The Leicester miracle

Leicester City, in all their history, have never remotely come close to being EPL champions. The best they have done was in remote 1928-29 when they were runners-up, a mere point behind the winners Sheffield Wednesday. Nor have they ever won the FA Cup though they were beaten finalists in 1949 and 1961, unlucky on both occasions.

A natural-born striker of dynamic pace and huge initiative who prefers to play through the middle, Jamie Vardy has electrified Leicester City.   -  Getty Images

Leicester City’s dramatic win at home to ailing Chelsea put them spectacularly on top of the Premiership. Their recently-appointed manager, Claudio Ranieri, once nicknamed The Tinkerman at Chelsea when he made so many adjustments to his teams, refuses to envision an eventual title. Certainly history is against such an astonishing achievement. For, Leicester in all their history have never remotely come close to such a feat. The best they have done was in remote 1928-29 when they were runners-up, a mere point behind the winners Sheffield Wednesday. Nor have they ever won the FA Cup though they were beaten finalists in 1949 and 1961, unlucky on both occasions. In 1949 because after a sensational semi-final victory against the then League champions Portsmouth they lost their star turn Don Revie, future Leeds and England manager, with a broken nose which gushed blood. In 1961 against Spurs at Wembley, they lost their right-back Chalmers and were reduced to 10 men; no substitute then.

Jamie Vardy scoring in 11 consecutive games and all but reaching the 12-match record established in the 1930s by Jimmy Dunne, an Irish international for Sheffield United, has been what you might call a Cinderella story. Rejected by Sheffield Wednesday his local club for being too small, he played for years as a part-timer for obscure non-League teams, combining it with often gruelling physical work in factories. Which meant rushing off after finishing his labours to train in the evening. It took years before, after service with the obscure likes of Halifax Town, he scored more than 30 goals in a season in the so-called Conference, one below the Football League, when Fleetwood Town bought him. He rewarded them with those 30 goals, propelling them into the Football League bottom division and moving Leicester into signing him; with dramatic results. A natural-born striker of dynamic pace and huge initiative who prefers to play through the middle, he has electrified Leicester whose most distinguished old boy Gary Lineker, Leicester born, is one of his greatest admirers, a man who scored nearly 50 goals for England, now a TV star, who says that if Leicester win the League, he will present the TV Match of the Day programme in his underwear.

Nothing daunts Vardy. He has played and scored despite the pain from an injured hip which was treated by freezing in a so-called cryotherapy chamber. “I couldn’t even tell you what the stuff’s called,” he said after a masterly game at Newcastle. “But it helps you in your recovery so fair play to the club for getting that in.” He has yet to play in his favoured central role for England, but Roy Hodgson, after certain doubts, now seems ready to accommodate him rather than waste him out on the left-wing.

Then there is the splendidly accomplished Algerian Riyad Mahrez, another player who has emerged from relative obscurity, technically exceptional, now under Ranieri tending to play wide rather than in the number 10 role he filled when Nigel Pearson was the manager.

He grew up on a tough housing estate in Northern Paris and like Vardy made his way up from minor clubs. His skill was never in doubt but was he too fragile to succeed? The death of his father, who had inspired him, was a blow which he surmounted. Gifted with a supreme left-foot, he rose from the local Sarcelles team to 4th division Quiper and, eventually to 2nd division Le Havre whence Leicester bought him for a modest fee. They worked hard even painfully on him to build up his physical resistance.

Leicester manager then was Nigel Pearson, who was the real architect of the current side. Something of a rough diamond, he saved the team from menacing relegation last season with a late burst of sustained successes. He was known to fall out with journalists and once, absurdly during a match, jumped on a former player operating against his team and ‘playfully’ put his hands round his throat. It ended in tears, you might say. On tour in Thailand at the end of the season three young Leicester players including Pearson’s own son were guilty of insulting behaviour to several Thai girls. All three were sacked by the club’s Thai Owners and shortly afterwards, Pearson was sacked himself. Dancing on his grave so to speak, a prominent columnist wrote that it served Pearson right, that he was a bully and of all things, a narcissist! Narcissus in Greek mythology being one who admired his own reflection in a pool. Hardly Pearson.

Ranieri took over, despite abject failure with the Greek international side which had been eliminated from the EURO Championships, even beaten at home by the Faroe Islands. But Ranieri, who a season before billionaire Roman Abramovich had bought Chelsea, had taken them to runners-up in the Premierships, has steered the Leicester team well. Of Vardy, Martin Keown, ex-Arsenal and England centre-back, says, “He buzzed around all game and although he might only have one chance to sting you, he almost always punishes you. Nearly all of his goals are lone strikes in games but they have had a huge impact on Leicester’s season.”

As has the elegant Mahrez, who himself scored a hat-trick against Swansea. Chelsea found the two Leicester centre-backs Wes Morgan and the German Robert Huth, a recent arrival, formidable stars in Leicester’s important win, and note the contribution of the central midfielder N’Golo Kante, signed this season for what now looks a bargain of GBP5.6 million from the modest French team Caen. He’s possessed of exceptional stamina, covers huge areas of the pitch which says Keown ‘is key for helping the transition from defence to attack.’