Leicester City are the Premier League champions.
Put that collection of words in a sentence on day one of this unforgettable season and good luck finding anyone to pay you scant regard. Even the most ardent Foxes fan would have struggled to contemplate what seemed fanciful back then and was still scarcely believable as the campaign entered its final weeks.
This was, after all, a side who had conjured a stunning escape from what seemed inevitable relegation last season. Seven points from safety with nine matches left, the East Midlands men picked up 22 of a possible 27 in the run home to comfortably stave off the drop.
Doing likewise this time around – ideally with far fewer nervous moments – was a realistic ambition. Anything better would be a bonus. Such is the life of the Premier League battlers, the jubilation that comes with avoiding relegation is followed by the realisation that you’ve got to do the same next season.
Expectations, thus, had to be kept in check. More so given they had a new boss, having sacked Nigel Pearson in June. The Englishman masterminded the escape but fell out with the Foxes’ Thai owners after his son and others were caught in a racist orgy during a post-season trip to the south-east Asian nation. It was a farcical start to what proved to be a farcical tale.
His replacement was Claudio Ranieri, a then-63-year-old Italian carrying the stigma of never having won a domestic title and whose four-month tenure as Greece manager in 2014 yielded one draw from four Euro qualification matches. Almost comically, the final straw was defeat to Faroe Islands – a nation ranked 169 places below Greece at kick-off.
How long ago last August seems now. And how the English football landscape has changed. Let’s repeat those words: Leicester City are the Premier League champions. The romance of football is alive.
“It was unbelievable because we wanted to do something special but nobody could think about what we’ve achieved now. It’s an amazing season for us, I’m very, very pleased,” ever-humble Ranieri told Sky Sports.
The obvious question that stems from that 5000-1 achievement is where does it rank in the history of English football?
Comparisons with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, who won the First Division in 1977-78 and went on to become two-time European Champions, are obvious. Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich Town also deserve acclaim, having clinched the First Division at their first attempt in 1961-62 after winning the Second Division the season prior. But ranking one above the others is to do a disservice to all three.
On results alone, Forest deserve the most credit. Like Ipswich Town, their domestic title came in their return to the top flight while their continental record is bettered by only two English clubs – five-time winners Liverpool and three-time winners Manchester United.
But football of the ’70s is a bygone era, as any Leicester fan will tell you. Forest and Ipswich didn’t have to navigate a landscape where dollars – Russian, Middle Eastern and American – dictate the title race more than managerial nous or team spirit.
The financial disparity between the big clubs of London, Liverpool and Manchester and those relying on traits less tangible than money is what makes the Foxes’ story so romantic.
The price of assembling their squad – a process spanning the Ranieri, Pearson and Sven-Gorän Eriksson eras – is well-documented but worth revisiting. Riyad Mahrez was plucked from the French second tier for about £400,000. Jamie Vardy, the one-time non-league marksman who set a new Premier League record by scoring in 11 consecutive matches, set them back £1m.
“It was a farcical start to what proved to be a farcical tale”
Kasper Schmeichel, who joined his legendary father Peter as a Premier League winner, was a £1.25m buy. Robert Huth had his loan from Stoke made permanent for £3m. Wes Morgan, one of the longer-serving Foxes, arrived from Nottingham Forest for £1m.
N’Golo Kante was comparatively expensive at £5.6m but, with the benefit of hindsight, even that looks an absolute steal. Likewise Shinji Okazaki (£7m) and Leonardo Ulloa (£8m). The latter two haven’t captured the headlines as often as Vardy or Mahrez but their contributions have been telling.
By day one of the season, Leicester had spent £54m building their list. Kevin De Bruyne was worth that alone when he left Wolfsburg for Manchester City. The Sky Blues’ total outlay was £410m, Manchester United £391m, Chelsea £299m, Liverpool £250m, Arsenal £224m and Tottenham £170.
Undoubtedly, football fans have witnessed a David-versus-Goliath story when it comes to financial might. Whether a West Bromwich Albion, or a Swansea City, or a Stoke City can ‘do a Leicester’ remains to be seen. At the very least, they have a blueprint of how to conquer the increasingly monetised world of football. When the celebrations die down, that will be the legacy left by Pearson, Ranieri and the recruiting team, headed up by Steve Walsh. And to think all this happened at a time when the English elite learnt of a plan to rewrite Champions League eligibility rules to suit themselves.
So how did Leicester do it? Many are still scratching their heads that a side who used an unfashionable 4-4-2 formation, adopted a direct and seemingly obvious game plan and averaged just 42.4 per cent possession was seven points clear after Spurs’ 2-2 draw with Chelsea ended the title race.
Not having the same Cup and European commitments as their rivals was a factor, but far from the defining one. The long-ball counter attack was a hallmark of the Foxes’ football and, despite being predictable, was ruthlessly effective. The formation, meanwhile, worked in immaculate harmony with the players’ individual strengths. Each had the freedom to play how they relished and the results are there to be seen.
This campaign hasn’t been a case of a manager building a team around a preferred set of tactics. By contrast, Ranieri realised he had an under-construction group of specialists and devised a game plan to harness their talents. The Tinkerman, in not imposing his will nor living up to the nickname, has proved the shrewdest of them all.
As such, and unsurprisingly, the term “moneyball” has been thrown around. A glance at the players shows it’s an apt description. Vardy has the pace and power to play off the shoulder of the last man. Okazaki operates best up front but as a foil to the main man and can do the spectacular. Mahrez has the dribbling speed and trickery and is renowned for gaining metres once taking possession. Marc Albrighton is a prolific crosser and excellent at dead-ball situations.
All four have the work ethic to match. Put the ingredients together and the attacking threat becomes potent and complementary. Defenders abandoned playing a high line but almost inevitably lost concentration once, and were punished accordingly.
The attackers meant Kante – who arrived after topping Ligue One for intercepts two seasons in a row – and Danny Drinkwater could hold firm as defensive midfielders. There was no need for either to risk exposing the defence with ambitious forays forward.
Behind them, centre halves Huth and Morgan were obdurate towers of strength and chipped in with some of the most important goals of the season. Both are superb in physical encounters and aerial duels but neither is blessed with pace or guile. Those weaknesses didn’t matter. By disregarding a press and its accompanying high line, the pair could afford to drop deeper – another example of the players’ strengths dictating the formation.
Schmeichel underlined his immense worth with several high-class saves, often with the match scoreless or Leicester desperately preserving a lead. Wing backs Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson went unheralded but were similarly vital components of a defence which, with two matches to play, had conceded 34 goals – the equal-third-best record in the league. The bench options have provided capable back-up, Leonardo Ulloa and Jeff Schlupp being the pick.
“Leicester had spent £54m building their list. Manchester City’s total outlay was £410m”
But the best way to comprehend this modern-day football miracle is to consider it a collection of defining moments which, put together, wrote one of the great stories of world sport. Much like the Foxes’ squad being greater than the sum of its parts, this has been a season built on separate happenings – each irrelevant had the others not existed. Only upon reflection does one begin to understand how things could have been so different, how often three points were secured on the back of a piece of magic up front, or a fearless save between the sticks.
What if Nathan Dyer’s 89th-minute header on his Leicester debut against Aston Villa went wide? A goal to savour completed one of the comebacks of the season, the Foxes having come from two down with 20 minutes remaining to win 3-2. That was their third win from five starts, but still few were taking notice.
What if Vardy hadn’t salvaged points with goals against Bournemouth, and Stoke, and Southampton during his record-breaking run. All were draws in which Leicester trailed. He also scored the winner against Crystal Palace. What if Brede Hangeland had never made that fatal error?
What if Cesar Azpilicueta had stood up to Mahrez’s twinkle toes back in December? Leicester had been humbled 5-2 by Arsenal almost three months earlier but arrived at Stamford Bridge on a nine-match unbeaten streak. Chelsea was supposed to burst the bubble and lay the platform for their own revival that night. Instead, the Algerian bewildered the Spaniard to score the second in a 2-1 win. The Blues sacked Jose Mourinho three days later.
Again, what if Schmeichel hadn’t made himself big to keep out Harry Kane’s effort – which deflected off the keeper and onto the bar – when the Spurs’ striker was through one-on-one in January? A stunning save kept the match goalless just after the hour mark and Huth headed the winner 20 minutes later. “It was a good old-fashioned proper plant your feet, arch your back and get your neck muscles going header from Huth. Look at the power. Boof,” BBC pundit Alan Shearer remarked.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men were inches from being 1-0 up. Instead, Ranieri was the only boss smiling, his charges having prevailed by the same score. Such are the margins of football, this has proved the most crucial match of the season.
What if that long ball hadn’t sat up nicely for Vardy to score a worldly against Liverpool in February? That sent Leicester on their way to three vital points against another of the established order. What if Mahrez’s audacious dink, step-over and strike on a memorable day against Manchester City a week later hadn’t come off? Leicester dominated this blockbuster but still needed a marvellous piece of intervention and two goals from an unlikely source – Huth – to ensure endeavour reaped reward.
There were more. What if Ulloa hadn’t arrived at precisely the right moment to meet Albrighton’s low cross and break Norwich hearts? The relegation-threatened Canaries were defiant for 89 minutes but, like so many others, finished with nothing to show for their efforts. The Foxes marched on, this time by the skin of their teeth.
What if Okazaki had failed to connect with his overhead effort against Newcastle in March? The goal is among their most spectacular and his was the only name on the scoresheet. But chances were few and far between that night and the Toon returned home cursing their luck.
That Newcastle match was the second of four consecutive 1-0 wins. Mahrez scored the winners against Watford and Crystal Palace, while the importance of Morgan’s first goal of the season against Southampton – and Schmeichel’s save minutes earlier – cannot go understated.
Of course, Leicester didn’t have everything their own way – few do over 38 weeks. Even before the season there was a setback, Simpson sentenced to 300 hours of community service in June for assaulting his girlfriend Stephanie Ward. Vardy was then embroiled in a racism storm a day after the season opener for comments made in a casino in July. An investigation into whether they breached financial fair play regulations two seasons earlier was the murky cloud that hung over their title chase.
On-field, a loss to Liverpool and a stalemate with Manchester City between Christmas and the New Year represented setbacks while Mahrez missed penalties in draws with lowly Bournemouth and Villa. Arsenal had their own fairytale to celebrate when Danny Welbeck, back after a 10-month injury lay-off, headed a 94th-minute winner to end a pulsating top-of-the-table fixture, 2-1.
The bubble, now dangerously inflated, was again supposed to burst. The Gunners were supposed to go on and conquer all. Instead, the Foxes kept winning. Their performances have hardly been commanding but there they remained, on top of the league.
That has definitively been the theme of this story. Leicester have never done enough to silence the doubters yet they have led the league since January 23. Perhaps this explains the conundrum: No fewer than 14 of their 22 wins to date were by one-goal margins. Their defensive soundness and ability to close out matches has been just as important as what Vardy produced at the other end. Rarely have the terms “self-assured” and “unconvincing” been used together to describe the Premier League champions.
The Southampton win on April 3 was the moment when Leicester falling apart became a matter of “if”, rather than “when”. Spurs, by now intrinsically linked to the Foxes, drew with Liverpool a day earlier and by the end of the weekend the Foxes’ once-shaky lead was seven points.
A week later, Vardy’s league goal drought ended with a brace against Sunderland but for more than an hour there were worries the opener wouldn’t arrive. What if Younes Kaboul hadn’t lapsed in his discipline not to allow the striker in behind? Another match delivered another moment which could quite easily have been different.
But then the stumble, as unexpected as it was expected months earlier. A West Ham unit chasing a spot in Europe was always going to be a tricky assignment yet few foresaw the drama that unfolded. The first 55 minutes went according to the script – Mahrez to Kante to Vardy put the Foxes one up and they looked increasingly comfortable in that position.
Mayhem followed. A red card to Vardy, two Hammers goals in two minutes and a 95th-minute Foxes penalty. In among all that were penalty appeals waved away and the only thing rival fans could agree on was that referee Jon Moss had a shocker. A draw seemed a fitting result but both considered themselves harshly done by.
Tottenham thrashed Stoke a day later to cut the points deficit to five with four matches to play and, with Vardy suspended, the doubters were back. The North Londoners seemed unbeatable. The underdogs were going to need eight points from Swansea, Manchester United, Everton and Chelsea – without their talisman for two of them.
THE FIRST of those hurdles was cleared easily enough. A Swans side with little to play for provided only sporadic resistance and, in making use of Schlupp’s pace and Ulloa’s poaching skills, Ranieri proved adept at covering Vardy. Spurs’ draw with West Bromwich Albion meant one more win would seal the crown.
Their assignment? The Red Devils at Old Trafford. Here was a chance to confirm the changing of the guard by beating the dominant force of the Premier League era. The powerhouse with 13 of the 23 Premier League titles contested to that point. The club where Peter Schmeichel featured in five of those, to go with three FA Cups and one Champions League, and where Simpson and Drinkwater honed their craft growing up. If anyone still needed convincing the Foxes were worthy champions, this was it. The symmetry was almost too good to be true.
Alas, after 90 enthralling minutes and multiple momentum swings, the end result was all square. Morgan’s header cancelled out Anthony Martial’s volley and Drinkwater’s red card exacerbated the missed opportunity. Like the West Ham match, the Leicester faithful could consider themselves unlucky but also fortunate to emerge with a point. The title party was hold – albeit temporarily.
And then it happened, at 9.55pm on Monday, May 2. The most unlikely football story ever written had its final, glorious chapter confirmed. Eden Hazard’s late curling strike earned Chelsea a draw against a Spurs side that needed three points to take the title race to Saturday. Cue delirium in a city of 330,000, until now best known as being the resting place of King Richard III and home of the biggest crisp factory in the UK.
And cue delirium across the globe. The tale of the underdog has captured the imagination of sport fans worldwide. Where were you on that unforgettable night? The most extravagant superlatives couldn’t do the moment justice. “I just think it’s generally the biggest sporting shock. I can’t think of anything that surpasses it. When it’s your own team it’s too extraordinary. Too difficult to put over in words,” Foxes legend Gary Lineker told Radio 5 Sport.
The great underdog stories typically relate to a single contest, be it a football match, boxing bout or 100-metre sprint. Rarely, if ever, are they completed over 38 taxing weeks in the most intense league on the planet. And that’s before knowing that, historically, Leicester unseating the English elite wasn’t supposed to happen. The closest they’d come to a top-flight title in their 132-year history was second, in 1929. They were in League One as recently as 2008-09. They had been promoted and relegated 22 times in their history, a yoyo club forever making and breaking fans’ hearts.
Upsetting the established order was a pound-for-pound battle. As a collective, the Leicester story is of the mouse that roared. Individually, the journeys prove just how much effort that mouse put in to roar so loud.
Vardy is the quintessential rags-to-riches tale. A decade ago he was earning more money working part-time at a carbon fibre factory than he was scoring goals for Stocksbridge Park Steels. Briefly, aged 20, he played with an ankle tag and had to be substituted early during away games to adhere to a 6.30pm curfew, the consequence of an assault conviction. “It was a case of hoping we were winning, taking me off and making sure I was home,” he told the Daily Mail in October.
Seasons with FC Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town preceded the Foxes’ approach. Now he’s a Premier League hero, the leading goal scorer with 22 in a title-winning side. “It’s an unbelievable feeling, I’ve never known anything like it,” he told The Sun.
Mahrez lost his father to a heart attack when he was 15 and wasn’t even on the Foxes’ radar when Walsh attended a Le Havre match to watch his teammate Ryan Mendes. His quick feet proved irrepressible and he’s now the PFA player of the year. Schmeichel, forever battling to emerge from his father’s shadow, had five loan stints while at Manchester City before his frustration at a lack of game time prompted his exit to Notts County, and then Leeds.
“Cue delirium across the globe”
Albrighton was with Aston Villa before being axed in mid-2014. “I was led to believe I was getting a contract and then I found out two days after the season finished that I wasn’t,” he told the Daily Express last month. He’s about to receive a Premier League medal and they’re a basket case headed for the Championship.
Drinkwater was farmed out four times while at Manchester United, who he never played a match for. Simpson managed three appearances with the Red Devils and has worn eight club shirts during his career, as has Ulloa. Andy King has worn one. He’s a Leicester stalwart with more than 300 matches to his name and who is the only player to have won League One, Championship and Premier League titles with the same club. His loyalty is a breath of fresh air in an environment polluted by money. “I thought I’d seen everything with this club, but I never thought I’d see this,” he tweeted.
Then there’s Morgan who, after being released from Notts County as an overweight teenager, embarked on an accounting course and joined non-league Dunkirk. A successful trial with Nottingham Forest followed but getting a game was subject to shedding the kilos.
“I remember Paul Hart was manager at that time and (youth team coach) John Pemberton more or less kept me hidden from him because of the shape I was in,” Morgan told The Independent in December.
The Jamaican international featured almost 400 times for his home-town club, becoming one of their favourite sons before financial issues forced his sale. His journey is the fairytale of the fairytale. “Everyone’s worked so hard for this, nobody believed we could do it, but here we are, Premier League champions and deservedly so,” Morgan said.
And what of Ranieri, that gently spoken, likeable-but-quirky figure whose appointment ten months ago was met with almost universal bafflement.
“Claudio Ranieri? Really?”
Bakers could be in business for months serving Lineker humble pie thanks to that tweet, but he’s not the only one wondering how they were so wrong. “If they wanted someone to keep them in the Premier League, then they may have gone for the wrong guy,” The Guardian’s Marcus Christenson declared. Ranieri proved them wrong months ago and richly deserves to bask in the afterglow of this triumph.
“I’m so proud,” Ranieri told Sky Sports, in a rare moment of self-appreciation before reverting to his deferential nature. “I’m happy for my players, for the chairman, for the staff at Leicester City, all our fans and the Leicester community. It’s an amazing feeling and I’m so happy for everyone.” Take the credit, Claudio, for you are the most Fantastic Mr Fox. Nice guys do finish first.
So, to the winners go the spoils and oh how they are worthy. The first new top-flight champions in 38 years and the sixth club to clinch the honours in the Premier League era. Whether they can replicate the feat and launch a credible European assault remains to be seen. But for now, we revere in awe. Let’s repeat those words again: Leicester City are the Premier League champions.
About the Author
Aidan Fawkes is an Australian journalist plying his trade for the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom, and has watched every bit of Leicester’s amazing rise from League survivors to champions. You can follow Aidan on Twitter https://twitter.com/aidanfawkeshttps://twitter.com/aidanfawkeshere.
Design and editing by Patrick Effeney