With the football world still reeling from the shock and audacity of Leicester City’s Premier League triumph, we sketch the Foxes’ remarkable rise from the depths of League One through to Premier League glory in the space of seven years.
Almost four decades to the time when cross-town rivals Nottingham Forest took England and Europe by storm, Leicester City are writing a glorious new chapter in the unique footballing pedigree of the East Midlands. When Claudio Ranieri lifted that Premier League title on 2nd May, 2016, the club capped off a remarkable turn-around from relegation to the third tier of English football in 2008, to a place among European football elite seven years later.
Everybody in Leicester City, from the manager to the physio and the fans to the kit-man and pitch curator, have played a tangible role in forcing the side’s transformation from a team in the midst of a relegation battle last season to winning the title. In this article, we look into where it all started for the Foxes as we map their remarkable journey up the pecking order in English football.
Relegation from Championship to League One and back (2007-10)
A disappointing 2007-08 season in the Championship saw the Foxes, under Ian Holloway, drop down to the third division of English football for the first time in their history. With a number of managerial changes made at the club throughout the season owing to their poor performances, Leicester spent nearly the entire season floating dangerously near the drop zone. Having secured 51 points in 45 games, Leicester needed a win on the final day over already promoted Stoke City to edge Southampton and secure their Championship status. A 0-0 draw at the Potters and a comfortable Saints win over Sheffield United confirmed relegation for Ian Holloway and the Foxes’, following which the two parted ways by mutual consent.
Having reached the nadir of their history, the club, under the stewardship of Nigel Pearson, were desperate to fight their way back into the Championship. In what was to be recorded as Leicester City’s only ever season in the English 3rd tier, the Foxes claimed a club record 27 league wins and 96 points to comfortably win promotion back to the Championship. Pearson’s side lost only 4 games all season as the Foxes’ made a superlative return to the 2nd tier of English football after being dumped out only a year earlier.
Back in the mix in English football’s second-tier, Leicester City surprised everybody with a performance that saw the side in the reckoning for the Championship play-offs throughout the season, despite having been relegated only a year earlier. The Foxes made their way through to the play-off semifinals where they lost to Welsh side Cardiff City on penalties. Nigel Pearson, the man who restored respect to Leicester City’s status in the football league, was touted by fans and followers as the manager who would guide the East Midlands’ outfit back into the Premier League. However, Pearson’s strained relationships with club chairman Milan Mandaric meant the former left the club to join Hull City as boss.
Return of Nigel Pearson and the pursuit of a Premier League dream (2011-14)
Following the departure of Milan Mandaric and the arrival of a new owner in Thai billionaire, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Nigel Pearson requested a return to the club in Novermber 2011 as he sought to continue his Foxes’ project following a failed tenure at Hull City. Leicester, who had endured a difficult start to the season, continued their inconsistent form to finish in 9th place.
The 2012-13 season saw Nigel Pearson’s side come painfully close to securing a birth in the play-off final after losing out to Watford in the dying seconds of an exhilarating 2nd leg decider at Vicarage Road. Anthony Knockaert had the chance to score a penalty in the final minutes of stoppage-time and secure the Foxes’ passage to Wembley. With the game poised at 2-2, Knockaert had his penalty saved by Watford shot-stopper Almunia and he watched on in horror as the ensuing counter from the Hornets culminated in a dramatic winner scored by Troy Deeney to seal his side’s berth in the play-off final.
Fresh from the heart-ache of the previous season, the Foxes’ witnessed a summer of intense transfer activity as Nigel Pearson prepared his side to deliver on his promise to avenge the Watford result and secure a passage to the Premier League. His motivation and drive seemed to have rubbed on to his players as the side went on a relentless run in a 2013-14 season, amassing a staggering 102 points from a record-breaking 31 wins out of their 46 games as the Foxes won the Championship title and secured their dream promotion to the Premier League.
‘The mother of all escapes’
The Foxes forged their way back into the coveted top flight of English football for the first time since 2004. Nigel Pearson’s side kicked off their campaign with immense promise, picking up 2 draws and 2 wins out of 5, including a huge 5-3 upset win over Manchester United at home in the King Power Stadium. However, their triumph over Louis Van Gaal’s side triggered a steep downward curve as the Foxes then went win-less for 13 games until their away win at Hull City in December. In the barren run, Leicester conceded 23 goals while only managing to net 7 themselves past their opposition.
The East Midlands’ side played a very attractive brand of football, laying emphasis on going forward and attacking on the counter. The Foxes, however, didn’t have a very solid defence to fend off attacks from the opposition. Defence is always key to earning a result in the Premier League, and with a compromised back-line, Leicester had a torrid campaign and looked certain to make the drop once more. As on 3rd April 2015, the Foxes were rooted to the bottom of the table sitting nine points away from safety. No side had survived relegation from as poor a position as Leicester had placed themselves in, towards the business end of a campaign.
In a marvelous escape act that would have done Harry Houdini proud, Nigel Pearson’s Leicester City went on a devastating run of form snatching more points in the last nine league games (23) than they had managed in the entirety of the previous 29 games. The side that were staring at the prospect of relegation only a month and half before the end of the season, finished the campaign comfortably placed 14th with a haul of 41 points. The fighting spirit instilled by their inspiring finish to the 2014-15 campaign would set the team up for a historic season in 2015-16.
From escape artists to Premier League champions
On the final day of their 2014-15 campaign, the King Power Stadium was bouncing as the Foxes welcomed a Queens Park Rangers side whose drop down to the Championship had already been confirmed. In a dominating 5-1 victory over the Londoners, Leicester City had signed off their miraculous relegation escape act in style and the fans looked forward to a better 2015/16 campaign from Pearson’s side.
Hardly a month into pre-season, Nigel Pearson was sacked by the club due to disciplinary issues clouding the temperamental manager’s season with Leicester. Suddenly, the jubilant mood around Leicestershire dampened as the club went on the look out for a new manager who would take over the reigns from Pearson. The club’s former boss Martin O’Neill, who steered the Foxes to two Cup successes in the 90s. was lined up as the front-runner for the job with Nigel Adkins, Steve Cotterill and Paul Lambert also in the mix. However the club’s announcement of Claudio Ranieri on the 13th of July was generally met with skepticism with fans and experts finding the appointment ‘baffling’, to say the least, given the Italian’s recent managerial failings.
The 64-year-old’s previous coaching assignment with Greece ended with an unceremonious sacking following the Euro 2004 winners’ loss to lowly Faroe Islands in a qualification game. A lot had changed for the Italian since his impressive exploits in England with Chelsea, with a trophy-less and unsuccessful run with various clubs painting an underwhelming picture about Leicester City’s future under Ranieri. The managerial shuffle-up and Leicester City’s struggles in the Premier League, prior to their escapet act, led many to believe Claudio Ranieri would deal the Foxes a relegation blow in the 2015-16 season.
With the arrivals of Japanese striker Shinji Okazaki and an unknown N’Golo Kante rounding off a summer of limited transfer activity, the Foxes looked forward to kick-start the new season. A magnificent 4-2 success on the opening day against Sunderland marked a positive start to Ranieri’s reign and saw the Foxes sitting top of the table after the first game-week. The encouraging start set the tone for a shocking run of form that saw the side unbeaten in 17 out of the 19 games played in the first half of the season. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez lit up the Premier League with their superlative displays in attack for Leicester during that run that saw the former break Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s record of 10 consecutive goal-scoring games. With the Foxes sitting top of the table at Christmas, bookies scrambled to check what the odds were on an outrageous title triumph for Leicester. The answer, a whopping 5000-to-1.
With many expecting the underdogs’ title challenge to crumble through a grueling second half of the season, Leicester marched on knocking down challenge-after-challenge as the unthinkable reality of the Foxes lifting the Premier League title began to take shape. Led by two solid ‘no-nonsense’ center-backs in Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, Ranieri’s side forged an admirable defensive resilience in the second half of the season when the club’s title challenge was dished out it’s true test of character. The steely defence helped Kasper Schmeichel keep 11 clean sheets in the second half of the campaign, after managing only 4 in the first half.
With Ranieri’s men continuing their impressive run of form much against the odds and expectations, Leicester City’s maiden English League title was confirmed when Tottenham Hotspur were held to a 2-2 draw by Chelsea in the decider at Stamford bridge.
Title win no fluke
As much as fans and pundits would like to label Leicester’s a one-off success, the club’s progress through the season challenged conventional football wisdom and ideals and was a result of hard work in every department from the club’s diligent owners, the manager and his staff, to pre-season transfers and player fitness.
Steve Walsh, assistant boss and the head scout for the Foxes, has an eye for the unearthed diamond. His signings over the last three seasons have revolutionized Leicester City and transformed them into giant-killers in England’s top-flight. The signing of a little known Jamie Vardy from Fleetwood Town in 2012, known for his explosive pace and work ethic off the ball, would in three years time rewrite history books after scoring in 11 Premier League games in a row to beat Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s 10-year-old record.
A certain £400,000 acquisition from Le Havre in French Football’s 2nd division who went by the name of Riyad Mahrez would spearhead an un-fancied title success for the Foxes. Meanwhile, in the remnants of SM Caen, a club based in the outskirts of St. Etiene, lay English football’s next Claudio Makelele in N’Golo Kante. The Frenchman was a relative unknown when he made his way to England to be unveiled as Ranieri’s first signing for Leicester City. Ten months on, with a title under his belt and a place in France’s Euro 2016 squad, the Parisian is on the wish-list of a number of top Premier League clubs.
Not only has Steve Walsh been instrumental in bringing in talents of the pedigree of Mahrez and Kante but has also possessed the golden touch for reviving the careers of players who have been passed on by so-called bigger clubs. They include Man United rejects Danny Drinkwater and Danny Simpson, ex-Chelsea and Stoke star Robert Huth and struggling Aston Villa winger Marc Albrighton.
Unique Fitness Regime
An innovative sports science and medical team, carefully integrated into the decision-making process, has created a perfect model for Leicester City’s success. While the club is updated with all the latest technology to treat their players and keep them fit, the Premier League champions have resorted to some rather unusual methods to ensure their players keep fit. The consumption of beetroot shots as a performance enhancer and the usage of ice chambers as a swift recovery option for their injured professionals certainly places Leicester apart from the crowd.
How else can one explain the fact that Leicester City have had the fewest injuries all season? For a side that works on counter-attacking football and with players required to have to cover a lot of ground with speed and strength, the Foxes’ injury record is astonishingly low. And for those who did get injured, their recovery time was equally baffling and wondrous.
Case in point – when Vardy injured his hip in November, it looked as though his run of goals in consecutive games might come to an end. The fact he continued to play was down to a cryotherapy ice chamber, in which players are exposed to temperatures of -135C for up to four minutes.
Whether rewarding his team with pizza for clean sheets or silencing talk of the title until the last few games, Ranieri has been a master of keeping his players focused and united this season. Amidst the intense pressure of a title challenge against the odds, the club made light of the situation instead of crumbling.
A three-pronged approach of the sports science and medical teams, the coaching department and the players coming together has been definitive of Leicester’s season and could be the foundation for something special for Ranieri’s side.
The celebrations at Vardy’s house once the title was won gave an insight into the bond that exists in the team. That is nothing new. However, the big and experienced personnel in the squad of the likes of Wes Morgan, Christian Fuchs, Robert Huth and Vardy have been essential to the team ethic, both on and off the field.
“This may never happen again!”
Leicester City’s triumph is the kind that serves up from time to time as a gentle reminder that team work and persistence can bring home as much success as money does, and it would be foolish to ignore the importance of the former in the sport. A success story that is well-worth a Hollywood feature, we only hope the Foxes’ title win this season serves up as a foundation for the club to become the next big thing in English football. Here’s to Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City.