Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Leicester City: The Real-Life Harchester United



As Leicester City fans awoke yesterday with throbbing heads, but joyous hearts, they must have been asking themselves one question – was that all just a dream?

Even as they rubbed their bleary eyes and turned on the TV to endless news reports about how City, the club that had been bottom of the Premier League for more than 140 days of the previous season and were 5,000-1 to become champions, had defied the odds to claim the title, they must have thought they were either still asleep or in some bizarre parallel universe.

When they saw the empty champagne bottle on the kitchen table, flashbacks of the huge party the night before, sparked by Eden Hazard's amazing late equaliser against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge, may have followed, but it was still too surreal to be true.

But it is. It is all true. Leicester City are Premier League champions. Even now, as you read these words, you are probably shaking your heads in wonderment. You and the rest of the world.
 
How has a team of players who have all been rejected or passed over by other clubs been able to come together to defy the odds and pull off the greatest sporting shock in history?

How has a manager who was sacked after just four games in charge of Greece been able to pull together the same set of players who had faced what seemed to be certain relegation the season before and turned them into champions?

How has a club that has won just three League Cups in its 132-year history been able to break the dominance of English football's elite, to claim the ultimate prize and become only the sixth team to lift the Premier League trophy?

It is an astonishing achievement which has left everyone scratching their heads in bewilderment and clapping their hands in admiration at the same time.

The scenes outside the King Power Stadium on Monday night and yesterday were amazing. City fans descended on their stadium to worship their club and celebrate what many would admit was the greatest moment of their lives. The party is set to continue for quite some time.



People from all walks of life, from different faiths and cultural backgrounds have all been brought together by one amazing achievement.

The people of Leicester have puffed up chests and heads held high because their football team has put the city on the map.

The world's media has camped out for weeks in the city waiting for the moment when the fairytale would come true. The Leicester City story has captured the imagination because it is the greatest rags to riches underdog story in sporting history.

Less than 15 years ago, City were a club on its knees. The very future of the club was in doubt. The thought of challenging for a Premier League title in future years seemed ridiculous. There was the danger of there not being a future.

Then there was relegation to League One for the first time in the club's history in 2008, another dark time. It is fair to say there have been more downs than ups.

That is why the rest of the football community will not begrudge City this incredible moment. City fans, who wear their shirts with pride, have been applauded as they walk down the street. The travelling fans and Ranieri's incredible team have been given standing ovations by rival fans at grounds around the country, including at Old Trafford last Sunday.

Football supporters have cast aside the usual tribalism because they recognise that what City have achieved is extraordinary.

It can potentially change the landscape of the Premier League. The elite clubs must now reflect on their approach and raise their game, while the clubs of City's ilk now have belief that they can aspire to follow their lead.

They can dream as well.

When the Thai owners came to the club in 2010 there was some scepticism.

Previous foreign ownerships at English clubs had gone spectacularly wrong. They had been disasters.

The Srivaddhanaprabha family have been astonishing. Not only have they committed their substantial wealth, writing off £103million of loans into equity, they have cherished the history and traditions of the club.

They may not come from an English football culture but they have shown great respect to the supporters.

Even when their judgement was being questioned last summer as they replaced Nigel Pearson – who deserves an immense amount of credit for turning the club around – with Ranieri, they have been proven right. They are shrewd operators.



As for Ranieri, finally the bridesmaid has become the bride and on Saturday, when the Premier League trophy is presented to captain Wes Morgan he will have his big day.

Four times he has been in a title race and four times he has finished second, in Italy, France and England. Finally, Ranieri, the man who has entertained everyone this season with his genial, lovable antics, colourful turn of phrase and warmth, is a champion.

After the departure of Esteban Cambiasso, City's player of the year last season, Ranieri sat before the media and tried to raise spirits. "Cambiasso is a great champion and now we have to find another," he said. He had 24 of them right under his Roman nose.

To a man they have been magnificent. From Kasper Schmeichel in goal to Jamie Vardy scoring 22 goals and leading the attack, from the skipper Wes Morgan to the longest-serving player Andy King, who has been with City through their League One, Championship and now Premier League title triumphs, from the mercurial winger Riyad Mahrez, the greatest £400,000 signing in the modern game, to the veracious predator that is N'Golo Kante. Every single one of them has played a huge part.

They have all shown a burning desire, a hunger that has been the driving force behind their success. They have all faced disappointment and rejection but have had the character to keep going. That is why they didn't buckle during the season.

Those dark moments provided an inner strength that has proved so crucial. While their rivals seemed to wilt under pressure, City were able to stay strong.

Around the stadium there are now poster pictures of each player hanging from the lampposts, but the memory of what these players have achieved will live on long after those flags are pulled down. As Gary Lineker has said, they will now be immortals.

Finally, the supporters. The Blue Army. They have played their role. When City have been behind in games they have roared even more.

When the players have needed their help, they have been there. The sight of them remaining in the away ends singing long after their rivals have gone will live long in the memory.

The secret to Leicester City's success is easy. It has just been one glorious team effort by everyone.

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