Leicester City in ‘surreal dreamland’ ahead of trip to title rival Arsenal
William Armstrong - LEICESTER
Jamie Vardy (C) is the Premier League’s top scorer this season, despite costing just £1 million when Leicester bought him from fifth-tier club Fleetwood Town. AFP photoIt’s difficult to talk about Leicester City’s remarkable season without slipping into cliché. So much is being written about our little unfashionable club that it is hard to find original words. For me it’s also difficult to write objectively about the subject. I was born in the Royal Infirmary in Leicester city center, within sight of the club’s ragged but charismatic old Filbert Street stadium (now sadly demolished). I was later a season ticket holder during the wilderness years. To be where we are today – five points clear at the top of the Premier League with 13 matches remaining, on course to win the title – is far beyond anyone’s wildest hopes. Ahead of a key match away at Arsenal on Sunday, Leicester fans are afraid of waking up from a surreal, beautiful dream. OK enough clichés.
The atmosphere was very different last summer. Clouds of trepidation hung over Leicester when Claudio Ranieri was appointed as the new manager in July 2015. I can’t remember speaking to a single person who thought it was a good move back then. The 64-year-old Italian hadn’t managed in the Premier League for over 10 years and he was coming off the back of a series of career failures. Most recently he had a disastrous four-game run as coach of the Greece national team - sacked after losing in Athens to the Faroe Islands. The signs looked bad.
Ranieri’s predecessor Nigel Pearson was an eccentric character with a loose tongue, but most Leicester supporters were fond of him. At the end of last season Pearson masterminded a heroic “Great Escape” from the relegation zone and fans were sad to see him go. After Ranieri’s arrival, many supporters feared the worst. Most pundits predicted a miserable season ending in relegation. I did too.
That wouldn’t be the end of the world. Leicester City has always been a “yo-yo” club, seesawing between English football’s top two divisions (think an English version of Konyaspor). The best we could ever wish for was to linger around the Premier League’s mid-table for a few seasons before eventually getting relegated again. Other than that, we learnt to enjoy isolated moments of glory. We thought beating Manchester United at home 5-3 in September 2014 was about as good as it could get: A brief afternoon in the sunshine giving one of the Big Boys a bloody nose.
This season has proved us all wrong.
It’s not only the club that’s in dreamland; the city of Leicester is also not used to being in the spotlight. Like most provincial English towns, Leicester once played an important industrial role. Its heyday was in the 19th century and early 20th century when it was the center of the hosiery and textile trade, (years before that industry upped sticks to Bağcılar). Materials from around the British Empire were imported to Leicester through steam train and canal, and from Leicester manufactured products were exported across the globe. The city’s magnates became wealthy and the working classes had plenty of good factory jobs.
Like Britain itself, Leicester rose with the industrial revolution; like Britain it has been looking for a role ever since. Former clothes factories can still be seen around the city center – now they are either derelict or converted to modern offices and student apartments. Leicester was among the first places in Britain affected by mass immigration in the 1960s; today over 30 percent of the population are of Indian or Pakistani origin. Unlike some similar British towns, locals are proud of Leicester’s general lack of racial tension. Still, in modern Britain’s post-industrial vacuum, places like Leicester struggle to find an identity. Most ambitious local folks leave for bigger cities like London or Manchester. Passion for the football club is one of the few things that still binds people together.
And this season that is truer than ever. Fans are proud of the fact that we haven’t won matches by defensively “parking the bus,” unlike the boring Greece side that won Euro 2004 or the dreadful 2012 Champions League-winning Chelsea side. This season Leicester City have played with rapid, thrilling efficiency, spearheaded by a lethal triumvirate of midfielder N’golo Kante, winger Riyad Mahrez, and striker Jamie Vardy.
And we haven’t bought our way to success. Our first choice 11 cost a total of just £23 million in transfer fees. That’s less than half the price of Raheem Sterling, bought by Manchester City for £49 million. We picked up Mahrez - the league’s Player of the Season so far - from the French second division for just £400,000. That means you could have bought 122 Riyad Mahrezes for one Raheem Sterling. When we played Chelsea earlier this season our entire team cost less than Diego Costa. Jamie Vardy may look like he just got out of prison but he’s the league’s top scorer this season, despite costing just £1 million when we bought him from semi-professional club Fleetwood Town in May 2012 (Fleetwood play in the English Conference; the equivalent of Turkey’s TFF 3. Lig).
So this season’s fairytale really is almost too perfect to be true. The question is whether it can continue. Last week we stunned Manchester City with a 3-1 demolition job. Amazingly, the bookmakers now say minnows Leicester City are favorite to win the Premier League title with three months of the season left. The way things are looking at the moment, we’ll be disappointed to “just” qualify for the Champions League.
We are not used to the pressure. And that pressure will only get more intense. The closer we get to the end of the season, the more it will dawn on the players that they might just do it. Let’s see how they handle it against Arsenal this weekend.