Leicester City's Premier League title win: The greatest underdog story of all

Leicester City: The greatest underdog story of all

03/05/2016 at 15:26

Tom Adams tells the story of how Leicester, Claudio Ranieri and his players defied all the odds to clinch the most astonishing title win in football history.

A team railing against a vertiginous financial hierarchy; a new manager looking to rescue his reputation after a calamity against the 187th worst country in the world; a group of players ignored or cast aside by big clubs; a 5,000-1 title shot.

This is a story of humble origins and the overwhelming power of unity and the collective. It is the ultimate underdog story, albeit with some notable blemishes. The first of which acted as a catalyst for what was to unfold across the most astonishing Premier League season of all.

The scandal

Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson

Leicester City manager Nigel PearsonReuters

It is hardly suitable material for the start of a fairytale, but the reasons for Leicester’s incredible season can be traced back to that night. Pearson, Hopper and Smith produce a cameraphone and film a group orgy involving three Thai women. In amongst graphic sexual scenes, one of the players is heard to racially abuse one of the women. Then one of the trio's unwitting props is told she is “f****** minging… an absolute one out of 10.”

Pearson and Hopper high-five each other while still in the act, their egos inflated with oafish self-congratulation, but after the footage is shared with friends in the UK and filters through to the press, the three players are sent home in disgrace. Within three weeks, all three are sacked by the club. By the start of July, manager Nigel Pearson has gone as well. His departure is said to be linked to the club’s decision to sack James Pearson, his son.

The new man

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri before the game

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri before the gameReuters

Claudio Ranieri wasn’t the obvious choice to take over at Leicester. His brief reign as Greece manager was an unmitigated farce, ending after four games and a loss to the Faroe islands, and his return to English football after 11 years was widely predicted to be another disaster. Leicester royalty were certainly unimpressed with the identity of the new man in charge.

Around 40 journalists assembled in a suite at the King Power Stadium, with 10 cameras broadcasting around the world, to hear Ranieri announce on his first media engagement: "Since I left Chelsea I have dreamt of another chance to work in the best league in the world again. I wish to thank the owner, his son and all the executives of the club for the opportunity they are giving me. Now I've only one way for returning their trust: squeeze all my energies to getting the best results for the team."

Within a week, Ranieri’s chances of getting those results seemed to have been dealt a substantial setback with the news that Esteban Cambiasso, the hero of 2014-15, had refused a new contract in order to join Olympiacos. But still, the summer had brought some fresh faces: Robert Huth, signed on a permanent deal from Stoke for £3m, Christian Fuchs, arriving on a free from Schalke, Shinji Okazaki, a £7m signing from Mainz, and a 24-year-old Caen midfielder by the name of N’Golo Kante at a cost of £5.6m.

Leicester's Ngolo Kante

Leicester's Ngolo KanteReuters

This was not a collection of clean-cut players for Ranieri to mould. It was more like a rogue’s gallery. But in sporting, if not moral, terms, they were exactly what the Italian was looking for: hungry, committed and willing to work relentlessly.

“I want you to play for your team-mates,” Ranieri told his players at the start of the season. “We are a little team, so we have to fight with all our heart, with all our soul. I don’t care the name of the opponent. All I want is for you to fight. If they are better than us, Okay, congratulations. But they have to show us they are better.”

The pizza bribe

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri makes good on promise to provide players with pizza after clean sheet against Crystal Palace

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri makes good on promise to provide players with pizza after clean sheet against Crystal PalaceFrom Official Website

Leicester confounded expectations with a quick start to the new campaign, going unbeaten in their first eight games in all competitions. But Ranieri was not satisfied: freescoring matches did not appeal to his Italian sensibilities so he drew on something which did to urge his defence to tighten up and start earning clean sheets.

“So I stood by our deal and took my players to Peter Pizzeria in Leicester City Square. But I had a surprise for them when we got there. I said, ‘You have to work for everything. You work for your pizza, too. We will make our own.’ So we went into the kitchen with the dough and the cheese and the sauce. We tossed our own pies. It was very good, too. I enjoyed many slices. What can I say? I’m an Italian man. I love my pizza and my pasta. Now, we make a lot of clean sheets. A dozen clean sheets after the pizza, in fact. I think this is no coincidence.”

Vardy was in brilliant form at the start of the season

Vardy was in brilliant form at the start of the seasonReuters

“When speaking to the players, I realised they were afraid of Italian tactical approaches,” he said. “What football means to an Italian coach is tactics, trying to control the game by following the ideas and systems of the manager. You talk about football a lot. They didn’t seem convinced and neither was I. I have a lot of admiration for those who build new tactical systems, but I always thought the most important thing a good coach must do is build the team around the characteristics of his players. So I told the players that I trusted them and would speak very little of tactics.

“I make sure the players have at least two days off from football each week. This is the pact I made the first day with the players, ‘I trust you. I’ll explain some football ideas to you every now and then, as long as you give me everything.’I don’t think it’s an ideal solution, but football is not chemistry, it doesn’t have set rules that work universally. What matters is getting the best out of the squad you have.”

The end of the Tinkerman

As autumn turned to winter, it became apparent that Leicester City were not going anywhere, and certainly not without a fight. Radiating confidence like a galactic supernova radiates light, Vardy broke Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record by scoring in 11 Premier League matches in a row from August 29 to November 28 and in a game against Van Nistelrooy’s old club, Manchester United. It was an unthinkable feat for a player of Vardy’s stature, but one which would eventually be eclipsed by what Leicester would achieve as a team. And a team which began to take on a very familiar look to it.

Just as football fans of a certain generation can reel off the names of the 1966 World Cup-winning teams without pause, so too another starting XI was being impressed on the collective consciousness: Schmeichel, Simpson, Huth, Morgan, Fuchs, Mahrez, Kante, Drinkwater, Albrighton, Okazaki, Vardy.

Ranieri, the man whose meddling substitutions were held responsible for Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final exit to Monaco in 2004 and whose Tinkerman nickname had been used to damn him, had alighted on another unexpected strategy. Instead of employing squad rotation, as almost all managers do to varying degrees, the Italian simply settled on a starting XI and picked it every week.

This gave Leicester the platform to perfect their tactical approach: a retro 4-4-2 - very much out of vogue, at least at the start of this season - which was built to hurt teams on the counter-attack. It utilised a disparate group of talents, either ignored or discarded by the big clubs, but crucially who were ready to subjugate themselves to the system.

Ranieri devised a gameplan which rejected the possession-based consensus which was governing elite football. Leicester had some of the lowest possession stats in the Premier League, regularly ceding the ball to opponents. The important factor was how proficient they were at using it when they had it, punishing teams who had given them any space, particularly in behind advancing full-backs.

Wes Morgan, who had steered the club to promotion from the Championship two seasons previously, and Robert Huth, cast away by Chelsea earlier in his career, shored up the back four along with Simpson and Fuchs. Danny Drinkwater, released by Manchester United after 13 years at the club without ever playing a match, and Kante, playing in the third tier in France as late as 2013, were the engine room, snapping into tackles to force the turnovers that were so crucial and kicking off the counters. Marc Albrighton, an Aston Villa reject, and Riyad Mahrez, picked up for £500,000 from Le Havre, ran the channels while Vardy, who came up through non-league, joined the relentless Okazaki in attack.

On December 14 came a match laden with symbolism. Chelsea visited the King Power Stadium and lost 2-1. Leicester returned to the top of the table and Mourinho lost his job after losing to the “loser” Ranieri. Leicester’s role reversal with the reigning champions was complete, Mourinho’s side just the latest team to fail to heed Higginbotham’s warning as they were undone by what was becoming a remarkably proficient template. Leicester had 34% possession and took their chance to exploit the space when Chelsea gave them an opening.

It was not too long after this result that belief started infecting Leicester’s players. Mahrez had a quiet chat with Kante after another win: “We just said: ‘Imagine if …’ We didn’t go into much more, we just said that, ‘Imagine ...’ But that was only for about 30 seconds and then we would say: ‘No, let’s stay focused and let’s see.’ It was still a long way to go. Maybe 15 games to go.”

Into February, Leicester had lost only two Premier League matches all season. Importantly, and uniquely, the more established powers were undergoing various stages of implosion. Chelsea, weighed down by management from Mourinho which had become destructive and damaging, were mounting the worst Premier League defence ever seen; Liverpool were in a long transition from Brendan Rodgers to Jurgen Klopp; Manchester City, distracted by managerial changes of their own, were a rabble; Louis van Gaal had neutered Manchester United; and Arsenal were Arsenal.

“Manchester City gave a perfect example of how not to play against Leicester City,” he wrote. “It was a complacent, arrogant performance, which showed no respect for why Leicester are top of the Premier League. They played into the opposition’s hands, were lured into their traps, and deserved to lose 3-1. There was an element of snobbery in City’s display, as there has been from many teams against Leicester this season. They just wanted to play expansive football with no concern for what makes the Foxes so effective. So many teams have got lured up-field by Leicester and then hit by the sucker punch. They forget that you are never more vulnerable against Claudio Ranieri’s team than when you are attacking them and pushing your full-backs on.”

Flowers are left at the base of the King Richard III statue in the gardens of Leicester cathedral, in Leicester, central England March 22, 2015

Flowers are left at the base of the King Richard III statue in the gardens of Leicester cathedral, in Leicester, central England March 22, 2015Reuters

A 12th man from the spectral realm? It was only marginally less likely than Leicester City actually winning the Premier League.

The threat, and the response

Wes Morgan, Robert Huth

Wes Morgan, Robert HuthAFP

From the middle of March, something changed. Belatedly, teams were treating Leicester with the respect they deserved and adapting their approach to try and rein in the punchy counter-attacking which had blown much of the division away. Vardy went eight games without a goal from open play as defences sat deeper and prevented him from charging in behind. But Leicester adapted and found another way to win.

Ranieri employed his flexible thinking and Leicester redoubled their defensive efforts. If teams were going to try and shut them down then their opponents certainly weren’t going to score. Leicester would wait it out and nick a winner when the inevitable chance arose. It required a slightly different skill set and unwavering self-belief - and it worked remarkably well. Between February 27 and April 3 they won five of their six Premier League games by a 1-0 scoreline. Pizza heaped upon pizza. This was the new template and it was given the ultimate endorsement.

After the headline acts of Vardy and Mahrez, the latter of whom had picked up the goalscoring slack during the former’s drought with some sensational performances, it was the turn of the defence to express their excellence. An insight into just how hard it was to play against Leicester’s back four was given by Watford striker Troy Deeney at the start of April.

Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri and Kasper Schmeichel celebrate at the end of the match

Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri and Kasper Schmeichel celebrate at the end of the matchReuters

"Huth is not a player who gives you verbals when you are out on the pitch - in both games against him this season, he hardly talked to me,” said Deeney. "But in terms of talking to each other, the whole Leicester defence never stopped for the entire game, including Kasper Schmeichel in goal. And if Danny Drinkwater did not hear the right call then he was always going back from midfield and asking what was what too. That is one of the reasons they are so well organised at the back.

"With Kante and Drinkwater in the middle, in front of their centre-halves, they kind of funnel teams wide, and invite them to cross. Huth and Morgan are waiting for the ball to come in but what makes Leicester different from a lot of the top teams is that their full-backs are prepared for it too. They are very effective when the ball comes in and it means that, as a striker, you cannot pull on to them to avoid the big centre-halves either.”

With Leicester defending impeccably as a team, and boasting the excellent Schmeichel as their safety net in goal, all they needed was for one of the forwards to nick a goal. On April 24, Vardy did so twice in a 2-0 away win at Sunderland. Sam Allardyce’s side held out for 66 minutes before Vardy struck the opener, and in injury time he ran in behind to slot home a second from Drinkwater’s perfect pass. It gave Leicester a 10-point lead at the top with five games remaining, albeit cut to seven when Tottenham won the following day. It felt like the moment the title was theirs.

The fairytale?

Vardy: The Movie

Vardy: The MovieEurosport

Souness was not a lone voice of dissent. The danger in casting Leicester’s season as a modern-day fairytale was that it jarred when information which contradicted this template came to light. It is why Vardy’s despicable racism was quickly forgotten, not to mention Simpson’s assault on his partner. That was not the end of the controversy either. When the Sunday Times published accusations of doping at the highest levels of football, Leicester City were named by Mr Mark Bonar, along with Chelsea and Arsenal. All three clubs strongly denied the claims which were advanced without any proof.

The lack of traction these stories gained, and the lack of scrutiny they inspired, suggested that the fairytale would prevail. And understandably so. If you ignored any moral or financial qualms, arguably the most astonishing sporting story in English history was unfolding. In the age of the super club, and in a league which had had only five different winners since 1992, what Leicester were doing was supposed to be impossible. And this was the most important thing: what Leicester’s season said about football, sport and life.

“We all have to sit down after what Leicester have done and think about how to go forward, because for chairmen, chief executives and football club boards it has changed the concept of what it is possible to achieve,” Alan Pardew said, portraying the parochial reaction. The universal implications were even greater. But first the league had to be won.

The belief

Leicester City's Riyad Mahrez, centre, collected the PFA Player of the Year award as his manager watched on

Leicester City's Riyad Mahrez, centre, collected the PFA Player of the Year award as his manager watched onPA Sport

For Ranieri, this was a season of managing expectations as much as it was a season of managing a team. Even well into 2016, the Italian was adamant that all that mattered was avoiding relegation and reaching 40 points. Then, when that milestone was secure, his focus was said to only be European qualification, then Champions League qualification. It was as late as April 22nd that he finally caved and admitted, ahead of a match against Swansea, that yes, Leicester were dreaming of the title.

“Now we go straight away to try to win the title," he said. "Yes man, only this remains. I wanted 79 points and we have to fight more now. I talk to my players: 'Come on, now is the right moment to push.'”

The only problem was that Vardy was suspended having been sent off in a 2-2 draw against West Ham. Was Ranieri getting too giddy too early? Was he going to lose his head when it really mattered, just as he did against Monaco all those years ago? Leicester won 4-0 with Vardy’s replacement Leonardo Ulloa scoring twice. “4-0, to the one-man team,” sung Leicester fans ironically, referencing unflattering depictions of the team while Vardy was setting his new Premier League record earlier in the season.

But it was not a description anyone used or recognised any more. Indeed, when the whole Leicester team travelled down in four helicopters after the Swansea win for the PFA awards in April, they earned a standing ovation from the room, and it was Mahrez, not Vardy, who took the Player of the Year award at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane. Although Vardy would later win the Footballer of the Year award.

"The secret has been team spirit," Mahrez said. "We work so hard for each other. We are like brothers, it's everywhere on the pitch. That's our strength. If sometimes we are not good, we know we are going to run and make the effort for our team-mates. That is the secret of our success."

The final act

Leicester City's English defender Wes Morgan (C) celebrates scoring the equalising 1-1 goal

Leicester City's English defender Wes Morgan (C) celebrates scoring the equalising 1-1 goalAFP

Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium. The scene of so many Premier League title wins - but not this year, despite the global news crews descending on Leicester, ready to take in the reaction from astonished locals. A 1-1 draw on May 1 meant Leicester would have to wait to win the title, but not for long. Tottenham's failure to beat Chelsea the following evening handed the Premier League crown to Ranieri and his band of brothers. The impossible dream had been realised.

Some incredible stories have been written in football's long history, but nothing quite like this. Leicester’s title win was the story of a manager who used pizza as a motivational tool; players who won by not having the ball; a team that was supposed to be relegated but won the league; a club which had no right to elbow its way past the super clubs in an era when finances govern everything. It was the story of a group of men prevailing against all odds, trusting in their own quality and spirit, being ignored and disrespected by their peers, until it was too late, and finally achieving something thought impossible. The power of belief and hard work.

One of the many managers left embarrassed by Ranieri’s body of work was responsible for the best analysis of Leicester’s miracle season.

“There is a theory that says to go to the absolute utmost of your talent you need to suffer in life,” said Arsene Wenger. “When you look at the Leicester team, not one career of all these players was obvious, like starting on the red carpet at 18 years of age in the Champions League. Many of the players have been rejected before… it is an interesting case. N'Golo Kante, nobody wanted him in France for a while. That is a good explanation for his character.

"These players had a dream that was not easy to obtain, but when they are in a position to reach it, they are ready for the fight. The lesson of the season is Leicester."