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Dermot McGrane on Leicester, hooliganism and the Foxes' magical run

Dermot McGrane sat near the double-decker Kop, the heavily secured area in a soccer stadium's stands where the two rival supporters groups would cheer, chant and curse. The occasion, a match between Chelsea and Leicester City FC, wasn't unusual, but McGrane spotted some mischief up in the Blues' section.

Visiting fans were tying Chelsea scarves together in a chain, he recalls, and shortly thereafter, two supporters rappelled down the makeshift rope from the overhang of the upper section down to where the Leicester City FC supporters -- the notorious Baby Squad -- stood, and immediately whipped out knives.

"Who's first?" they asked, brandishing their weapons.

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That was the soccer climate in which McGrane, the current head coach of the Canisius College men's soccer team, grew up. At least in England, the 1980s were among the most turbulent years in supporter culture, with violence and riots more the norm than the exception.

Long before he roamed the Griffs' sideline, McGrane was a bright young footballer at Leicester City's Center of Excellence, a precursor to the modern LCFC academy. As a 10-year-old, McGrane had moved from Stewarton, Scotland to Leicester, a city of roughly 280,000 people, 90 minutes northwest of London, due to a change in his father's job.

Then, the city that now basks in the world spotlight due to the football club's magical English Premier League title run was not a destination.

"If you were to go to England, go anywhere but Leicester," advised McGrane, who lived in the East Midlands city with his family from 1980 to 1985. "There really are no redeeming qualities -- there's just not much going on there."

Canisius head coach Dermot McGrane was born in Scotland, but spent a portion of his youth career in Leicester. (Canisius Athletics)

Canisius head coach Dermot McGrane was born in Scotland, but spent a portion of his youth career in Leicester. (Canisius Athletics)

Leicester and Buffalo were fairly similar at the time: both had sinking post-industrial economies and were marked by large, predominantly white working classes. If you peer through the Leicester Mercury's photo gallery that spans the decade, you'll notice the teaser of "big hair, strikes and football hooliganism" is not a fib.

There, the soccer club was the city's fulcrum, perhaps more due to the lack of other options than its own greatness. Even though he regularly attended matches with his brothers and father, McGrane recalls his interest rising and falling, mimicking the team's success.

"It was always a surprise when the team achieved something," McGrane remembered. "It was, 'Oh, God, Leicester made it up this year!'"

As part of the club's youth academy, McGrane trained in Leicester's Center of Excellence twice each week, year-round, highlighted by a two-week full-time stint each summer.

McGrane spent 1980 to 1985 as a member of the Leicester City FC academy. He has coached locally for both Niagara and Canisius. (Canisius Athletics)

McGrane spent 1980 to 1985 as a member of the Leicester City FC academy. He has coached locally for both Niagara and Canisius. (Canisius Athletics)

One particular memory that sticks out to McGrane was the opportunity for academy teams to stage a penalty shootout against a rival club at halftime of Leicester's matches. His parents, who now live in Manchester, England, still have the picture of when McGrane's team conquered Chelsea's in one of these mid-match challenges.

McGrane's tenure with Leicester overlapped with club icon and star striker Gary Lineker, and it was common for youth players to run into members of the first team at the Foxes' facility.

"When you're a little kid, a guy like Lineker stood out to me as -- not quite an idol -- but he was the best player in a rare [time] when the team was good," he explained.

At the tail end of McGrane's stay with Leicester's academy, Lineker made the jump to the English National Team, where he'd eventually pot 51 goals -- then the second-most in the country's history behind Bobby Charlton, until Wayne Rooney leapfrogged Lineker last September. Lineker's 95 league goals for the Foxes still rank as the most since 1962 and sixth all-time in club history.

Gary Lineker as a player for Leicester City FC, left, and then recently as a celebrity in Leicester. (Photo by Zak Hussein/Getty Images)

Gary Lineker as a player for Leicester City FC, left, and then recently as a celebrity in Leicester. (Photo by Zak Hussein/Getty Images)

Perhaps Lineker is best known, though, for helping save the Foxes from bankruptcy in 2002 with a team of investors; he was named honorary vice president of Leicester City FC for his charitable efforts.

Although Lineker was someone he looked up to, the youngster McGrane was a much different footballer. He shuffled between center midfield and right back at the Center of Excellence, impressing scouts due to his physicality and heart -- traits which followed him to his coaching career, where his attitude is rugged and no-nonsense.

"He is a very tough coach," said Ryan Schroen, a center back who played under McGrane for three years at Empire United Buffalo and then five more for Canisius College. "He pushes everyone as hard as they can, not only physically, but mentally. He expects a lot from his players and is not unwilling to voice his very honest opinions if he does not like what he sees... if you can see what I am getting at."

That approach commands players' respect and helps whittle down the college athletes who are willing to sacrifice and bleed for a Division I soccer program from those who second-guess.

Canisius center back Ryan Schroen, who's played under McGrane for eight years, admits he's a tough coach. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Canisius center back Ryan Schroen, who's played under McGrane for eight years, admits he's a tough coach. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

Back in Leicester, though, McGrane's football prospects took a turn for the worse as a 15-year-old; he was asked to play against apprentices ranging from 17 to 19 years old, and that impeded rather than spurred his development.

"It was pointless, I was getting killed, and it just wasn't worth it," McGrane reflected. A change of scenery -- an apprenticeship spot at Lincoln City, a fourth division club in England -- was the next stop before the Scot would eventually embark on a coaching career in the United States.

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You're probably wondering what happened to the two knife-wielding Chelsea fans who confronted the entire Baby Squad. It won't shock you that it did not end well for the Blues.

"Who's first?" was met with stunned silence, at least at first, before McGrane recalls a "mass of people, in one movement, streaming into the two guys, who soon had to be taken out of Filbert Street Stadium on stretchers." Looking back, McGrane was surprised they survived.

The era of hooliganism that bit England in the 1980s was no joke. Leicester, the third-most dangerous city in the United Kingdom at the time, he recalls, didn't shrink away from the violent trend.

These days, Leicester supporters -- and English football fans in general -- are a little more relaxed than the 1980s-era of hooliganism. (Getty Images)

These days, Leicester supporters -- and English football fans in general -- are a little more relaxed than the 1980s-era of hooliganism. (Getty Images)

Another tale came after a clash between Leicester City FC and West Ham, as a police escort allowed two notorious groups of hooligans to get a little too close on Silver Street, roughly a mile away from the old Filbert Street Stadium, where the Foxes played before moving to King Power Stadium in 2002.

Some 800 members of the Inter-City Firm, the Hammers' "superhooligans," managed to sneak up behind 1,000 members of Leicester's hooligans, the Baby Squad, inciting a vicious riot. McGrane recalls the violence, chaos and sheer scale of the brawl, which he did his best to avoid.

"I was cowering in the corner somewhere with my friends," the now tough-looking Scot remembers.

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Although McGrane doesn't harbor much love for the city of Leicester itself, he maintains a connection to the club.

"I'm all about jumping on the bandwagon completely," McGrane said with a chuckle. But he didn't always believe.

"I thought, 'Just give them a year or two' after they went up to the Premier League, 'and they'd go back down,'" McGrane admitted. That was, after all, the vicious cycle he'd witnessed as a youth player and fan, an inconsistent club with seasons of brilliance often followed by a harsh dose of reality.

In 2015, the newly promoted Foxes -- in the relegation zone as late as Week 32 -- won six of their last eight to finish a respectable 14th, and buoyed that momentum into 2015-16 despite the change in manager from Nigel Pearson to Claudio Ranieri.

Leicester City FC head coach Claudio Ranieri, right, has led the Foxes to the cusp of an English Premier League title. (Getty Images)

Leicester City FC head coach Claudio Ranieri, right, has led the Foxes to the cusp of an English Premier League title. (Getty Images)

This year's fairy tale -- one of the most shocking stories in the history of English football -- has seen Leicester protect their place atop the Premier League table since Jan. 16.

"It's pretty stunning," McGrane said of Leicester's perseverance atop the table. "I kept thinking they were going to tail off. They're very fun to watch, a lot of no-name players."

The Canisius head coach highlighted the usual suspects, especially striker Jamie Vardy, who was playing with non-league side Fleetwood Town just three years ago.

"Vardy really presses defenders," McGrane noted. "Better-paid strikers don't do that kind of defensive work." The MAAC head coach thinks the pacy forward with off-the-field issues will remain with Leicester into next season, given his age.

McGrane isn't under any illusions about the futures of star midfielder Riyad Mahrez, who was always deemed too small or tactically naive, and N'Golo Kante, the midfield workhorse who is up for PFA Player of the Year despite playing in France's eighth division just five years ago. He expects both players to be bought by bigger clubs, but if Leicester are wise with the profit, they could very well contend again in 2016-17.

He admires center halves Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, who are keenly aware of their roles and "keep it simple."

Riyad Mahrez, foreground in blue, won Pro Footballers' Association's Player of the Year for the English Premier League. (Getty Images)

Riyad Mahrez, foreground in blue, won Pro Footballers' Association's Player of the Year for the English Premier League. (Getty Images)

But it's not so much the individual parts that stick out to McGrane as the sum of the pieces.

"[Leicester] play a decent 4-4-2," he explained, "and it's nothing intricate or complicated, but they're tactically so on the same page. They're out-possessed all the time, but they just counter so well."

With a seven-point edge over second-place Tottenham with three games to go, all the Foxes need is one win from their remaining three matches -- at Manchester United on Sunday, home vs. Everton and then on the road to Chelsea. Spurs, the only team who can overtake the Foxes, play at Chelsea, host Southampton and close at Newcastle.

If Leicester lose two games and tie one, and Spurs win two and draw one, then Tottenham would almost certainly win the league by goal differential. For now, that scenario looks far unlikely, with the Foxes humming after a 4-0 thumping of Swansea and Spurs' shock draw against West Bromwich Albion.

"I would love to say they'll win the league, but Vardy is suspended another game and they've got a tough last three games," McGrane said of Leicester a few days after Spurs' stumble against West Brom.

Jamie Vardy, who set the EPL record by scoring in 11 straight games, will be suspended for the match against Manchester United. (Getty Images)

Jamie Vardy, who set the EPL record by scoring in 11 straight games, will be suspended for the match against Manchester United. (Getty Images)

"I think everyone else in the league wants them to win," added McGrane, pointing to West Brom manager Tony Pulis' post-game quotes and the comments of a few Chelsea players.

One thing is certain, though: Leicester will play in the UEFA Champions League next year, which will provide some amusement for McGrane.

"It will be hilarious," said the MAAC coach. "People from around the world will say that we are from 'LIGH-chester.' England and the U.S. are pronouncing it ["LEST-er"] right now, but when they get to Europe, it won't be that way."

The rest of the world will learn to pronounce N'Golo Kante's name next year, whether or not he's still a member of Leicester City. (Getty Images)

The rest of the world will learn to pronounce N'Golo Kante's name next year, whether or not he's still a member of Leicester City. (Getty Images)

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Leicester is a different city than it was 30 years ago. Like Buffalo, it's an urban area trying to carve a new identity from a relatively nondescript recent history.

The crime rate has dropped, more entertainment options exist and the English Premier League team looks like it will stick around in the top tier. Leicester may never be a cultural bastion, but as Buffalo knows well, progress fuels hope.

Dermot McGrane hasn't been to Leicester in 10 years, so he's a bit removed from the rejuvenation. But he'll have the memories of the wild hooliganism, Gary Lineker's greatness and that halftime academy penalty shootout to carry with him as he watches Leicester City FC try to punctuate one of the best stories in the history of world soccer.

If Leicester City FC can win one match of their last three games, then 2015-16 will be remembered as the year of the Foxes. (Getty Images)

If Leicester City FC can win one match of their last three games, then 2015-16 will be remembered as the year of the Foxes. (Getty Images)

Email Ben Tsujimoto at btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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