In the landscape of modern football, it is a rarity to see teams with lesser financial resources succeed. Success in league competition is mostly synonymous with spending power. This is prevalent in the English Premier League more than any other league in the world. Due to the huge influx of Arab and American money, the gap between the uber-wealthy clubs and the rest of the competition seems to be ever-widening. To put the disparity into context, the “Big Six”—Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham— have splurged approximately 3.3 billion over the past five seasons. This figure is equal to the combined amount spent by the other 14 clubs in the 2019-20 edition of the Premier League. This difference in wealth makes it almost impossible for any club outside these traditional “Big Six” to have a shot at winning the league. Maybe, let’s say, a 1 in 5000 chance?
That’s what makes Leicester’s fairy-tale title run in 2016 arguably the most extraordinary underdog story in the history of professional sport. It’s much more impressive when you take into account that they were stranded in the depths of the Third Division of English Football not even eight years prior.
Leicester— located in the heart of England— is one of the oldest cities in the UK. It established itself as a consistently growing economy with the onset of the industrial revolution. Built on the foundations of the clothing and footwear industry, it weathered the major financial crises in the early 1900s. The city was built on the backs of hardworking and gritty people who came from all over the country in the pursuit of a better life. Leicester City Football Club embodies the spirit of the city. Nicknamed the Foxes, they have always played with passion, tenacity, and a never-ending pursuit of excellence. They had played all their seasons in the top two flights of English football until the 2008-2009 season.
On the 4th of May, 2008, the Foxes were relegated from the Championship— the second tier of English football. They had hit rock bottom. They were in unfamiliar territory. For the first time in their 136 year history, they were going to be playing third division football. Going through six managers in the previous 15 months did not help either. The prospect of promotion to the Championship the following season looked bleak. However, Leicester barely put a foot wrong. They marched up the league system and gave themselves multiple opportunities to get back into the top flight until they finally broke through in 2014. They were back in the Premier League after their seven-year exile under the stewardship of new owner and Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who provided just the financial backing necessary to be relevant again. Their stadium, formerly known as Walkers Stadium, was renamed King Power Stadium.
The founder-chairman of King Power Group from Thailand led an Asian consortium to buy the club from Milan Mandarić in August 2010, when Leicester was struggling in the Championship. He cleared their debts by loaning the club over £100 million in his first four years at the helm. He promised the people of Leicester, in 2014, that he would invest heavily in the club to bring them to the top five of the Premier League within three years. He ended up winning it in two.
Leicester’s first season back in the top flight of English football proved to be a roller coaster. They occupied the last position of the table on Christmas Day following a dismal run of form to start their campaign. They survived relegation by winning seven of their last nine matches of the season in what was called “one of the greatest escapes in Premier League history”.
Before the 2015-16 season, the Foxes appointed former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri to take charge of the team. It turned out to be a masterstroke despite initial speculation. They were 5000/1 favourites to win it all, and they shocked the world. They accomplished what was regarded impossible with a preferred starting 11 that cost a total of just 22 million— less than half of what Manchester City spent on Kevin De Bruyne that same summer.
The foundations for Leicester’s 2016 title win was laid by former manager Nigel Pearson and head of recruitment Steve Walsh. They were tremendous with their business in the transfer market, and they had a knack for recognising talent where others saw none. Jamie Vardy was signed for a mere £1 million, and Riyad Mahrez for just £400,000. In the 2015-16 offseason, Robert Huth permanently signed from Stoke City while the club brought in Shinji Okazaki (Mainz 05) and Christian Fuchs (Schalke 04) on free transfers. After weeks of persuasion, Walsh convinced Ranieri to dish out £5.6 million for N’Golo Kanté, which eventually proved to be the final piece of the puzzle.
Leicester had their title-winning squad, but they just didn’t know it yet. In his introductory press conference in July 2015, Ranieri even stated that a mid-table finish would be a success that season. Five months later, they sat perched atop the league, looking down on their competition. While Ranieri kept his expectations in check, the ambition of the team was growing stronger every day. Their team spirit and determination, encapsulated by their individual talent, was shining through.
Their fairy-tale run to the title featured massive victories against most of the “Big Six” clubs. They dispatched Manchester City in a 3-1 win in February 2016, in which Mahrez virtually bagged the PFA Player of the Year award with a virtuoso performance. This victory was four days after they beat Liverpool 2-0. Their campaign featured wins against perennial powerhouses—Chelsea and Tottenham—as well. However, it was their response to defeat that genuinely made them believe that they could win it all. On Valentine’s Day in 2016, the Foxes lost to Arsenal 2-1 on a 95th-minute winner by Danny Welbeck. Their lead at the top of the table was reduced to just 2 points. People wondered how they would respond to not only losing, but the gut-wrenching manner of the defeat. Their response, however, was emphatic. They won six and drew one of their next seven games to take 19 points out of a possible 21. Arsenal, on the other hand, only managed 9.
Leicester’s title bid was built on the back of consistency and a blistering counterattack. Leicester played in a compact 4-4-2 formation with four defenders, four midfielders, and two strikers. Their attack featured Okazaki and was spearheaded by Jamie Vardy, whose story is an inspiration in itself. From non-league obscurity to Premier League stardom. He bagged 22 goals which featured a record-breaking run of scoring in 11 consecutive matches. Their midfield four consisted of African sensation Riyad Mahrez and French dynamo N’Golo Kanté, alongside Danny Drinkwater and Marc Albrighton. Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs solidified Leicester’s backline in front of United legend Peter Schmeichel’s son, Kasper.
The Foxes of the East Midlands defied the odds. But then again, what exactly do odds represent? A number or a statistic can never express the unrelenting spirit and heart of this Leicester team. In a game that is overly obsessed with analytics, they were the outlier. In the end, only one table matters and Leicester City Football Club was on top of it. They won the Premier League on the 2nd of May 2016 following Tottenham’s draw with Chelsea, almost eight years after their relegation to League One. It was the most romantic title win of the Premier League era, and it was what football needed. A Cinderella Story in every meaning of the term. The image of the team lifting the trophy at King Power Stadium will be etched in every true football fan’s memory forever.
Following the title-winning season, Leicester suffered a few turbulent years which featured the sacking of Ranieri in 2017 and the death of beloved owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in a helicopter crash in 2018.
Since then, Leicester City Football Club has gone on to establish themselves as a force in the Premier League. They finished 5th in the 2019-20 season only falling out of the Champions League places on the last day of the season. But their success in 2016 is something that we might never see again. It was, simply put, a “footballing miracle”. They inspired people to dream, and they gave people something to believe in. They were a symbol of hope, and their influence transcended the sport. In the words of Claudio Ranieri, as a tribute to the impossible feat, the Leicester squad of 2016 had achieved, “Keep dreaming. Why wake up?”
Written by Daniel Fernandes for MTTN
Edited by Kaavya Azad for MTTN
Featured Image by Dileep for MTTN
Images sourced from Bleacher Report and Unsplash