Over the years football has been my hobby and looked at this special game with great admiration and interest. Back in Norway in the early 70’s I got hooked, with a father previously playing and later becoming a referee.
My father had his heroes, Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton (picture, playing at Bramall Lane against Sheff Utd) and Stanley Matthews were his favorites, all groomed well with haircuts and style. The 50’s footballers were seen as real sportsmen and players followed the fashion.
When the 60’s arrived and The Beatles changed fashion. Hair were longer and beards were grown with George Best probably giving it all a special touch, being in time and seen as the fourth Beatle. The players were a bit younger than my father and no longer seen as his idols and he really disliked most of it, but the football was watched as he never fell out of love with the game.
Back in Norway we had English football live on telly every Saturday and you started to follow teams and the local newspapers wrote stories and had great updates before a match, league tables and results were printed. At the age of 7 i was introduced to the game and joined a local team.
We were a group of “some talent” and after a few years competed with the best teams in our age, trained in great facilities and by former players that had played in the top flight and been part of teams reaching a number of Norwegian cup finals. They new “the game” and could “teach it”. They gave the right advice and when correcting things made it all very simple.
We had our local heroes as my local team played in the 2nd tier of Norwegian football and as part of the club early on getting to know those players that played in the first team. Sandefjord Ballklubb was a bit of “sleeping giant” at the time in the early 70’s, being out of the top flight since 1965.
But all of the boys had their English heroes. Most of my football mates supported either Leeds or Liverpool, but a few chose other teams such as Southampton, West Ham, Man Utd, Man City, Arsenal and me, Leicester City (picture, 1972-73 season).
The fact that i just fancied Leicester City is not really to understand, but a game on telly, a few pictures in Shoot & Goal, some football cards, and the fact that the local sports shop were out of Liverpool bags, made my choice of bag, Leicester City (picture above, at the age of 8). I gradually left Liverpool and started to look for Leicester City on the league table and how they managed to get themselves out of trouble during the 1972-73 season.
Despite seeing Liverpool as league winners that season, the climb of Leicester City finishing 16th with a group of players that really played good football, made me stuck and still is 46 years later. We all know about those great heroes back then, and one in particular would “bring it all together”, Alan Birchenall.
“Birch” was at his best, scoring that wonderful goal against Leeds the season after, as I started to follow Leicester closer and closer. Became a bit of trademark to be “alone” supporting the team from Filbert Street, which was quite famous in Norway as people were often watching games on tv, coming from this place on earth.
My football life were just a bit of fun still winning games in my youth team, never really losing much, and becoming county champions in 1974, the same happened in 1976 and 1978. I enjoyed my time, playing in central midfield, but the dream was really for me one day to play in the senior first team at my club. Back then England were closed for foreign players, so that was not really a “dream” at all, and to think that you could compete at that level never crossed my mind.
At home I had a scrap book with pictures of all players and collected everything possible with an attachement to Leicester City. Leicester City frequently visited Norway for “friendlies” and one time back in 1976, the came to Skien to play Odd. My father took me and I did see my “heroes” live for the first time. Frank Worthington, Bob Lee, Dennis Rofe and Jimmy Bloomfield all signed my autograph book, and it was a great day on the 17th of May in the mid 70’s.
By that time “Birch” had vanished with a move to Notts County, and also getting a chance to play in the NASL, turning out for San Jose Earthquakes and Memphis Rogues. We had the stats and facts figured out by reading those Focus On, and buying The Rothmans Football Yearbook, but they missed out on those NASL moves as the text was “contract cancelled” or just a star mark on those getting a free transfer.
All of the players were in my memory and remember the trio “Birch”, Jon Sammels and Keith Weller joining the club almost at the same time, then a year later two other great signings, Dennis Rofe and Frank Worthington arrived. Five fantastic signings done by Jimmy Bloomfield that really changed the style of the Leicester City team, earlier being influenced by Scottish tradition far from the flair and entertaining style introduced by the former Arsenal, Birmingham and West Ham player.
If you like to know the thoughts of Alan Birchenall going back to the early 70’s, this link will give you an idea, him talking to Shoot Magazine in one of those special Focus On pictures.
As “Birch” moved down the ladder and had short stays at Blackburn Rovers, Luton Town and Hereford United, eventually landing a job as manager at a club named Trowbridge Town, he later moved in to “shoes”. My father had been part of the same industry, working for a Norwegian shoe company who had strong relations to Leicester.
We were now in the early or mid 80’s and my football life was in a bit of a flow as well as I became a first team squad player at my local team. know a 4th tier club and looking to get a promotion with a young and interesting side, most players coming up from the youth system and most players in their late teens.
Eventually we managed to get up to 3rd level and by the time, “Birch” was back at Leicester in a “public relation” role. In Norway back then football was “non-amateur” and you had to educate yourself as well as playing, and it was never considered to try to have football as a trade, so finally my education at a financial school in Norway were coming to an end and you started a new career in business.
Still in love with football and still playing, but now moving further down into the league system, playing in the 5th tier, a few years after getting a promotion with this team into the 4th tier and then something special happened.
This was in June 1988, we were playing at home against Flekkefjord, with a certain Mike Speight as player coach. We both played in midfield and i had a few battles with the former Sheffield United “legend” as you have to describe him. Speight played 199 league games for The Blades. We won the game 2-1 and 3 points in the bag.
The years went by as I continued playing, and also had two games playing in a Leicester City “fans team” Number four from left), together with another Norwegian Leicester City fan, chairman of our supporters club, Per Arne Hansen (sitting to the right). Great memories from the “suburbs” of Leicester, i played twice for this team, which was great,
by the time I met “Birch” for the first time in early 2000, for a gathering for Scandinavian fans. The picture below is from a “player of the year” session at then The Walkers Stadium. This was for the 2003/04 season award as we were taken a great picture with him and Graham Cross also attending the game as “guest of honor”. I visited with my son and a group of other Leicester City fans from Norway.
This was a great session as so many with Alan Birchenall, before and after, he is always a “big smile” and talking and making everyone totally relaxed as it is a bit of “nerves” when you all are to meet the stars of Leicester City. This time it was a session with Muzzy Izzet as he was over “voted” winner.
Not all fans “over the sea” are familier with those heroes of the past and as I told the other guys that Graham Cross was the player with most appearances for Leicester City in the history of the club, “Birch” was fast telling everyone, “Graham might have played the most, but I played the best”. Then when asking to take a picture, “Birch” took a £10 note out of his pocket and gave it to me, I said why?, Birch replied, “because you guys would like to take a photo with me”, great just spot on as always, everyone laughed.
A year later I finished playing at the age of 41, making a final appearance, in a “friendly”, as my first team football career slowly ended after 22 years, more than 500 league games played and against and with some very good footballers. One was Speight, others are Ronny Johnsen (x Man Utd), Erik Thorstvedt (x. Spurs), Erik Pedersen (Dundee U) and several others playing for the national team and top level league clubs.
When you think about it, in the pictures in this article you get a feeling that Sheffield United in many ways becomes special. The town of Sheffield is really a place with some great football tradition and of course very special relations to Leicester City.
Not only did “Birch” and Mike Speight play for Sheffield United, the town of Sheffield is also known for the foundation of the oldest still existing club in football, Sheffield FC. They are also the city were Gordon Banks, Jamie Vardy and Harry Maguire were born.
The kiss of Alan Birchenall and Tony Currie, is one of the most “iconic” in the history of football, and might be more than just a “joke”, because it is for me, as a Leicester City fan, playing against Mike Speight, meeting up with “Birch” at a number of occasions. Some strange episodes that brings it all together in a special bond between Leicester City, the town of Sheffield and Sheffield United.
A name that also in many ways will be connected to this is former Sheffield United forward Tony Field. Field (no. 7 in the picture, behind Pelè and front of Franz Beckenbauer) played with Mike Speight while at Bramall Lane and he later played together with Alan Birchenall at Memphis Rogues. Tony Field is born i Halifax, a so called spin-off would be that Frank Worthington is also born in Halifax and Jamie Vardy played for Halifax Town the same did in fact Tony Field.
So what is so special about Tony Field, he is like “Birch” and Mike Speight not really a famous footballer, but he has been playing with the greatest the game have ever seen. Few would remember Tony Field much in England, as he just had a short stint at the highest level with Sheffield United, but from here he moved to New York Cosmos, were he played alongside Franz Beckenbauer and Pelè.
Mike Speight also played alongside Alex Sabella at Sheffield United. Those who remember knew Sabella as a tricky player who later moved to Leeds United, but never really hit it off at Elland Road, but got a bit of a “renaissance” when returning to Argentina and playing alongside Diego Maradona in the national team.
Sabella has later had a great career as coach and manager, being in charge of the Argentina national team from 2011 to 2014, guiding his nation to a World Cup final in Brazil in his finishing year.
The next big moment was of course the 2015/16 season, not really thinking much about Sheffield United, but in this story that special picture belong, so for all those following “The Blades” I will apologize, (pciture, me with the PL trophy),
This might be a “little story” spinning around a few topics found to make it all relate, but in a way it all makes me feel very close to the history of football in all, spinning on the idea of “the kiss” of Alan Birchenall and Tony Currie.
A few other fun facts are that Brian Deane, a former Leicester City player, scored the first goal in the history of the PL, playing for Sheffield United, and having done a great job at Norwegian club Sarpsborg 08. Another is that the legendary record making goalscorer at Leicester City, Arthur Rowley was the manager of Sheffield United in the late 60’s.
“Birch” is to me a great inspiration as he continues to do his charity work, make his runs, giving us all some great memories and makes everyone smile and feel welcome at Leicester City.
We wish Sheffield United a great return to “the best place to be”, and again looking forward to the first game ever to be played in the Premier League between the two clubs, taking place at Bramall Lane on the 24th of August 2019.
Yesterday a new training and twice a week attending the Sandar Veteran Soccer Training Society, always wearing the correct outfit.
Story told by Leicester City fan Ivar Tisthammer, living in Sandefjord, Norway.