Managed by the lovable Italian, Claudio Ranieri, and led on the field by such marvelous players as Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, Wes Morgan and Nâ€™Golo Kante, Leicester ended up winning the title by an impressive ten points over Arsenal. The story became an international sensation, giving hope to all that football still had the capacity for romance and surprise. And of course, nearly every story referenced the pre-season 5,000-1 odds, comparing it to, for example, the 42-1 odds on Buster Douglas defeating Mike Tyson or the 500-1 odds of Simon Cowell becoming the next British Prime Minister. Now, in nomway am I going to claim that I would have predicted that Leicester would take the title â€“ and if I could have made that prediction, I would be sitting in a Spanish villa drinking cocktails rather this writing this piece â€“ but I do feel that there is some justification in maybe questioning the degree of skeptism bookies had back in August 2015. And for that, we need to start towards the end of the 2014/15 season and the events during the final months thereof.
Let us go back to Good Friday April 3 2015. Being a holiday in England, the public were enjoying a day of rest and recreation with their families, ahead of a long weekend. In the East Midlands town of Leicester, I am sure fans met in pubs and at barbeques and sank a few beers as they discussed the woes of their local Foxes. Leicester City were not enjoying a good season at that point â€“ they had been bottom of the Premiership at Christmas â€“ a traditional marker of a teamâ€™s fate. Every end of the year, the tale that the team bottom on Christmas Day almost always get relegated is regurgitated across the media. And events since then had not done much to avow that prediction â€“ Leicester had lost six of eleven games and only picked up two wins â€“ meaning that with nine games remaining, Leicester were still bottom, 7 points from relegation safety.
The previous weekend had seen Leicester travel to Tottenham, where they fell behind to two Harry Kane goals after just 13 minutes. But the team then showed some spirit, with Vardy grabbing a goal just before half-time and then Wes Morgan equalizing early on in the second half. Perhaps this would mark a turning point in their season? Unfortunately Kane completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot before Schlupp put through his own net. David Nugent did grab a 90th minute goal for Leicester but it was just a little too late â€“ Leicester had gone down 4-3. But they had gone down with a fight and maybe if they could use that as momentum for the upcoming games, things might look up. The team had shown spirit in defeat.
Which brings us back forward to the Easter weekend. Leicester were to host West Ham at home on the Saturday. Now, I am a West Ham fan, but even I will admit that whenever a team is traditionally in need of an important win, facing West Ham can be just the ticket. And there is no doubt that Leicester were in need of a win to recover from the Tottenham disappointment.
A nervous King Power stadium greeted Leicester out with the sounding of a fox-hunting horn and the beating of free â€œclappersâ€ that had been disbursed to all fans. A cracking shot from Cambiasso after 12 minutes helped to settle any nerves before Kouyate equalized 20 minutes later. The game moved towards the conclusion at 1-1 â€“ a result Leicester could ill afford with games running out and having home advantage. Then, on 86 minutes, came one of those moments that can define a season â€“ a scrambled goal from Andy King demonstrating the old adage that sometimes it doesnâ€™t matter how you get the goal, just as long as you get it somehow. Leicester had finally clinched a much-needed win, but still remained rooted to the bottom of the table.
The next weekend saw Leicester travel to nearby West Bromwich Albion, another team in the bottom half of the table. If Leicester were to have any chance of a miraculous survival, these were the games they needed to win. It was an emotional day at the Hawthorns, with West Brom icon Jeff Astle being remembered after his recent death and West Brom players wearing replica shirts from the 1968 FA Cup Final. With 10 minutes remaining, Leicester were losing 2-1, until finally their pressure paid off with a Huth headed equaliser. A draw seemed on the cards but as West Brom pushed forward in stoppage time, Jamie Vardy broke down the left and, in a manner that we would witness many times in the future, raced through and scored into the corner. Leicester had managed a second win in succession â€“ they were still bottom but now three points away from safety.
Next up a home game against Swansea who were enjoying a strong season, sitting in eighth. A sunny afternoon saw Leicester take the lead early on in the game. As they nervously hung on, a second goal on 89 minutes from Andy King settled the game in their favor. They now had three wins in a row and finally moved off bottom to 18th position, tied on points with Hull. The great escape was in motion.
The team who replaced Leicester at the bottom were Burnley and so the scene was set the following weekend for a true six-pointer â€“ Burnley v Leicester. Burnley dominated the game and Leicester hung in only thanks to some inspired keeping by Kasper Schmeichel. Then drama as Burnley were awarded a penalty early in the second half, only for Matty Taylor to hit the post and drop to his knees, head in hands. Within a minute, Vardy had poked in a cross and Leicester were one up. Burnley threw all they could at Leicester but Schmeichel was outstanding. A fourth successive win saw Leicester finally move out of the relegation zone for the first time since late November with five games left.
Leicester were to remain out of the zone for the last five games. A loss to Chelsea â€“ who were on their way to winning the Championship and so not a result to be ashamed of â€“ was followed by a 3-0 win over Newcastle, a 2-0 win over Southampton, a 0-0 draw with Sunderland and ending with a 5-1 thrashing of QPR, leaving Leicester in 14th place overall, their highest standing since back in October.
Ever since the heart-breaking 4-3 defeat to Tottenham, Leicester had finished the season with a run that comprised 7 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat (to the Champions) â€“ 22 points from a possible 27. If you prepared a Premier League table just based upon all teams final 9 matches of the season, the top four would have been as follows:
1. Leicester 22 points
2. Man City 21 points
3. Chelsea 20 points
4. Arsenal 18 points
So yes, Leicester were champions of the last quarter of the 2014/15 season. So heading into the 2015/16 season, they were the hottest Premier League team with momentum.
So there is the first strand of the argument that perhaps 5,000-1 was perhaps over-stretching it somewhat. Based on the above, we should have been running to the bookies with our life-savings! What is more, the summer saw Nigel Pearson leave as manager to be replaced by Claudio Ranieri. But surely getting rid of the manager who had overseen such a strong end of season run would harm Leicester?
Nigel Pearson had first been appointed manager of Leicester at the start of the 2008/09 season, when they had just been relegated down to League One. The previous season had been chaotic with the club going through three managers â€“ Martin Allen, Gary Megson and Ian Holloway â€“ before appointing Pearson after the season end. The chairman at that time was Milan Mandaric â€“ a colourful character to say the least. A Serbian-American businessman, he had owned Portsmouth before taking over at Leicester in 2007. Pearsonâ€™ first season in charge saw him lead Leicester to become League One champions and this was followed by a trip to the Championship play-offs, where they lost out in the semi-finals to Cardiff.
While undoubtedly successful, Pearson had a strained relationship with Mandaric, and matters came to a head in the summer of 2010 when Mandaric showed a consortium of potential club buyers around without Pearsonâ€™s knowledge and then invited Swanseaâ€™s manager Paulo Sousa to the play-off second leg. Mandaric also invited Hull to speak with Pearson. As Pearson drily observed â€“ â€œit doesnâ€™t take a rocket scientist to work out what is happeningâ€. He left Leicester to take the Hull job, leaving Sousa to take the vacant role.
While Pearson was away, Mandaric sold the club to Vichai Raksriaksorn, the founder and CEO of King Power Duty Free and 5th richest man in Thailand. He injected money into the squad but an inconsistent start saw manager Sven Goran-Erikkson sacked in November 2011. That paved the way for the return of Pearson.
Nigel Pearson did have a reputation for having a temper. In his first season back, he was sent to the stands in a game against Middlesbrough, a team he had previously managed, after reacting angrily when a referee had allegedly entered the Leicester dressing room to tell them to hurry up. Then, during the 2014/15 season, he got into a pitch-side altercation with Crystal Palaceâ€™s James McArthur where he appeared to put his hand around his neck before bizarrely not letting go off his arm. Reports after the game indicated that Pearson had been sacked, which many staff confirmed, only for him to get a reprieve within the next 24 hours. The altercation had coincided with a poor run of form and also followed on from a one-match ban Pearson had received a couple of months before after an angry verbal exchange with a Leicester supporter.
While Leicester then went on the outstanding run described earlier, Pearson was still causing controversy. In a strange post-match interview after the loss to Chelsea, he mentioned that his side had faced â€œcriticism and negativityâ€ from the press all season. When asked to elaborate by a journalist by the name of Ian Baker, his quotes included:
â€œIf you donâ€™t know the answer to that question, then I think you are an ostrich. Your head must be in the sand. Is your head in the sand? Are you flexible enough to get your head in the sand?â€
â€œYou are wrong. You have been in here, I know you have, so donâ€™t give that crap with me. I will smile at you because I can afford to smile at you. Now do you want to ask a different question or do you want to ask it differently? Come on, ask it, ask it. Or are you not capable?â€
Therefore, despite the late season surge and safety, Nigel Pearson was sacked in June with the club stating that â€œthe working relationship between Nigel and the Board was no longer viableâ€. Matters were not helped byÂ Pearsonâ€™s sonâ€™s role in a racist sex tape made by three Leicester reserve players during a post-season tour in Thailand.
As we all know, Claudio Ranieri is probably the nicest guy in football. He also had a ton of top-drawer experience before joining Leicester, having managed Napoli, Valencia, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Roma, Inter Milan and Monaco to name a few, as well as being the first manager under Abramovicâ€™s reign at Chelsea. He is known for his leadership skills, good humour and ability to motivate and alleviate pressure on his players. He was probably therefore the perfect antidote to the more aggressive Pearson approach. Ranieri also favours heavy pressing and quick counter-attacks, an approach tailor-made for Nâ€™Golo Kante and Jamie Vardy.
So going into the 2015/16 season, you had a team that were the strongest in the Premiership over the final quarter of the previous season and a new manager who would bring a calmer influence as well as a playing style perfectly suited to Leicesterâ€™s strengths. Have I convinced you yet?
The final piece of the jigsaw is the state of the then Premiership superpowers. Starting with defending champions Chelsea, they started terribly and the opening game of the season saw Jose Mourinho criticise the Chelsea team doctor, Eva Caneiro, which started a downward spiral leading to Mourinhoâ€™s sacking in December. So right from the start, Chelseaâ€™s season was a toxic one.
Liverpool also started horribly and after eight games sat in tenth position, with just one win in their previous nine games. That led to the sacking of Brendan Rogers and the start of the Jurgen Klopp era, but meant that Liverpool were a team in transition during that season.
Manchester United were still stagnating somewhat under Louis van Gaal, whose approach was alienating both supporters and players. Their season would see them play an exhausting number of games as they navigated a Champions League group stage, which saw them eliminated, a Europa Cup run to the final 16 and winning the FA Cup. It is therefore no surprise that their Premier League form suffered somewhat.
Likewise Manchester City experienced a tiring season with a run all the way to the Champions League semi-finals and winning the Carabao Cup. Manuel Pellegrini was coming to an end of his reign, to be succeeded next season by Pep Guardiola.
That leaves Tottenham and Arsenal. Arsenal were starting to stagnate under Wenger and a lack of spending power and were also involved in Champions League play up to the round of 16. Tottenham meanwhile were just starting to emerge as a strong side under Pochettino but were still evolving at that stage as this was only his second season in charge.
So letâ€™s now step back and assess what someone could have known very early on into the 2015/16 season. The following powerpoint presentation could have been made to potential â€œinvestorsâ€ (read – gamblers):
- Leicester had the best record of all Premier League teams over the last quarter of the previous season and so were entering the new one full of confidence;
- Leicester had a new manager in place who had a calmer approach to the previous regime, fitted better with the owners and did not court controversy;
- The new managerâ€™s tactics of pressing and fast counter-attack fitted perfectly with the squad he was inheriting;
- Chelsea literally started to implode from day one;
- Liverpool had a poor start to the season;
- Man Utd were stagnating under Louis van Gaal and facing an exhausting schedule;
- Manchester City were focused on capturing the elusive Champions League and Pep Guardiolaâ€™s signature;
- Arsenal were stagnating under Arsene Wenger and a lack of funds to spend on new players; and
- Tottenham were still an evolving work, with Pochettino only having had one season in charge
So there you have â€“ obviously there were riches to be made after the first few games of the season!
Being more serious, despite all the above, there is no doubt that the Leicester championship was, and will always be, an incredible achievement. The likes of it may never be seen again, at least in the near future, as the rich clubs get richer at the expense of everyone else. And in no way would I ever want to lessen the romance and beauty of their story. Anyone who has watched the footage of Andrea Bocelli singing Nessun Dorma before the final match and not wept uncontrollably needs to seek immediate medical attention.
All I am saying is that maybe, just maybe, a ten pound punt at the start of that season at 5,000-1 might not have been the most ridiculous bet of all- time. If only I had heeded my own analysis, I might now own a football team instead of writing about one!