Leicester City 2015/16, a season that will be remembered for decades to come. In all of our memories, a story to tell our children and grandchildren of the true underdogs who rose from relegation certainties one season to undisputed champions of probably the best league in the world the very next. Let’s enjoy the moment, whether or not you are a Leicester fan or not, because this has been a remarkable and magical season, one to be celebrated by world football for its heart and Hollywood blockbuster-quality storylines. We have just seen the 15th largest city (by population, lower even than Wakefield and Coventry) in the UK win the Premier League, a side that only seven years ago was in the depths of League One, a side that has spent just 48 of its 111 seasons as a club in the top division of English football. It has only taken them three seasons, two very different managers, 43 players (making at least one league appearance each) 58 home games (excluding todays match against Everton) and countless chants from the fans to go from Championship winners to Premier League victors. Not to mention all the banter along the way. It has undoubtedly taken a lot, especially behind the scenes, to see such a seemingly minor team become the champions of English football. The question on many fans’ lips is; will there ever be another Leicester? Will there ever be another team that could become Premier League winners out of the blue like this?
Well, examples of true underdogs have certainly been seen before, over many sports and many different times. A number of names begin to roll off the tongue as soon as you mention the word ‘underdog’ in football, such as the Blackburn Rovers side of 1994/95, Greece’s Euro-winning team back in 2004, Brian Clough’s Derby County and Nottingham Forest of 1972 and 1977-1980 respectively. Other sports have had the Miracle on Ice (the American Ice Hockey team of amateurs who overcame the previously unbeatable Soviets at the Winter Olympics of 1980), Joe Johnson (the amateur snooker player who came through qualifying to beat the best in the world in the 1986 World Championship) and the Netherlands Twenty20 Cricket Team (who beat England at the World Cups of 2009 and 2014 despite being a team of mostly part-timers in a country with only 6,000 registered cricketers). None of these teams or individuals, though, were rated 5000/1 outsiders to achieve the things they eventually did. Considering this, surely Leicester City are the largest outsiders for any feat of this nature ever, in the entire modern history of professional sport.
The main reason the Foxes’ accomplishment is rated so highly in the list of unlikely and unbelievable sporting moments is because they have defied the entire money-orientated and big-team-favouring set-up of the BPL. They have single-handedly flipped the outlook on the BPL and the sort of teams that have success for the football fans and general public of the world, giving belief to all the underdogs out there. Five of their favoured starting eleven this season (Schmeichel, Morgan, Drinkwater, Mahrez and Vardy) were all integral parts of their 2013/14 Championship-winning squad, which just goes to show you don’t need to reinvent your team every season like Manchester City, United or Chelsea to create a victorious Premiership side with the quality and strength in depth required. The additions that Nigel Pearson and Claudio Ranieri made were hardly star-studded themselves, with the likes of Marc Albrighton, Robert Huth, Danny Simpson, Christian Fuchs and Gokhan Inler all coming in on the cheap. When your record signing is Leonardo Ulloa (from Brighton in 2014 for £8 million, it says a lot about your quality, and sends a message that you aren’t exactly the type of side likely to win the Premier League, of all competitions, anytime soon. Compare Ulloa to Angel Di Maria at Man United (£59.7 million), Fernando Torres at Chelsea (£50 million) or Kevin De Bruyne at Man City (£55 million) and it warms the heart to see Leicester triumph over these ‘bigger’ sides. They have finally showed that you don’t have to spend the most to win the most, overriding a vicious cycle of buying and selling at these clubs to hopefully (but not realistically) herald a new age in the BPL.
The reason it is not realistic is clear through the messages of so many across social media and punditry over the past few days; the scepticism that Leicester can repeat their feat next season. People have been very quick to note the unlikeliness of this season’s triumph, and even slimmer possibilities of a repeat. If ever you needed any piece of evidence to sum up the imbedded culture of money wins in the BPL, it would be best found in any of these statements. This seems especially significant after Claudio Ranieri announcement of faith in the cheaper market and distaste of big-name signings in his press conference on Thursday (5th May). Ranieri’s message is a positive one for the whole of football, a strong swipe at the likes of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, the man who dismissed the Italian after his purchase of the West London club back in 2004 despite a second-place Premier League finish and a Champions League semi-final that season. At least Ranieri is a steadfast believer in his morals. He may not win another Premier League title, but he has certainly won a lot of fans for his belief in the likes of Demarai Gray and Christian Fuchs, young players and free agents who can easily be priceless to a squad if they come in with the right attitude. Ranieri is no longer the ‘Tinkerman’, he is the happy-go-lucky genius, a wizard almost, who has conjured a title out of thin air for a previously relegation-scrapping team with all of his man-management tricks and media spells. In golfing terms, he has pulled off an albatross, or even a condor, in a situation where they should’ve struggled to get a par of mid-table.
So how have Leicester achieved the unbelievable? Well, it has taken all of their mental strength and physical capabilities to see out the season, with a bit of luck thrown into the mix. Sports like football are all about stamina and consistency, and that is what Leicester have managed to align this season, only losing three of their (so far) 36 games in the league, scraping plenty of 1-0 wins in games that could’ve gone either way, and that is what has made them champions. The old adage that ‘the mark of champions is that they can win games despite not being at their best’ has been proven right yet again by this indomitable blue-and-white side. Another aspect which has played into their hands is the lack of injuries and the well-versed discipline that they have had over the course of the whole season. Eleven members of their squad have all made 28 or more appearances, with another two (Andy King and Jeffrey Schlupp) making 23 and 22 appearances respectively. This kind of stability has worked wonders for the side, especially defensively, as the combination of Kasper Schmeichel and Wes Morgan (both having started and finished every single game this season) with Robert Huth (who has only missed one) has held up their entire side. Any good team needs to have organisation and stability at the back, and that is what Leicester have got.
That is without even mentioning the heartbeat of any team and a cog that has been critical for them this season; the midfield. The partnership between box-to-box battler Danny Drinkwater and tireless workhorse N’Golo Kante has been outstanding; especially considering the latter was only signed last August, five days prior to the first game of the season. With only one season of Premier League experience between them (Drinkwater 2014/15), the two should’ve been struggling to adapt to the demands of the physical nature of top-level English football by logic, but have ended up putting in a truly title-winning series of performances. A big part of this quick gelling has been the tactical consistency and player loyalty of Ranieri, with the pair having only missed 3 games between them all season, giving them the assurances and faith required to imbed their styles into the team and to any success that they could’ve envisaged at the start of the season.
Another side to Leicester’s winning formula is in their wings, the trickery, pace and guile of Riyad Mahrez coupled with the old-fashioned hard running and pinpoint crossing abilities of Marc Albrighton and Jeffrey Schlupp. Mahrez has been a complete revelation this season, scoring 17 goals and assisting 11 goals from just 34 starts in the BPL and forming the deadliest partnership in the league with Jamie Vardy, arguably the prime factor in the team’s victory. That’s not to overshadow the importance of Albrighton and Schlupp, who have totalled 3 goals and 7 assists together, vital considering their goal difference is only +30, nine worse off than Spurs’ healthy total. Without any of the pieces that Ranieri has put in place this season, I highly doubt the outcome would’ve been the same.
The showpiece aspect of the side has certainly been up front, where a certain WKD-drinking, wrist-bandage-sporting non-league graduate has taken the world by storm by breaking not only a Premier League record for consecutive scoring, but also into the England team. His heart-on-the-sleeve performances have been rewarded with 22 goals and 6 assists, and his pacey, clinical style of play has won him plenty of fans across the world, only heightened by the discovery of his lookalike Lee Chapman this week. Yes, it’s the maverick man Jamie Vardy, the beacon of hope for millions of semi-professional footballers across the world. He has been invaluable to the growth in popularity and the rise up the table of the Foxes this season. The last cog in the side has been Vardy’s strike partner, usually Shinji Okazaki, but variably Leonardo Ulloa, who have both been highly underrated for their very useful performances this term. The workloads they put in, whether they are tracking back to win the ball for attacks (Okazaki) or finishing off numerous chances with imperious headers or tidy poaches (Ulloa), have been outstanding and game-winning. No member of the squad should go without praise for the work they have put in, dedication to the cause this season. What they have done should’ve been impossible, but they are the one in 5000, they are the incredible few. It is a once in a lifetime story.
When we talk about Leicester’s miracle of 2015/16, we must hold it in such a high prestige that we believe we won’t ever see anything like it ever again. Yes, Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League in 1994/95 in what is now seen as an upset, but they had the likes of Alan Shearer, Henning Berg, Graeme Le Saux and Chris Sutton, who were all regular internationals for their national teams (Berg for Norway, the rest for England) at the time. They played in a time in which money had not yet totally dominated the scene, with history still proving fruitful, considering Nottingham Forest (3rd) and Leeds United (5th) were still continental sides. Blackburn weren’t anywhere near as unlikely as Leicester to complete their win. Speaking of Forest, they certainly can count themselves as almost complete surprises to have won the English First Division back in 1977/78, their first season back in the top level since 1971/72 at the time. They were practically a second division quality squad with who would later become heralded as an international quality manager in Brian Clough. Granted, they did have top quality players in English internationals Peter Shilton and Viv Anderson, as well as top Scottish players Archie Gemmill and John McGovern, all of whom were parts of the European Cup winning squads of 1978/79 and 1979/80 (barring Gemmill for the latter squad). They were unbelievably dominant of those few years, but I think the importance of their world-class manager and top-level facilities (for the time) makes their rise seem a little less unlikely than Leicester’s, who certainly have a well-travelled, wise manager, but nowhere near the class of Clough.
Considering this, surely Leicester are the most improbable and far-fetched champions in world professional football ever? In an era where we all expect to see the English top four consist of a choice of Man United, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool or Spurs, the fact that Leicester have conquered English football, and possibly world football depending on who you ask about which league is the best in the world, is amazing. We live in an age in the developed world where not just in football, but in daily life, cash is undisputedly king, and you can take whatever you like as long as you have the funds. Realistically, the likes of Chelsea and Man City should’ve have won the Premier League this season, but instead there has been an absolute miracle. You could call it luck, but in football, as in any part of life, you make your own luck, and that is what Leicester have been rewarded with.
Now surely this means we will never see anything like Leicester City FC 2015/16 ever again. I believe that with the introduction of Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte (maybe even Jose Mourinho); the Premier League in 2016/17 will become far more competitive and cut-throat. The unwillingness to spend on the level of these continentally competitive sides in the summer for Leicester is a brave yet very respectable decision, perhaps they realise that they cannot repeat their feats and they don’t want to raise expectations only to let their fans down. It would be very wise of them to do so. They would rather cherish this memory and be granted stability at a Premier League level for years to come rather than go the way of Portsmouth, who rapidly fell down to League 2 after chasing their European dream. With this kind of mind set, Leicester definitely know the magnitude of what they have achieved, that us fans are unlikely to see anything quite like this possibly again in our lifetimes. Financial Fair Play has undoubtedly had its effect on the spending power of the top sides, opening some doors slightly wider for teams with the pedigree of Leicester, but it should never have seen what has happened right in front of our eyes. This should be a wake-up call to the top sides for the future, get your acts together or face the backlash of your lower spending counterparts.
So, to answer the question posed by so many this week, I would have to admit I don’t see anything ever happening quite on this scale ever again during at least the next 50 years or even in my lifetime, unless something radical changes in the set-up of world football. It is probable that further rulings and restrictions will be added to the already major club biased structure of the top leagues across the world, particularly in the ones with brand names such as Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint Germain and Juventus. If these sides keep winning, it justifies the millions invested by global corporations, whereas if they don’t their sponsors can make massive losses, which dampens the reputation of the leagues for future financiers. These leagues will do anything to make sure their big names win, as it satisfies the money men who at the end of the day rule the footballing world. I know that isn’t the nice, optimistic story that people like to run in the papers, but it is the sad reality of the modern day footballing world. As this is looking like the future for the Premier League and the rest of Europe, we should all just celebrate what Leicester have done for as long as we can. They have made a significant breakthrough, let’s milk it for all it is worth. We never know when, or more likely if, it may ever happen again.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!