With the 5,000/1 odds Leicester were given last summer against winning the Premier League, now widely documented as bookmaker’s face paying out enough winnings for a fan to place a down-payment on a house, perhaps the biggest indication of where this set of champions go next is found in the bookie windows. Leicester are currently shorter to get relegated at 25/1 than they are to repeat their triumph, at 33/1
“Surely this is an absolute one-off season” says the person who sets these odds, Andrew Wright of SkyBet, but it has been such a season of wonder for Leicester that it would take the most heartless of pragmatists to start concerning themselves with what comes next.
They will have to cope with the expectation that comes with a title defence, the demands of mid-week European excursions and that all comes after they have had to dodge the vultures that may attempt to circle around their players.
They could even be here to stay. Leicester’s Thai duty-free magnates already have the financial muscle to meet new contract demands, hence the £80,000-a-week they handed out to Jamie Vardy in February, and are set to reap the rewards of the £92 million Premier League prize money and the boost of competing in next year’s Champions League.
The global exposure borne from this achievement will open new revenue and advertising streams while there are plans to extend the 32,000 stadium that has been packed full for the season and is awaiting possible visits from Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Roma in the coming year.
Other clubs will be working hard to reign them back in of course; Manchester City have recruited Pep Guardiola to work under their open cheque-book whilst Manchester United may have Jose Mourinho in tow. Tottenham seem intent on sticking around under the brilliant Mauricio Pochettino, Liverpool have Jurgen Klopp, Arsenal could move on from Arsene Wenger and become stronger whilst it is hard to imagine Chelsea enduring such a painful season as this one under Antonio Conte.
But whatever happens next the fact is nobody can take away the Premier League winner’s medal that will hang from the neck of Vardy who four years ago was playing non-league football for Fleetwood Town and was so overawed by his move up to the King Power Stadium that he began to turn up drunk to training when he first joined.
Marc Albrighton, released from Aston Villa last summer, Danny Simpson, who was overlooked for Nedum Onouha at QPR and shuffled out for less than £2 million, and Andy King, who has been with the Foxes since their League One days at the end of the last decade, will all share the winning podium with Vardy after the home game with Everton on Saturday.
Riyad Mahrez, a reluctant bargain basement £375k signing from Le Havre after so many coaches and scouts had turned him away for his sleight physique, will add a winner’s medal to his mantelpiece alongside his PFA Player of the Year award and the winger’s rise has been so captivating that his achievement earned praise from the president of Algeria for inspiring his nation.
Captivating and inspiring
And that’s what Leicester have done- captivated and inspired in a way that transcends football. It must be pointed out that their billionaire owners have been lavish enough to fund the league’s 8th most expensive recruitment program over the past 2 seasons but the true sense of wonder lies in how they’ve championed spirit and togetherness, playing a simple but effective way using a sustained core of players with Claudio Ranieri smiling on from the dugout and doing his best to keep a lid on the hysteria.
Ranieri was derided by many, including myself, when he accepted Leicester’s call to replace Nigel Pearson last summer but he has answered those critics majestically whilst never losing his dignity or appeal.
The Italian has took an axe to the ‘tinkerman’ image that he picked up during his time with Chelsea, the 27 changes he has made to his starting XI only bettered by Manchester United’s 26 in the Premier League’s inaugural year. Leicester have 10 outfield players who have started 27 or more games.
That continuity has allowed the momentum to build and much is owed to the work of Matt Reeves, Leicester’s head of fitness and coaching, and the hugely detailed work carried out in their state of the art medical and sports science departments. They have honed for example the extraordinary fitness levels of Shinji Okazaki, a Duracell bunny of a second striker, and N’Golo Kante, the midfielder who never stops running and has recorded the most tackles in the Premier League this season with 158.
The Frenchman, who head of recruitment had to persuade Ranieri to part with £6 million for, also tops the list of interceptions with 148 and is integral to Leicester’s game-plan of sitting deep to wait for a mistake in possession before springing into an electric counter-attack.
Only Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion have seen less of the ball than Leicester this season but with Danny Drinkwater operating alongside the tireless Kante and using his vision to utilise the lightning pace of Vardy, top-scorer of 22 goals, it has been devastatingly effective. Mahrez, with 17 goals and 11 assists, has sprinkled the gold-dust on top.
The defence has also played its part, tightening up to keep 12 clean sheets in their last 18 games after achieving just 3 in their opening 18 when gung-ho and reckless abandon football was on the menu.
Ranieri tweaked it however, moving his defence deeper and Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, an unfancied centre-back combination allowed to play to their strengths of cutting off the room in-behind and forcing opposition teams to go wide to send crosses in, have excelled beyond any realistic expectation to see the Foxes over the line.
On Saturday Morgan will step forward to lift a trophy that seemed to be in for a future of being passed around a closed shop of elite clubs that can afford wage bills of around the eye-watering level of £200 million; whilst Leicester’s for this season stood at £48.2 million, with only Norwich, Watford and Bournemouth paying their players less over this campaign.
The 32 year old will deserve every moment of it to and so too will Ranieri, a manager who now has his first top flight trophy from 30 years of management and has never compromised his principles across a career that has taken in 16 teams.
Arriving in the east midlands he was wise enough to not change too much of what Pearson left behind, his successor of course steered the club to safety last season with 7 wins from their last 9 games and sowed some of the seeds that led to the extraordinary momentum that has swept Leicester to this historic triumph.
But it is his triumph and so too his players and the fans and everybody at the club who worked so hard to deliver it. Challenges will come and a fall from grace may await them, but for now they can revel in every accolade, every plaudit and every drip of praise rightfully handed to them.
Something of this size may never happen again but people will never forget Leicester’s incredible story.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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