Why Leicester City are out for revenge in Atletico grudge match

John Percy
Neil Lennon battles for the ball against Atletico 20 years ago - Getty Images Europe

The year is 1997. Leicester are playing in Europe for the first time in 35 years, having won the previous year's League Cup, and have been paired with a formidable Atletico Madrid in the first round. More than 3,500 Leicester fans travel to Spain for the first leg and are kept in a compound outside the city for hours before the match, unable to even buy food. By kick-off, the atmosphere is at fever pitch

Martin O'Neill, manager: When the draw was made, there was a sense of disappointment. Atletico Madrid would have been one of the favourites to win the competition. I think they’d spent around £45million on players that summer - Juninho, who’d been superb for Middlesbrough, and Christian Vieri - which in 1997 was a huge amount. 

Matt Elliott, captain: They were the biggest two games of our careers. At the time Atletico had as good a front five as any team in the world so it was a huge task. At that time the first leg in Madrid was the finest moment in Leicester’s history.

Ian Marshall, striker: You can count on one hand how many times as a footballer you feel totally in the zone, when everything you try comes off. Madrid away was one of them. Just as we lined up having the team photo taken, the atmosphere was electric. You can see from the emotion on mine, Muzzy Izzet and Emile Heskey's face was one of sheer joy.

Leicester stun a passionate home support by taking the lead through Marshall - socks down around his ankles already - before Atletico hit back to take a 2-1 lead to Filbert Street.

Elliott:When 'Marshy' scored we were like most people watching it at home, we couldn’t believe it. He certainly didn’t, his body must have gone into shock and 20 minutes later his hamstring went [after a rash challenge from Daniel Prodan] and he got taken off.

Garry Parker, midfielder: We went out after the game to a club in Madrid for a night out and two or three of their players were in there. We were thinking they’re loving this, they were full of themselves. We couldn’t wait to get them back to our place so we could beat them. To come away with a 2-1 defeat was a huge result and we always fancied our chances of beating anyone at Filbert Street. Teams didn’t like playing there. We didn’t fear anyone.

Filbert Street is sold out for the second leg, Leicester’s first European tie at home since 1961, while Marshall is the cover star for the programme, complete with a plate of paella. Remi Harrel, from France, is the referee.

Marshall starred on the front cover of the programme for the return leg

Muzzy Izzet, midfielder:We felt we had a good chance of upsetting them. We were prepared to get among them, to make it as hostile as possible. So were the crowd. It was electric.

Leicester dominate the first half but then Harrel takes centre-stage. First he gives Parker a second yellow card for taking a free-kick too quickly, then he turns down a string of strong penalty appeals for the Premier League club - triggering a meltdown by O’Neill.

Parker: I’d been booked earlier, and their lad came sliding into me near the dug-out. He kicked me and I kind of kicked him back. I got booked, which was fair enough. But to then take a quick free-kick, because he hasn’t blown his whistle, and get sent off was unbelievable. That killed it. It was never a sending off. 

Kasey Keller, goalkeeper: Martin [O'Neill] was going crazy, something he used to do pretty frequently! But this was a big deal for Leicester, a unique game in the club's history, and it was being taken away from us. For me, there will always be a shadow over that game.

O'Neill: I can feel the anger I had at the time coming back. We had a huge sense of injustice - they were truly awful decisions. We had three penalty appeals and two of them were cast-iron penalties. The referee was shocking. At the time, I could hardly contain my emotions and it’s pretty difficult now I can tell you.

Harrel was later removed from the Uefa list but Leicester’s brief European excursion was over.

Elliott: It was all a bit of a blur, the moment passed us by if I’m honest. It was all new and before we knew it all these events had occurred and we were out the competition at the first hurdle. The referee was suspect, to say the least.

Parker: There were all kinds of rumours going round about the ref before and after the game. Whether they were true or not, we'll never know, but something wasn't right.

O'Neill: I don’t think he was given another game to officiate in Europe. We complained but there isn’t much you can do when you’ve lost the tie. We were little old Leicester and they were Atletico Madrid with someone as powerful as Jesus Gil as president so…

Martin O'Neill admits the defeat is still tough to take 20 years on Credit: getty images

Leicester now face Atletico again on Wednesday, and while the prospect of a place in the Champions League semi-finals is incentive enough for Craig Shakespeare's side, for the class of 1997, retribution is also on the agenda.

Elliott: Revenge has been mentioned and for some fans I’m sure it’s all about that. For supporters of a certain age it will still stick in their throats. Can Leicester win it? I’ve learned over the past few years to never say never. They’ve already shown they don’t freeze and all the glamour of the Champions League hasn’t affected them.

Keller: This is a very good Atletico team, arguably better than the one we played against. Personally, Kasper Schmeichel will be key. If you look at clubs which punch above their weight there’s usually an outstanding keeper. You know he’s going to have make more saves than a David De Gea or Thibaut Courtois to keep you in games. He's in the top echelon of keepers now.

Parker: It would give me so much pleasure to see Leicester beat them. I still feel angry about that sending off now, 20 years later.

Additional reporting by Luke Edwards

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