Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The team that never quit.

Before players walk out onto the field at Leicester City’s home ground – King Power Stadium – they walk through a set of double-doors with three simple words written above them; Foxes Never Quit. A brief and often overlooked motto for the opposition, but not for the Leicester City class of 2015/16. They are a powerful and ingrained message that has driven the belief behind their entire, incredible Premier League-winning season.

The final message before entering the King Power Stadium.
Image: LCFC.com
But it was not this season that the current crop of Leicester City players learnt how to never give up. For that, you have to look back to the end of the 2014/15 season. With nine games left to play, they looked to be dead and buried. Certain for relegation and headed for The Championship.

Not so. Then coach, Nigel Pearson, led the side through a relegation escape almost half as crazy as this season. It was then, that Leicester City learnt how to fight; how to scrap; how to play desperate. They went on a run – winning seven out of nine games – to narrowly avoid the drop to obscurity. Their season finished with a belief-instilling 5-1 victory over Queens Park Rangers. Belief that they would be quickly called upon come the 2015/16 season.

When Claudio Ranieri took over from Nigel Pearson in the summer, he was given one goal by the club’s owners. Avoid relegation. So he set a target: 38 points. The touted number that would ensure survival for another year. In what now looks like a masterstroke, Ranieri had a clause inserted into his contract that would have him pocket an extra £100,000 pounds for every position Leicester finished above 17th. A salary bonus that no man could now be more deserving of than the 64-year-old Italian.

The appointment of Ranieri to the club was seen as a backwards step by some, with many of the club’s greats snarling at the news. Every footballing pundit in the world had them penned in to finish in the bottom three, with relegation not only predicted but expected. The bookies, as we now know, had them listed at 5000-1 to win the title. More likelihood of Elvis being found alive they said. No one gave them a hope.

Ranieri has taken Leicester and himself to a maiden major title.
Image: TheSun.co.uk
But Ranieri went about his business. He knew he had a good base to work with; a side that had shown they could play and that had a hunger inside them when it was called upon. Identifying the side’s strengths and weaknesses can be a point of achievement for the veteran manger, but playing a full season based upon them without changing the tactics – when he had long been known as ‘The Tinkerman’ for a history of changing his line-ups – can be heralded as the greatest move in his long managerial career.

But to chart the course of Leicester’s outrageous season, you can’t look past the progress of their title aspirations on a month-by-month basis.

In October, a dream was born.
In November, a thought stemmed.
In December, a consideration pondered.
In January, a hope lingered.
In February, a belief grew strong.
In March, a prospect rose.
In April, a probability beckoned.
In May, a dream became a reality.

Or maybe that’s looking too broadly, maybe you have to take the game-by-game approach that Ranieri adopted. With his side on the verge of changing footballing history, the manger continued to reiterate that the club would not be looking any further ahead than the next match. And how it worked.

Over the course of the season, Leicester beat long-standing heavyweights: Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City. Many have said their best work was in the games that they didn’t lose. Drawing with Arsenal, Manchester United and swagger of others.

Opening their season with a 4-2 win over Sunderland at home, we saw a glimpse of what we never knew was to come. A magical performance that built from their form of the previous season. A highly-spirited team display.

Then came the come-from-behind 2-2 draw with Southampton on Day 9 when Vardy played possessed with passion. Mahrez’s crafty double in the 3-2 win against West Brom on Day 11 in the derby.

Who can forget Vardy’s record-breaking goal against Manchester United on Day 14 back in November? With the weight of expectation, Vardy displayed the coolness that would be representational of his season at large when he scored for the 11th consecutive game. The goal itself a representation of Leicester’s deadly pet-play of the long ball to the nifty striker.

A week later Mahrez and Vardy were at their best, in an assist-filled class act that saw them down Swansea 3-0 away on Day 15. In reality it should have been five or six such was their efforts.

They didn't do it on their own, but they'll sure be remembered for it.
Image: Express.co.uk
They backed-it-up the following week with a goal each against the defending-premiers Chelsea to light up the King Power Stadium on Day 16.

Vardy’s absolute screamer formed part of his double against Liverpool on Day 24 when they took down Jurgen Klopp’s supposed re-born side.

But don’t think it was just the Vardy & Mahrez show, towering defender Robert Huth bagged a brace in a 3-1 win over Manchester City on their own turf. That was Day 25 and when things really got serious for The Foxes.

They lost just one game since. A reality-checking but fighting defeat to Arsenal at The Emirates. Oh what a bump in the road that now seems.

All up, 13 players have scored for Leicester this season. With Leonardo Ulloa and Shinji Okazaki the best complements to Vardy (22) and Mahrez’s (17) combined 39.

However, on Day 34 of the Premier League season against West Ham United, a red card to star-striker Jamie Vardy look to have put a jolted-halt to their unbelievable momentum.

When referee John Moss delivered the red card to Vardy, not only did he secure a key-place in the Hollywood blockbuster in the years to come, he delivered a knife through Leicester City fans’ hearts. That knife was twisted and turned when Andy Carroll and Aaron Cresswell put West Ham in front just 20 minutes later.

But in a reflection of just how crazy Leicester City’s season has been, they were handed a 94th minute injury-time penalty by the man who once looked like the only way he would ever leave the midlands city was in a six-foot casket.

When Andy Carroll bumped Jeffrey Schlupp at the corner of the box without even attempting to play at the ball, he effectively saved Leicester City’s title chances. Or maybe that gong belongs to referee Moss for blowing the mere square-up penalty?

No, it deserves to go to Leicester City the team, because a champion team needs people to stand up when others can’t. It needs people who can react when called upon, who are humble and content enough to simply play their role – however small that may be. And that’s what Leonardo Ulloa did when he stepped forth to take the pressure-engulfing penalty in the absence of Vardy. It’s what he’s done all season when called upon by Ranieri. A team-man, in a team full of men who are all about nothing but the team.

They played for each other, with passion and pride.
Image: Leicester City Mercury.
If Leicester City don’t get that 94th minute penalty against West Ham and Ulloa doesn’t drive that ball into the back of the net, Tottenham would still be in the race for the title today.

But then you could say that about the draw Leicester scrapped home with against Aston Villa, or the 89th minute winner and only goal of the game that got them home against Norwich.

Perhaps the most intriguing story of the journey is how when early in the season a frustrated Claudio Ranieri offered a reward to his players before the Day 10 match against Crystal Palace. The gentle manager had become increasingly fed-up with his players letting in as many goals as they scored, so he set them a task to not let in a goal. Score as many as you like, just don’t let one in. If they did, he would shout them all Pizza. A reward for the players and a favourite cuisine for the former Juventus, Roma, and Internazionale gaffer.

When the players lived up to the challenge, the manager made good on his word. Except there was one catch; they would not be delivered the pizza’s, they would have to make them themselves. In a team-bonding session that no doubt formed part of the close bond they built throughout the season, the players headed to a local pizza shop in Leicester Square where Ranieri had pre-arranged for the playing group to mix and throw the dough.

Which is where this story completes itself; food.

While the players were quite literally enjoying Jamie Vardy having a party when they watched Chelsea bury Spurs hopes of a maiden Premier League title and make fruition of their own, Ranieri was back in Italy having dinner with his mum. Bless him.

In a true-showing of both his quirkiness and grounded-sense of decency, Ranieri refused to watch the Tottenham match and instead chose to fly back to Italy and enjoy some time with the one that has loved him the most. But that will all change next Saturday when 32,262 Leicester City fans watch his side lift the Premier League trophy for the first time in the club’s 153-year existence.

Bravo, Claudio; Bravo, Leicester; and Bravo to the best sports story we’ve ever known.

From the side that never, ever quit. The Foxes.