
Claridge reacted with similar incredulity to the rewards which await him after a nomadic career spent largely in the lower divisions. "A lot of people thought I was more likely to end up on a park bench than in Europe," he said. "There have been a lot of times when I have been tempted to pack it in, but I stuck at it because I love the buzz of scoring goals."
The Leicester chairman, Martin Smeaton, yesterday urged O'Neill to agree a long-term deal before his contract expires at the end of next season. He assured the manager, who has masterminded Leicester's resurgence, that money from the club's summer flotation would be made available for new players.
"It is a priority to ensure that a successful manager - as Martin undoubtedly is - is as secure as possible," Smeaton said. "Hopefully the day will come when Leicester can sign players of the quality of Juninho, Ravanelli and Zola. It's not a dream. It's what we are working for."
English clubs in Europe next season
European Champions' League
Premiership champions and runners-up
European Cup-Winners' Cup
FA Cup winners
Leicester City (Coca-Cola Cup winners) plus 3rd, 4th and 5th in PremiershipReuse content