"It always seems impossible until it's done. ~ Nelson Mandela
Leicester City had just got promoted to the Premier League in 2014-15 after five years in the Championship trying to make the leap to the elite division. As has usually been the norm with newly promoted teams, they were scraping the barrel in the league. Everything seemed to follow a predictable graph; a club gets promoted only to be relegated the next year. No team in Premier League history had been at the bottom for that long (140 days) and avoided relegation.
It is here that the Fairytale of the Foxes began. Then managed by Nigel Pearson, Leicester City went on a streak - winning seven times in their last nine matches. The English fans called it the great escape as Leicester finished 14th and stayed up for one more year. A run like this calls for celebration and a goodwill tour to Thailand was organised by the late owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and Aiyawatt, his son - the vice-chairman of the club.
The tour turned out to be an embarrassment for the philanthropist billionaire when three Leicester players (Tom Hopper, Adam Smith, and the manger's son James Pearson) were accused and found guilty of racially abusing and exploiting female escorts in a hotel room in Bangkok. In the larger scheme of things, this unsavoury incident brought to the club the man who sparked the great underdog story.
Leicester immediately sacked the four (including the manager) and, after a brief search, ex-Chelsea coach Claudio Ranieri was named as the new gaffer. The news of the appointment was met with surprise by ex-Leicester and Barcelona player Gary Lineker as Ranieri was seen as a spent force, as last decade's relic.
It would be naïve to think that Leicester weren't helped by other variables. This story needed the confluence of a few, key aspects so that a fragile dream could soar; the dream of a tiny city in East Midlands, lying by river Soar, of reaping the ultimate reward for their steady support over the years for the club.
Things had started changing in 2010 when the Walkers Stadium was renamed the King Power Stadium after travel retail king Srivaddhanaprabha took over. The billionaire believed in karma. He had ensconced himself in the hearts of the locals by his support to the Leicester community. Yes, Buddhist monks had come to bless the pitch, but this was more than just spiritual juju from Chiang Mai.
The big six wither away
Other contenders to the title self-destructed. Manchester United were playing an ineffectively slow brand of football under Louis van Gaal. Manchester City deflated their title-delivering coach from last season, Manuel Pellegrini, by announcing that Pep Guardiola was arriving next season. Chelsea went through the third season syndrome and the spectacular implosion of José Mourinho.
Arsène Wenger's Arsenal had the best chance to win the league in such a scenario with only Mauricio Pochettino's Spurs to worry about, but the Gunners conspired to shoot themselves in the foot and then the North London neighbours punched each other to death. Liverpool were transitioning to the Jürgen Klopp era after coach Brendan Rogers was sacked in October.
Meanwhile, amongst these big headline-makers, undetected on the radar, Leicester had already begun their flight and were sailing fearlessly into the unknown. The rush and thrill of every win was tempered by the downplaying of the possibility of winning the league at every post-match conference by the friendly and smiling Ranieri.
The top clubs and commentators kept on thinking that Leicester's comeback wins early on in the season were just leftover luck from their great relegation escape. They thought that, eventually, Lady Luck will fly out from their stands to bless the perennial frontrunners.
That was not to be. But even besides the luck factor, players now had the confidence which comes with the realisation that there were living the greatest days of their lives. Strikers don't go on a record-breaking 11-match scoring streak like Jamie Vardy. The whole of Leicester and Vardy were having a party.
An eclectic mix of elites
The Foxes had extensively used analytics while recruiting and found an eclectic set of players. This was quite similar to the Oakland Athletics using sabermetrics to go on a 19-match unbeaten run in American League baseball in 2002 on the back of undervalued but talented players, captured brilliantly in the film Moneyball (2011).
The signing of Fleetwood Town's Vardy and Mahrez, along with the superb central midfielder N’Golo Kante, was a remarkable achievement in talent scouting. So was getting the signatures of Shinji Okazaki from Mainz and captain Wes Morgan, who had played a major portion of his career with local rivals Nottingham Forest. Things and people were coming together, although there was no kingpin orchestrating it. It, just, happened.
Leicester and Ranieri upended the conventional wisdom by not placing a premium on possession and completed passes. They ranked a lowly 18th out of 20 teams with only 46% possession and 19th in passing accuracy with only 71% of passes finding the target. Those stats also fed into the opponents underestimating them for a really long time. They had a false sense of security.
Clubs kept thinking that they will blitz the Leicester goal, forgetting that the Foxes are playing to their strengths. All they needed was one counter-attack. Invariably, they found more. They had the skills of Mahrez and the lightning speed of Vardy. Both flashed past defences, delivering match after match. They won seven games by a 1-0 margin.
Leicester’s lowest position all season was 7th and that was after match week 7, following a 5-2 home loss to Arsenal. It was all upwards from then on as they averaged 23 tackles per game and 21.8 interceptions – both Premier League season highs.
On 7 February 2016, Leicester City fans’ explosive reaction to their Argentine forward Leonardo Ulloa's 89th-minute winning strike at the King Power Stadium was registered as an earthquake with a seismic jolt of 0.3 on the Ritcher scale. Packed to the rafters, the stadium was now capable of minor, human-induced tremors.
This earthly achievement by a bunch of footballers doesn't really have any cosmic significance, but it felt pre-ordained and destined - something that is unlikely to happen until maybe the next time Halley's comet flashes by deep into the 21st century. There have been underdog stories before, but none like this. This is nonpareil in modern-day football.
The freakish nature of it all, that happening of a faint, but romantic possibility, of relegation-threatened and after-rans with 5000-1 odds making a championship run with such heart that they were every fan's second choice. If not my club, then let it be Leicester.
Leicester City | Matches 38 | Won 23 | Drawn 12 | Lost 3 | Goals 68 | Conceded 36 | Points 81
A win for egality
It is even a gleaming example that skewed capitalism can be defeated and left clueless on the floor. That sometimes in the impenetrable structures of elite football, there develops a crack through which slips a philosophy and a season which shows that there's something better to root for. Leicester's story did this with such toddler-like enthusiasm that it elevated itself to perhaps the greatest story in football ever told.
It was not a fluke, which by its nature is short-lived. This was a sustained miracle, when the constellations and the formation on the pitch just aligned, long enough, tight enough, and joyously enough, to create unseen imagery on a football pitch. It was 45-odd weeks of a feverish dream playing out in the most televised, and obscenely rich league in the world.
And yet, it didn't require millions of pounds to sustain. It subsisted and flourished on desire, prompted by good wishes, fuelled by exuberance, and managed by the gentle words of an Italian who had roamed the world and seen failures before delivering a league win as sweet as nectar.
For its sheer unpredictability and outlandishness, it is a courageous, once-in-a-few-generations sporting story because, while multiple Goliaths were roaming around, it was Leicester City who had the slingshot that beat them all.
Published 31 Mar 2020, 23:58 IST