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.
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Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson
Image credit: Reuters
Bangkok, May 2015. Three young Leicester City players – James Pearson, 21, Tom Hopper and Adam Smith, both 22 – are in a hotel room during the club’s end-of-season ‘goodwill’ tour to Thailand, a visit designed to promote the club in the home country of owners Vichai and Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha. Instead, their actions will go on to make tabloid headlines at home, bring global shame upon the club and spark a row which will result in a managerial change.
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 departure of the man who oversaw Leicester’s remarkable escape from relegation in 2014-15 by winning seven of their last nine games, but also throttled an opposition player on the touchline, asked a journalist if he was an ostrich and told a Leicester fan to “f*** off and die” allows for the implementation of a very different regime.
The new man
Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri before the game
Image credit: Reuters
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
Image credit: Reuters
It was a testing first two months in charge for Ranieri. In August, a huge controversy struck the club when striker Jamie Vardy was caught on camera racially abusing a man in a casino by shouting “jap”. There were calls to sack Vardy, who earlier in the summer had won his first call-up to the England squad, but Ranieri resisted. Another highly unsavoury episode had seen right-back Danny Simpson avoid prison for attempting to strangle his girlfriend. Simpson was given 300 hours of unpaid work after a judge heard his victim no longer supported the allegation of assault. Simpson’s solicitor had said a custodial sentence would be “career-ending”. But he remained a Leicester player.
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
Image credit: From 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.
Ranieri used an unusual motivational tool from well outside the boundaries of established sports science. He picked up the story in the Players’ Tribune: “Before every game, I said, ‘Come on boys, come on. Clean sheet today.’ No clean sheet. I tried every motivation. So finally, before the game against Crystal Palace, I said,’Come on boys, come on. I offer you a pizza if you get a clean sheet.’ Of course, my players made a clean sheet against Crystal Palace (on October 24). One-nil.
“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
Image credit: Reuters
Pizza is not on the WADA banned list because it's about as far from performance enhancing as you can get. Most fitness coaches would recoil at the thought of it becoming key to a team’s dietary regime, but this was an early example of how Ranieri was ready to abandon old orthodoxies and employ a more laissez-faire attitude to managing this particular group of players. Trust, collaboration and a light-touch approach to management were the methods he employed to motivate this squad, as he later explained in an interview with Corriere della Sera.
“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.”
At the age of 63, Ranieri was opening himself up to flexible thinking and the results were evident on the pitch with seven wins in their first 12 matches. In the process, Ranieri was also inviting reassessments of two of the dominant preconceptions which had clamped themselves firmly to him. The first was the line of argument, endorsed enthusiastically by Jose Mourinho, that he was a “loser”. The second was a nickname which had taken on a derogatory dimension during his previous spell in England.
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.
The best deconstruction of Leicester’s approach came from Independent columnist Danny Higginbotham as early as September. “This strategy is something very different in the modern Premier League,” he wrote. “I don’t know any other team who have tried it. But it won’t be as easy to counter as some other systems. Quite often, we see opponents working a team out and finding a counter-strategy. But the only way to counter this and prevent those gaping gaps is to match up Leicester’s 4-4-2. That would be difficult for many teams, with their established ways, because it would mean altering a style of play they have become used to.”
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.
English football was waiting for the spell to be broken, anticipating the moment when Leicester would drop like a stone in the league, leaving the path clear for an established power, or even Tottenham, to sweep in. Back-to-back matches at the start of the month against Liverpool and Manchester City were identified as a hurdle too far; they won them both. The 3-1 win away in Manchester showed that opponents were still not taking Leicester seriously. The fact of what was happening on the pitch could not be processed. You had to attack Leicester, even if it meant almost certain doom. Higginbotham diagnosed the problem after the win at the Etihad.
“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
Image credit: Reuters
If Premier League teams were unable or unwilling to understand the new reality, it was a phenomenon which played out in the wider population too. Struggling with the apparent physical impossibility of what was unfolding in the Premier League, explanations were sought in the realms of the metaphysical. A Wall Street Journal reporter was one of many to notice that Leicester’s incredible rise had started at almost the exact moment that historians had exhumed the remains of King Richard III from a Leicester car park in March 2015, 527 years after his brutal death. “There’s a small part of me that feels it might not be a coincidence,” mayor Peter Soulsby told the paper, noting that the city had developed a “self-confidence” that had been “lacking over the decades” after one of England’s most notorious monarchs had been carefully extracted from the ground. Leicester have only lost four of their 46 matches since.
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
Image credit: AFP
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.
“I had a season at United where we had eight 1-0 victories and that won us the league,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. “Those 1-0s are really important because it points out to me that they are a unit, they're not going to lose. They have a determination about them and they are not afraid of the situation they find themselves in, which is important.”
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
Image credit: Reuters
"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.
Ranieri left the pitch in tears as the enormity of what Leicester were achieving hit home. There was delirium in the stands; players with smiles as wide as the River Soar were making their way back to the dressing room. But up in the Sky Sports studio, Graeme Souness observed the scene and said: “It’s not easy to watch. These might be our champions. It’s like watching a Championship game. Imagine sitting in Munich or Madrid watching this.”
Vardy: The Movie
Image credit: Eurosport
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.
Another blow to the fairytale construct came when on April 11 Guardian reporter David Conn revealed that “the Football League is still investigating the club’s 2013-14 promotion season amid strong concerns from other clubs they may have cheated financial fair play rules.” A source told Conn that “what Leicester did looks like financial doping by the owners, while other clubs were complying with the rules we all agreed.” The club was “confident that it has complied with the Football League FFP regulations”.
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.
Leicester City's Riyad Mahrez, centre, collected the PFA Player of the Year award as his manager watched on
Image credit: PA 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
Image credit: AFP
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."