Ultimate underdog: Leicester triumph will inspire for years
LONDON (AP) — Whenever sporting fans say they dare to dream in future, Leicester City shows they really can. Sometimes it just takes a long, long time.
Leicester has now given hope to sports fans the world over after its astonishing rise to win the Premier League.
Whenever athletes face richer rivals with more talent and vast trophy hauls, the tale of this unassuming soccer club will inspire underdogs to believe they too can achieve the impossible dream.
This uplifting tale of underdog vanquishing the mighty will reverberate through the decades. The phrase “doing a Leicester” will now enter the sporting lexicon.
Having only just avoided relegation, Leicester started the season as 5,000-1 outsiders to win the Premier League. The assortment of unheralded bargain-buys was never meant to win the title. But the Foxes accomplished just that on Monday, confirmed as first-time champions of England by second-place Tottenham drawing 2-2 at Chelsea to hold an insurmountable seven-point lead with two games remaining.
The Premier League trophy will be picked up by captain Wes Morgan at Leicester’s King Power Stadium on Saturday when Leicester hosts Everton in the most unlikely soccer celebration of the 21st century.
PARTY 132 YEARS IN THE MAKING
The highest Leicester had finished in its first 132 years was second place — in 1929. Just staying in the top flight or securing promotion from the second tier has been the priority for much of the history of this modest club, based in a central England city with a population of barely 300,000. The Foxes have taken only two years to become champions after a decade stranded in the second or third tiers.
“Getting to the Premier League was such a dream,” 22-year-old fan Jatin Tailor said. “Then the miracle of staying up last year has just continued on for this year. You could never have imagined this in your wildest dreams.”
In an era when elite clubs are getting wealthier and the Premier League trophy hadn’t left Manchester or London in 20 years, an outsider breaking the established order seemed unthinkable without the heavy spending that fueled Blackburn Rovers’ 1995 title.
Encapsulating just how remarkable this season has been, Leicester dethroned a Chelsea side currently 29 points behind in ninth place. The last first-time champion of England was Nottingham Forest in 1978, long before soccer’s financial gulfs widened. Based on spending, Leicester’s accomplishment is unfathomable: Record 20-time champion Manchester United, despite its starting lineup costing more than ten times to assemble at around 330 million pounds, is fifth.
Putting Leicester’s feat into further perspective, Liverpool won a then-record 18th English title in 1990 to confirm its status as the country’s dominant force. But Leicester has now achieved what Liverpool has failed to do in 26 years since.
There’s a sense of entitlement at clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea and United, who believe they should be regular title winners and whose supporters cry out when they fall short.
By comparison, the pure elation Leicester fans have radiated has been infectious and refreshing, singing since March: “We’re gonna win the league” or breaking out into sarcastic renditions of “we are staying up” in relation to last season’s relegation dogfight.
SURVIVAL BEFORE SUCCESS
Everything Leicester has achieved in the last year defies logic. It was stranded at the bottom of the Premier League last season and facing an instant return to the second-tier League Championship. Somehow the players halted the decline in the closing weeks.
The superstitious in Leicester attributed the seven wins in the last nine games to King Richard III since the upturn started directly after the medieval monarch’s battle-scarred skeleton was given a dignified reburial in a grave in Leicester Cathedral 530 years after his violent death.
Despite the team’s remarkable escape, bookmakers didn’t rate the chances of it happening again, making Leicester among the favorites to be relegated by May 2016.
Leicester was proving to be an embarrassment for the owners in their Thai homeland after a postseason tour saw a video leak of three players in an orgy with Bangkok sex workers, one of whom was racially abused. The trio was fired. By the end of June so too was the father of one of them — manager Nigel Pearson — with the club citing “fundamental differences” with the club.
Another scandal engulfed Leicester ahead of the new season when striker Jamie Vardy was filmed using a racial slur toward a Japanese man in a casino. Vardy swiftly apologized but he was fined by Leicester.
Replacing the manager who masterminded last season’s miraculous great escape threatened to disrupt the harmony of Leicester. Claudio Ranieri had not coached in England since being dismissed by Chelsea in 2004. The Italian was not a manager in demand, having been out of work for eight months since being fired by Greece after an embarrassingly short spell in charge of the national team.
The good money last July was on Ranieri being the first Premier League manager to be sacked. But the genial 64-year-old laughed off the derision and instead set about achieving his target: avoiding relegation.
Thai duty free retail giant King Power, which has owned Leicester for six years, just wanted to avoid missing out on its share of the $12 billion windfall from new television rights kicking in from August 2016. It was unambitious but pragmatic for a team of this size.
The squad was reinforced with net spending of around $30 million, only the 11th highest in England in the summer transfer window.
SURGE TO SUMMIT
Leicester improbably opened the new season with an unbeaten run of six games before losing to Arsenal. That proved to be a blip, with the Foxes embarking on another 10 game streak without defeat which saw them go top in November.
Fueling the surge was Vardy, who scored in a record 11 consecutive Premier League games. This is a 28-year-old striker Leicester spotted at non-league Fleetwood Town in 2012 and who had once been earning only earning 30 pounds ($45) while combining playing on uneven pitches in front of a few hundred fans with manual labor.
Even as goals from Vardy and Riyad Mahrez — who cost less than 500,000 pounds — made Leicester an implausible title contender, pundits predicted the team would soon drop off. But the implosion never came.
Ranieri restricted himself in public to targeting 40 points, the mark usually required to avoid relegation. That was reached on Jan. 2 with almost half of the season remaining. But Arsenal was top at the time and the FA Cup holders looked well-placed to end its 12-year title drought.
And yet it was Arsenal which collapsed as Leicester reclaimed top spot and fought off Tottenham.
PRAGMATISM AND UNITY
It’s been anything but Barcelona-style Tiki-Taka from Leicester, whose 4-4-2 tactics place pragmatism over flair.
Leicester has recorded some of the lowest possession statistics in the league, but by adeptly pouncing to score on counterattacks, Leicester has racked up the most wins and lost only three times.
After Ranieri offered pizzas to his squad in return for not letting in goals, the leaky defense also tightened up. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, son of Manchester United title-winner Peter, has not been beaten in 15 of 36 games this season.
Mahrez, meanwhile, was an unknown when he moved to England two years ago, signing from second tier French side Le Havre for less than 500,000 pounds (then about $820,000). The Algeria winger’s inventiveness and attacking flair has seen him score 17 goals and provide 11 assists. His fellow professionals voted him Premier League player of the year.
N’Golo Kante, who was also playing in the French second tier for Caen two years ago, has won admirers across Europe with his interceptions, tackles and work-rate across the field.
In a managerial career that has taken in Chelsea, Valencia, Parma, Juventus, Roma, Inter Milan and Monaco, only now has Ranieri become a title winner.
Ridiculed as the “Tinkerman” at Chelsea for constantly changing the team, Ranieri will now go down in footballing folklore as the mastermind of the greatest triumph in Premier League history.
The challenge will be keeping the squad together and strengthening it to cope with the Champions League. To emulate east Midlands rival Nottingham Forest, Leicester would have to follow its first title by lifting the European Cup the following season.
Just as Leicester’s title bid was widely forecast to fade, the season’s success is being seen as a one-off. Leicester can prove the doubters wrong again.
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports