5000-1. A team of misfits bought together after failing to make it at bigger clubs. A manager who had never won a league title and had just endured a torturous spell as manager of Greece, including an embarrassing defeat to the Faroe Islands. They were favourites for relegation. Now they are the most unlikely of Premier League Champions.
On Monday Leicester City pulled off one of the most incredible shocks in sporting history. Tottenham’s failure to beat Chelsea gave them their first ever Premier League title, with the players forever writing their names in the club’s folklore. That night thousands entered the streets in the city to celebrate a momentous night in its history, the perfect end to one of the greatest David vs Goliath stories in sport history.
13 months ago, Leicester City were bottom of the Premier League, seven points short of Sunderland and safety. Relegation to the Championship after just one year in the Premier League seemed inevitable, as did the sacking of Nigel Pearson, given the club had in the past had to deny rumours of his reign coming to an end. Seven wins in the final nine games of the season meant they pulled off one of the league’s greatest escape acts, with them eventually rising to 14th. It wasn’t enough though for Pearson, with off the field issues meaning he was relieved of his duties just over a month after the season was over. The man who had taken the Foxes from League 1 to the top flight, and then kept them there against all the odds, was gone.
Esteban Cambiasso, another inspirational figure in their survival, followed Pearson out the door, another huge blow for the coming season. Pundits and fans alike were uninspired by the incomings, with Swiss captain Gokhan Inler bought in as a direct replacement for Cambiasso, as was Christian Fuchs, along with relatively unknown French midfielder N’Golo Kante. The appointment of Claudio Ranieri came as the biggest surprise, a man who hadn’t managed in the Premier League since being sacked by Chelsea in 2004, and had no previous experience of a relegation battle. They were once again installed as favourites for relegation, with many predicting Ranieri to be the first manager to be sacked.
The Foxes however started impressively, winning two of their first four games, and drawing the others, with the attacking duo of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy shining brightest. It was their fifth game though that many claim has shaped the Premier League season from then on. Coming from two goals down to beat Aston Villa at home showed the resilience that this Leicester side had, and would continue to show for the remainder of the season. Leicester’s main problem however was their inability to keep clean sheets, something that would come to the fore in late September when they shipped five at home to Arsenal, with Alexis Sanchez grabbing a hat trick. Ranieri eventually changed all this by offering to buy the squad pizza when they did shut out the opposition, but even this would have to wait until the 10th game of the season.
Leicester’s ability to move on from a bad result would also be a highlight of their season, and this was something they showed after the loss against Arsenal. They wouldn’t lose for another ten league games, winning eight, with the highlight being a victory at home to the reigning champions. Chelsea’s trip to the King Power was seen as pivotal; with the Blues languishing in the bottom half of the Premier League table, while Ranieri’s men knew a win over his former club would send them top. The match would be true to form, with goals from Vardy, and an individual piece of brilliance from Mahrez giving the Foxes a huge three points, and ending Mourinho’s second spell as Chelsea manager.
The first half of the season belonged to Vardy, who broke Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of scoring in ten consecutive Premier League games when he netted in his 11th in the home draw with the Dutchman’s old side, Manchester United. It was just another incredible chapter in Vardy’s story, who had been playing non-league football just four years previously. It came as little surprise to hear of a Hollywood director planning to make a film of his extraordinary tale.
Many believed that the wheels had fallen off the Leicester bandwagon at the turn of the year, with a defeat to Liverpool paired with draws with Bournemouth and Manchester City seeing them lose top spot in the Premier League. It must also be noted that despite the chances to finish in the top four, Ranieri’s target remained to reach the magical 40 points mark, while he also refused to spend big in the transfer market, Daniel Amartey and Demarai Gray their only purchases.
A win away at Tottenham, who would later become their closest challengers for the title, reiterated their ability to put a poor result behind them and move on. Robert Huth’s powerful header was the only goal of the game, one of a few important goals the German would score before the season was out.
Huth’s story of rejection from a top club was a familiar one in the Leicester ranks. Let go by Chelsea at a young age, and then sold by Stoke who saw him as not good enough, Leicester was likely to be his final chance at a Premier League club. It was a similar story for right-back Danny Simpson, who had struggled in spells at Newcastle and QPR, and Danny Drinkwater after being sold by Manchester United in 2012. Kasper Schmeichel, son of United great Peter, had one of the toughest rises to the top. Living in the shadow of his father, the Danish ‘keeper had loan spells in Scotland and the lower leagues before moving to League 2 side Notts County, but he will see it as all worth it when he collects his Premier League winners’ medal on Saturday, 23 years after his dad won his first.
It was Huth’s goals that proved crucial once more in the early weeks of February, with the big German netting twice, either side of wonderful Riyad Mahrez strike taking the Foxes to a famous 3-1 win at the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City. The win over the pre-season favourites made many believe that they could win the Premier League, and in particular the bookies, who made them title favourites for the very first time. They were sent back down to Earth just a week later though, when Danny Welbeck’s last gasp winner for Arsenal reduced the gap at the top to just two points, with Danny Simpson seeing red.
The defeat against Arsenal in the first half of the season saw a change in Leicester tactics, with Ranieri opting for the more defensive Simpson and Christian Fuchs in the full back positions, replacing the more attacking options of Ritchie De Laet and Jeffrey Schlupp. The defeat on Valentine’s Day bought about another change in Foxes tactics. The maverick nature was gone, with Ranieri again approaching future games with a more conservative approach.
Leicester won six of the next seven games, with all of the wins resulting in clean sheets for Schmeichel. The games also gave some of the lesser names in the squad a chance to make their mark. Shinji Okazaki and Leonardo Ulloa both scored in 1-0 victories, while at the back Wes Morgan was showing all the signs of an inspirational leader. The real emergence though came from N’Golo Kante in midfield, who’s energy and ability to win the ball back made him undoubtedly one of the players of the season.
With the title looking a near certainty, Leicester were thrown yet another curve ball when Jamie Vardy was controversially sent off with his side leading 1-0 over West Ham, his second yellow coming for what Jonathan Moss adjudged to be a dive. He was probably correct. Vardy’s anger at being sent off gave the Foxes another challenge, with his one-match ban extended to two by the FA. It was that afternoon though that the title race took another twist, with yet another controversial decision by Moss awarding the Hammers a penalty, with Aaron Cresswell’s wonderful volley two minutes later putting them 2-1 up. However Leicester once again showed their fighting spirit, Ulloa stepping up in the final seconds to win them a vital point from the spot.
All season, different questions were asked of Leicester. It was always whether they could recover from a win, or whether they could beat teams when they sat back. Every time they had silenced the critics, and it was a case of having to do the same against Swansea. Without their talisman Vardy, the Foxes produced a brilliant a brilliant attacking display, registering a 4-0 win. The game allowed fringe players to step up in Vardy’s absence, with Ulloa scoring twice, Schlupp impressing from the bench, and the likes of Demarai Gray and Andy King impressing from the bench. Marc Albrighton also came off the bench to continue his record of playing in every Premier League game, a man who had two years previously been released by Aston Villa because they didn’t feel he was good enough. By this point they had been officially relegated, though to tell the truth the writing was on the wall since the start of 2016.
It went from two wins required to just one 24 hours later, when Craig Dawson’s late equaliser denied Tottenham the chance to close the gap, and gave Leicester the chance to seal the fairytale at the Theatre of Dreams. Manchester United made them wait however, after Ranieri’s side recovered well from going a goal down, with captain Wes Morgan scoring the equaliser. Despite the draw at Old Trafford, it was still a matter of when, not if.
The draw only delayed the party until the following night though, with Tottenham’s failure to win at Stamford Bridge giving them the title. It seemed unlikely at half time with Spurs leading 2-0, but Eden Hazard’s late wonder strike was his second title winning goal in two seasons, even if this one did win it for Leicester. It seemed only fitting that the Leicester players were together at the full time whistle, and at Jamie Vardy’s house for the party.
This season is undoubtedly the greatest in Leicester’s history, and probably the greatest in Premier League history. For a team to come from relegation favourites, and win the title, it’s something we will never see again in English football. The Foxes have proved that it’s not all about the financial power and spending big on the best players, or having the biggest names. Almost every member of that squad has suffered rejection at some point of their career, but through sheer persistence and desire, they have pulled off the greatest shock in the history of team sport.