Leicester City, champions of England. Even now, more than week since this was confirmed, something about it doesn’t quite ring true. It’s not a bad thing though; if anything their success has been the kick up the backside that the game has needed. What makes this remarkable achievement even more special is that its orchestrator was the type of person that is never supposed to succeed in the cut-throat world of professional sport; a nice bloke.
Leicester is a team that only 14 months ago was staring down the face of an inevitable relegation, their return to the top flight after a decade of disappointment in the lower tiers not quite matching the fairytale script written for them at the beginning of the campaign. They had gone 8 games without a win and their manager, the bulldog-like Nigel Pearson, was more interested in getting to grips (quite literally) with the opposition than scaring his own players into turning their fortunes around. However, as the first daffodils of 2015 started to bloom across the country, The Foxes emerged from an elongated hibernation and started to play the sort of football that had secured their passage back into the Premier League. Indeed, their sudden upturn in form was so remarkable that a quick glance at the end-of-season table seems to suggest they were never in any real danger of relegation as they finished 14th.
Despite leading his team to the second greatest escape in the history of the Premier League – West Brom’s 2004/5 effort will take some serious beating – Pearson was relinquished of his duties at the end of the season, something that may have been caused by the large number of back-page headlines he found himself on the receiving end of. The Nottingham-born manager seemed to thoroughly enjoy causing controversy but, like a moth drawn to light, this was only ever going to prove to be fatal. The news of his departure was met with content by a number of Leicester fans; that is, until his replacement was announced. Claudio Ranieri, the 64 year-old known as ‘The Tinker Man’ for his policy player rotation, was the man charged with helping the club avoid the drop for a second consecutive year. It was not a popular decision, especially as only a few months earlier his Greece side had lost at home to the Faroe Islands, a nation of less than 50,000, in a European Championship Qualifier. Subsequently, The Blues were quickly touted as relegation favourites whilst fans, journalists and ‘experts’ alike slaughtered the Italian, some even going as far as saying that he would be sacked within the first month of the season.
How foolish they all look now. Not only has Ranieri silenced his doubters by accomplishing the objectives set by the chairman at the start of the season, the fact that he has achieved the impossible by winning the league with a team with no discernible superstars has completely humiliated them. Not only that, but he has done it with a smile on his face throughout. At no point did the Italian seem remotely fazed by anything and it was so refreshing to see him having a laugh and a joke with the press. So often managers and players alike give interviews with the enthusiasm of a teenager being asked to read poetry whilst looking like they would rather the journalist physically assaulted them instead of having to answer more of their questions.
Ranieri has also single-handedly dispelled the myth that money elicits success in football. The fact that Leicester’s second most expensive signing, the £9 million Andrej Kramaric, spent the entire season on loan in Germany is testament to that. Ranieri recognised that the club already had a formula that worked, as proved by their dramatic run towards the end of last season, and instead chose to build up on that. He brought in players such as Christian Fuchs and Shinji Okazaki, experienced names but never likely to set the world alight, who matched the ethos of the club; hard-working individuals who play for the team, not themselves. The entirety of the Leicester squad costs less than Manchester City defenders Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Managala with plenty to spare, yet if this pair was in the centre of The Foxes’ defence they would be a weaker team.
With ridiculous sums now being spent on players with no discernible track records, it can be easy to forget that football is a team game. A big price tag comes with a huge responsibility to live up to it and the majority of players cannot cope with that. Ranieri was well aware that and instead gave greater responsibility to players who were already at the club, a decision that certainly paid off. Kasper Schmeichel was in the form of his life in goal, although admittedly his role was somewhat limited thanks to the indomitable Robert Huth and Wes Morgan in front of him. Danny Drinkwater regularly displayed the sort of talent that once convinced Manchester United to sign him, whilst Marc Albrighton finally lived up to his potential on the wing. As for Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, their unbelievable seasons have already been well documented and there’s not much more to add that hasn’t already been said. The entire team got behind their manager and repaid the faith he showed them from the get-go. That’s what football should really be about.
Whether or not Leicester can even come close to repeating this next season is something we shall just have to wait and find out but, until then, football should revel in one of the greatest feel-good stories it has ever produced. Thanks to a manager dubbed as an ‘uninspiring’ choice less than a year ago, they have pulled off one of the most unimaginable shocks in the history of the game. To misquote two cliches, Claudio Ranieri has proved that, if you’re good enough, you’re never too old.