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The Amazing Underdog Story of Leicester City, the Greatest Miracle in Sports History
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On March 21, 2015, Leicester City lost their sixth game in eight matches. Without a victory for two months, they were rock bottom of the English Premier League, heading for certain relegation to the lower division, and about to miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime financial bonanza of TV money and opportunity. As usual, London and Manchester would clean up, the rich would get richer, and the hopes of the small, overlooked, multicultural city would sink.
But Leicester started to win. They stayed up; and in the new season they kept on winning. Favorites for relegation, rank outsiders as potential champions (their 5000 — 1 odds were the longest in the world for any major sporting event), their entire squad had been assembled for less than the cost of a single player for Manchester City. Still, they beat Manchester City and Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea: the most incredible cast of written-offs, grafters, misfits, and journeymen came together for the season of their lives.
This is the story every underdog dreams of, every small town with a much larger, more affluent neighbor hopes for, and a triumph that defies logic and expectation.
‘Why couldn’t you beat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal’
– Johan Cruyff
A bag of money has never scored a goal but plenty have provided assists. And there were Leicester, little Leicester, back in their box.
The banknotes of all the big clubs in the world seemed to weigh down the lid.
Neglected players with a nearly manager from a nonentity city: top of the Premier League? Their run had been nice, fun, but this was February and football awaited the moment it would end. Now it seemed the moment was here.
It was February 14; a grey, chilly, North London afternoon. A Valentine’s Day robbed of romance, when reality bit hard on an underdog team. Arsenal 2 Leicester 1 at Emirates Stadium. Twelve of the 38 games left. Leicester, after leading had lost to a last second goal and were now top of the Premier League by a sliver.
Arsenal were just two points behind and so were surging Tottenham, who beat Manchester City in the day’s later kick off. The bookmakers quickly moved Leicester out to third favourites once Arsenal’s winning goal hit the net.
The scorer had been Danny Welbeck: young England striker, impeccable pedigree, a marquee £16m transfer. Arsenal’s first goal came from Theo Walcott – another England thoroughbred, on a princely £140,000 per week.
And Welbeck and Walcott were merely Arsenal’s substitutes. The assist for Welbeck was from a German World Cup winner, the £42m German Mesut Özil while Alexis Sanchez, iconic £32m Sanchez, played a part in Danny Simpson’s pivotal sending off.
How did Leicester’s strength in depth compare? With Simpson dismissed Claudio Ranieri summoned from his bench a cut-price kid (£3m Demarai Gray), an out-of-practice Polish veteran (Marcin Wasilewski) and club-developed stalwart Andy King.
These substitutes, combined, earned less than Walcott. Ranieri’s entire starting XI cost around half Özil’s transfer fee.
So, this seemed an appropriate way for the haves to put have-nots back in their place – and an appropriate setting. Here, at Emirates Stadium, the most lucrative sports venue on the planet, football’s greatest cash machine. Where the £4m per game generated gives Arsenal greater match day revenue than Real Madrid, Barcelona, Mancester United – any team.
Where the cheapest season ticket costs over £1,000. Where there is steamed salmon and ice cream in the press room and in the executive boxes; if you want an informal alternative to the five-course fine dining option you can order the ‘fun’ menu of gourmet burgers with lobster tails.
‘Will that be the goal that Arsenal look back on in May as the one that propelled them to title glory?’ asked the Sky Sports commentary. Welbeck scored with the final touch of stoppage time, in his first game back after serious injury: ‘The ending was like a great movie,’ gushed Thierry Henry in Sky’s studio. It seemed Arsenal were in the fairytale, not Leicester.
The Emirates’ home dressing room is designed to the cerebral specifications of Arsène Wenger; a shrine to Zen and good taste. U-shaped, to eliminate pillars and posts, it has an acoustic ceiling and mood lighting. Players get not one but two lockers. The neat, small, charcoal mosaic tiles in the showers and plunge pool are the stuff of a fine boutique hotel.
The away dressing room is not bad either. Plainer but still spacious, it certainly passes the Dave Rennie test. Rennie, Leicester’s physio of sixteen years, tweets wryly about substandard facilities given to visiting teams at certain football grounds. Queens Park Rangers: ‘toilets right next door to the massage beds’. That kind of stuff.
No complaints about this clean, wide, pine-panelled room, though. Waiting was Simpson, who said sorry for his red card as teammates trooped in. ‘Don’t worry about it, Simmer,’ the replies came back.
Leicester’s players sat down. Some were sanguine. ‘Listen, we have lost 2–1 at Arsenal with ten men. We have been dominant. We have been brilliant. Forget it. Keep going,’ Kasper Schmeichel kept saying. But others had sinking feelings. ‘It literally felt like we had been relegated,’ recalls Robert Huth.
There was anger about referee Martin Atkinson’s punishment of Simpson – two bookings for two moderate fouls. And apologies to partners and children were starting to form in players’ heads.
Entering three games billed as the sequence that would test their challenge – Liverpool at home, then Manchester City and Arsenal away – Ranieri promised everyone a week off for winning all three. Liverpool and City were dispensed with in astonishing ways, but this defeat meant going home and telling loved ones, ‘Sorry – no holiday.’
Then something happened.
Then came the selfies.
The Arsenal Selfies.
Pictures were coming through on social media of a touch of triumphalism going down in that nice, Zen, home dressing room.
Arsenal players danced round Welbeck, chanting his name, and then a large bunch of them posed for a photograph. In the shot were Aaron Ramsey, Özil, Walcott, a clenched-fists Héctor Bellerín, a Victory-signing Sánchez, Olivier Giroud, Nacho Monreal, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Calum Chambers and Mathieu Flamini. A group celebration pose in front of their pristine pine lockers.
Ramsey tweeted it. Oxlade-Chamberlain tweeted it. Sànchez tweeted it. So did Özil, who added an emoji of a flexed bicep and ‘#bigpoints’.
Chambers, Petr Čech, Laurent Koscielny, Walcott and Bellerín posted adding different celebratory tweets and Arsenal’s own official feed joined the exuberance. ‘DAT GUY IS BACK!’ it blared, referring to Welbeck. Twitter memes from fans abounded: Welbeck as the Pope, Welbeck as a king.
And Leicester’s lads saw it. Without need for ambient lighting, their mood changed. They unified again. Defiance sluiced out any despair. In the days and weeks ahead The Arsenal Selfies would become a hot subject on the private social media groups Leicester players shared.
‘For me the key point in the season was when we lost to Arsenal and it was last minute. Everyone was celebrating,’ says Huth. ‘We were sitting in the changing room. They were doing selfies. Even though we were still top.
‘We have a group on the phones. A few of the lads stuck a few [of Arsenal’s] pictures up and it got the blood boiling. Certainly, it gave us an extra yard in the next few games.’
We have been dominant. We have been brilliant. Players recalibrated. Maybe Kasper was not so far away. ‘We had ten men for the best part of the second half and for them to only score in the last minute and then celebrate how they did . . . it proved how good we are,’ says Wes Morgan. ‘I think that gave us a real boost. “Right, come on, boys, we are not going to let that happen again.”’
Andy King reflects, ‘A lot of people looked at that game: “This is it, the bubble has burst.” We didn’t look at it like that. It had taken them 95 minutes to score two past ten men.’
Kasper: ‘Social media is dangerous. I’m not saying more. Very dangerous.’
Lost Amazon tribes probably know by now that Leicester were 5,000-1 to win the Premier League. If you played 5,000 seasons of the Premier League then just once would a team like Leicester win, the bookmakers said. Set your clock for the year 7016 – when the next comparable triumph is due to happen.
Another way of putting it: Liverpool had played around 5,000 matches in their history but never before come back from a 3–0 deficit at half-time until they did so to win the 2005 Champions League in Istanbul. For many, that was the greatest football ‘miracle’ in memory. Leicester had to do something on the Istanbul scale to be title-winners – but sustained over not 45 minutes but 45 weeks.
Bags of money do assist. Some of the economics against Leicester were eye-watering:
No team with a wage bill outside its top five had ever won the Premier League and the last winners with a wage bill outside the biggest three were Arsenal in 1998. Leicester’s wage bill was in the bottom five.
Leicester’s turnover was £104m. Chelsea spent more than twice that in wages. Manchester City almost double on a training ground. Manchester United were soon to pay nearly the same amount to buy one player (Paul Pogba). In November 2015 Arsenal had £159m sitting in the bank.
Manchester United rake in £122m per year from kit deals. Leicester’s shirt sponsorship was worth £1m annually, the second lowest in the Premier League, while kit manufacturer Puma handled their arrangement via an offshoot company dealing with lower clubs on Puma’s roster like Fleetwood Town.
Then there was precedent:
Since the Premier League’s creation only once in 23 seasons had the title gone outside a cartel of four clubs from two cities and then the champions were Blackburn Rovers – briefly England’s best-funded club. In the past ten years the title winners finished their previous season in an average second place and 4.2 points off the top. Leicester were 14th and 46 points off the top in 2014–15. This was like trying to scale Everest, unacclimatised, without experience, directly from base camp.
And then there was pedigree:
Think of this. Come the 2015–16 season no fewer than 43 clubs had won either of England’s major competitions, the League and the FA Cup. Leicester, though 132 years old, were not among them. They were more famous for ‘yo-yoing’ – bouncing between the top two divisions. Their combined total of 22 promotions and relegations was the fourth highest of any English club.
The old joke among fans was the authorities needed to invent a new tier, ‘Division One-and-a-half’, because that is where Leicester belonged. James Astill, Leicester-raised Washington correspondent of The Economist remembers ‘’Ow’s City, going down are we?’ as a standard local greeting from his youth.
Finally, the practicalities. Leicester were still playing ‘like a small team’, with the league’s worst pass success and average possession under 45 per cent – no champion had gone remotely close to letting the opposition dominate the ball like that.
Some said them winning would be like Buster Douglas flooring Mike Tyson, 17-year-old wildcard Boris Becker winning Wimbledon; John Daly driving all night as late call-up to make the US PGA – and then winning the thing. But these were individual sports and one-off tournaments; in team competition, played over ten months, how can you really shock the world? The Leicester underdogs would need to be champions week-upon-week. Try Douglas beating Tyson and still holding the belt 37 fights later, or Daly mounting a long reign as world No.1.
Even the closest football legend had little relevance: Nottingham Forest being English champions in 1977–78. Different era. Financial differences between big and small were not as pronounced – indeed Forest held the British transfer record in 1979. And Forest was the platform for a genius, Brian Clough, a character so outsize Muhammad Ali bantered about him on TV. Ranieri would prove how underrated he was – but genius? That’s a description of himself the gentle Italian would never claim.
And Leicester? The city of Leicester? A Rugby Union town. Produces the odd snooker player. A cricketer now and then. But football? Aside from an England captain, Gary Lineker, and a couple of legendary old goalkeepers, what had Leicester given the game?
Where was it anyway? North of Birmingham . . . no, south . . . wait, east . . . okay, kind of near Birmingham when you drive from London. Somewhere in the Midlands. A seldom-taken motorway sign. Crisps. Lineker. Kasabian. A cheese.
‘Welcome to Leicester: home to Europe’s largest covered outdoor market.’
‘Visit Leicester: birthplace of Daniel Lambert, Georgian England’s fattest man – come see his big trousers at Newarke Houses Museum.’
Tourists tended to stay on that motorway.
And for Britain in general it was just such a neutral place, with no accent, no character type, no landmark, no quirk, no historical event, to latch on to. A provincial city with the population (330,000) of a London borough. Nah, the remarkable doesn’t happen somewhere like that.
Petr Čech intercepted Schmeichel as he left the field. Hand on Schmeichel’s shoulder the Arsenal No.1 told his counterpart how well he had played. Goalkeeper’s Union, as they say. If there really was one, Schmeichel would be a shop steward: you won’t meet a keeper as passionate about the position, as annoyed when keepers are criticised, as him.
The previous week there had been another nice union moment. After Leicester stunned Manchester City, 3–1, on the pitch at the Etihad Stadium, Schmeichel hugged Joe Hart. Hart, a friend as well as rival, and despite City’s own ambitions, said, ‘All right, right, come on. If you are ever going to win it [the title], it’s now. Get it done. Get it done.’
Kasper is not a fairytales guy. Big, blond and straightforward, he deals with exactly what is in front of him – a pretty useful trait for a goalkeeper. To him, a lot of modern football is fluff. Take the made-for-TV routine of team line-ups and the ref ceremonially scooping the match ball from a plinth. ‘I still miss the days when you ran out. I hate walking out with the handshake. I would rather run out,’ Kasper says.
The plinth? ‘I can’t stand it,’ he continues. ‘I would rather just run out and get ready for the game. All the shenanigans before could very easily be scrapped for my liking.’
Here is how focused Kasper is.
He joined Leicester in 2011 and by the end of 2015–16 had played 111 home matches in the King Power Stadium. There, the 75-year-old ritual is a lone brass player heralding the players’ entrance with a haunting tune, the Post Horn Gallop. Leicester are The Foxes and (though it isn’t) it sounds like a hunting tune.
It is spine-tingling. Absolutely distinctive. Kasper had come out to it 111 times. Does he like it? ‘Um, I haven’t really thought if I liked it or not liked it.’
His father, Peter, maybe the greatest goalkeeper, has exactly this tunnel vision. Though the two are long sick of being compared there are unmistakable common traits between father and son.
One is dressing room presence. Kasper’s gee-up to teammates was typical. We have been dominant. We have been brilliant. ‘I mean, come on,’ says Kasper, ‘it was our third defeat of the season. Three defeats all season? That was still amazing.
‘I felt we’d been resilient. That it didn’t matter about the result . . . and there had been massive injustice in the decision [to send off Simpson].
‘Eleven v eleven – we were comfortable. They hadn’t had a shot on target at that point. Even with ten men, we were so comfortable.
‘Losing the game in the way we did? Seeing Arsenal celebrate as if they had basically won the league against us: that a victory against us could mean so much to them? It really showed how far we’d come. Watching them [celebrate], for me, was actually a boost.’
King recalls similar. ‘There were people after that game who thought they had won the World Cup! They were on their knees, pointing to the skies, doing victory laps of honour . . . We were like, “hold on”,’ he smiles.
If Kasper is Mr Positive then King is Mr Leicester. An even longer-serving player, a first-team regular since he was 19, nine years ago, King spreads his bright-eyed love of the club throughout the group.
They sat in their normal places in that Emirates dressing room. At the training ground it is different but for matches Leicester’s players are put in shirt number order. Next to Kasper sat Danny Drinkwater, ‘Drinky’, bluff Mancunian and self-confessed ‘moaner’ from a tough estate.
And Drinkwater is tough. At 5ft9in and 154lbs, he has the build of a welterweight and power to match. In the gym it is he who surprisingly challenges Morgan, Huth and Marcin Wasilewski, in the lifting stats.
Morgan sat next to him. Solid, powerful, never to be messed with but also caring, ‘Big Wes’ is, said former Leicester striker Andrej Kramarić, ‘the captain who never raises his voice’. At half-time, Ranieri lets Wes speak first. When players want something, it is Wes who goes to the manager. ‘The boys put some ridiculous requests in. Mainly days off,’ he tuts. But make no mistake: ‘They are my boys.’
Ranieri called him ‘Baloo’ and Claudio knows his Kipling. Baloo, in the Disney, is comical and lazy. But in Rudyard Kipling’s original Jungle Book he is ‘the sleepy brown bear who teaches wolf cubs the law’. Morgan, indeed, was nicknamed The Bear early in his career. ‘It’s a fantastic feeling to know someone has got your back,’ he says, of teammates. ‘And I have got their back.’
Next sat Huth, ‘Huthy’. An ironic, deeply funny German. King was in Chelsea’s junior ranks when Huth played in the first team. Once, the kids had to hold out jerseys for the senior players to autograph. ‘Huthy signed the shirt then drew on my face. I was walking round the training ground with permanent marker on my face thinking, “What if one of the big players sees me?”’ King grudgingly laughs.
Then sat Jamie Vardy, ‘Vards’. ‘I think if you gave him a lightbulb to hold it would light up,’ says Ranieri. Vards is the livewire, the joker, with the shark fin hair and predatory eyes. With the back story – from seventh-tier steel mill team to England hero – that Hollywood loves.
Journalists speaking to Vardy find he answers as he plays: disconcertingly quick, sharp and direct. All lean, fast muscle, he’s just a pared-down guy: 6 per cent body fat, 0 per cent bull.
A mild pair, Marc Albrighton and N’Golo Kanté, were at the next lockers. No club can live without an Albrighton. He, ‘Sharky’, is the good pro, the team man and family guy. He was carrying grief but did not burden anyone. Then Kanté, ‘NG’, so small, so quiet. A French agent (who we will return to later) arranged to meet him at St Pancras Station in London and there was Kanté, stepping incognito from a second-class carriage with no one bothering him.
Next to Kanté sat Simpson: a much-travelled full back famous for his superstitions like getting his hair cut by the same barber the night before every match, or wearing tape round his left wrist because he did it once as a kid and then played well. A bit OCD? ‘Not a bit,’ says Schmeichel. ‘[Superstitious] about everything. Every little ritual. Has to eat the same, do the same. I have a little giggle at him. He starts 48 hours before a game.’
Shinji Okazaki next to Simpson. Just ‘Shinji’ to the lads. Popular and given a standing ovation at the training ground when he passed his basic English language test. His efforts to embrace England have led to a taste for fish and chips. The most underrated footballer in the team, King says.
Then Christian Fuchs, ‘Fuchsy’. Goateed Austrian and self-consciously madcap guy. In an office he’d wear the musical socks. From his ‘wacky’ antics on social media he has even developed a clothing brand from his hashtag #NoFuchsGiven. Nice pun – though so is the German meaning of ‘Fuchs’. Appropriately it is ‘Fox’. Fuchs’ wife and kids live in Manhattan and he wants to quit football in a couple of years and become a kicker in the NFL.
Unlikely career path? Riyad Mahrez knows about them. The last of the starting players at the Emirates, he languished for years at a small team in a Paris banlieue estate, too artistic, too frail, for the mainstream. Skill won out, in the end, and Mahrez progressed all the way to English player of the year in 2015-16 – but his laidback, jokey nature did not change.
Laidback? Mahrez, just Riyad or ‘Ri’ to the lads, is famous for that at Leicester. So much does he love his sleep that he uses beds in the King Power Stadium for catnaps before some games.
A diverse but tight crew, the way Leicester rallied together at the Emirates was simply normal for them. It meant that by the time Ranieri had done his post-match interviews and arrived to address the group he really had no need to conjure any big speech. ‘There haven’t been many occasions when he has had to,’ Schmeichel says. ‘The dressing room polices itself quite well.’
King agrees and puts things rather neatly: ‘We kind of manage our own dressing room.’
Ranieri was impassive, standing arms crossed, buttoned overcoat, Roman mouth downturned, when Atkinson blew full-time. He was so lost in his thoughts he did not notice Arsène Wenger stride over. Wenger had to pat his back to jolt him to turn round for the post-match managers’ handshake.
Arsenal 2 Leicester 1. Ranieri, over the season, had silenced the derision that met his appointment and finally won English respect, but the game did seem another hard luck story in a long career of narrowly missing glory.
The game went like this: Arsenal, having overwhelmed Leicester with their attacking in a 5–2 victory at the King Power in September, tried doing the same again but encountered opponents who had very much evolved.
Arsenal worked the ball wide, got down the sides, crossed it in and cut it back, but Leicester’s defensive block was well chiselled now. Immovable. Arsenal could not beat Schmeichel and when a Sánchez shot ricocheted off Simpson, Morgan simply held his breath, fixed eyes on the ball and without flinching, let it thud into his stomach.
Kanté was everywhere: stealing, retrieving, driving forward on counterattacks, and in one of these Koscielny took him out and the ball ran clear for Vardy to hare into the box and trick Nacho Monreal into giving up a penalty. Vardy rammed it in for 1–0 but soon after Simpson was booked for a routine foul on Sánchez, then grabbed Giroud’s waist. Atkinson, technically correct, in practice severe, showed a second yellow card and then a red.
With ten men, Leicester stayed dogged but Arsenal began exposing their left side where only a young sub, Demarai Gray, protected Fuchs. Ranieri took Mahrez off to try and stiffen his defence with Marcin Wasilewski. Yet Fuchs was hesitant in getting out to Bellerín, and Gray naïve when tracking Walcott. Bellerín crossed, Giroud headed down, Walcott converted: 1–1.
King came on for Leicester and Welbeck for Arsenal. Schmeichel kept saving. Morgan, Huth, Kanté and Drinkwater kept blocking. Then in the last of four minutes’ stoppage time the Leicester discipline finally cracked. The culprit was Wasilewski.
Wasilewski, ‘Was’, a giant, square, 35-year-old Pole, was loved at the training ground, undisputed king of the weightlifting and clear club record holder for longest stint in Leicester’s cryotherapy chamber. The chamber, used for rehabilitation, is set at minus 135 degrees and if you possibly can you are supposed to do two minutes in there. ‘Was’ has managed five. According to legend, when he played for Anderlecht in Belgium he once lifted a small car.
Wasilewski’s cameo offered a rare chance for him to do his bit. As back-up to Morgan and Huth, he had played just one league game all season prior to Arsenal. And so maybe he was too eager. With Monreal set to cross, he charged from the box and ploughed into the Spaniard late and high. Özil, with the most beautiful delivery, pinpointed Welbeck and with the game’s last touch Welbeck headed in.
A Valentine’s Day cold and grey. Arsenal and Tottenham were both just two points off Leicester now. Romance retreating. ‘There is nothing quite like football for filling your heart with joy one minute and tearing your heart to shreds the next,’ Lineker tweeted.
Legacy, James Kerr’s seminal book about New Zealand’s All Blacks, tells of how they ‘sweep the sheds’. Every dressing room these great rugby players use, they clean up afterwards. The idea being, no one looks after All Blacks, All Blacks look after themselves.
But, come on, Fearless is not about gods of their sport. This was Leicester. They did not tidy the sheds. But they did mess about in them.
They were men together. Nothing more, nothing less. Their locker area was never solemn long. ‘There isn’t a secret,’ Drinkwater shrugged. ‘It’s just that we are a bunch of lads that get along.’
Turning selfies into banter that becomes motivational rocket fuel? Very them. Speak to players and you get little vignettes that hint at a giant group spirit. Here are three: The Flying Socks. The Fitness Stats. The Driving Fines.
The Flying Socks.
- On Sale
- Nov 22, 2016
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Bold Type Books