Tuesday 23 May 2017

From unlikely lads to likely Premier League winners - who are Leicester's journeymen?

Shinji Okazaki, left, celebrates his winner in Leicester's 1-0 victory over Newcastle
Shinji Okazaki, left, celebrates his winner in Leicester's 1-0 victory over Newcastle
Kasper Schmeiche
Danny Simpson
Christian Fuchs
Wes Morgan
Robert Huth
N'Golo Kante
Danny Drinkwater
Riyad Mahrez
Marc Albrighton
Shinj Kagawa
Jamie Vardy
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Charting the rise of the players, many of whom were fighting relegation just a year ago

Kasper Schmeichel

Age: 29

Honours: Championship winner (Leicester 2013/14), League Two winner (Notts County 2009/10)

Joined Leicester: 2011

Fee: £1.25m

To many, he will always be Peter's son. "It's been no help whatsoever in my career," he said in a revealing interview before Christmas. "It's been quite the opposite. I think I would have played longer in the Premier League if that wasn't the case. The issue is that I am 29, I am married, I have two kids but people still see me as someone's son. They still see me as a child."

His father feels the same way about it. Kasper tells a story about being out with him for dinner before Christmas where they were approached by a random member of the public who addressed the elder Schmeichel and said: "You're a legend mate. Your son's doing well, but he'll never be as good as you." The former Manchester United keeper flipped and told the man to go away.

The offspring has travelled a lot of miles to reach this position. He started off at Manchester City, where he was on the fringes and made a sprinkling of first-team appearances. Loan spells at Darlington, Bury, Falkirk, Cardiff and Coventry helped to shape his character. After that, he spent a year in League Two with Notts County after accepting a good offer from Sven Goran Eriksson and it was the Swede that brought him to Leicester in 2011; Schmeichel had just finished a season at Leeds when an undisclosed fee - believed to be in the region of £1.25m -secured his services. He has since developed into one of English football's top netminders.

Danny Simpson

Age: 29

Honours: 2 Championship wins (Sunderland 2006/07, Newcastle 2009/10 )

Joined Leicester: 2014

Fee: £2m

Turning Simpson's story into a Hollywood tale could be a little bit of a hard sell because the audience would have to forgive serious indiscretions to empathise with the character. In 2014, he was convicted of strangling the mother of his child and was sentenced to 300 hours of community work. The product of the Manchester United academy ended up calling out bingo numbers as one of his jobs, in addition to working in a charity shop and involvement in a programme that helped people with mental health problems.

He made three appearances for United and, after a variety of loan stints (including with Roy Keane at Sunderland), he left for Newcastle where the highlight story of his final season in 2013 was a 4am brawl outside a takeaway on a trip back to Manchester. He was queueing for a kebab when he got into a disagreement.

A season at QPR followed before he joined Leicester with a question mark hanging over him; the Foxes then suspended him for a spell when he was convicted.

Last month, the right back said that he was 'humbled' by the community service experience. "It helped me grow," he said, I was in this football bubble and it made me think."

Christian Fuchs

Age: 29

Honours: 1 German Supercup (Schalke 2011)

Joined Leicester: 2015

Fee: Free

The left back has only known success at Leicester having signed up last summer after the expiration of his contract with Bundesliga side Schalke. He was signed by Nigel Pearson and was on holidays when he got a call from his agent to say that he wouldn't be getting the chance to work with the man that had convinced him to give England a try.

Fuchs is captain of the Austria side that will compete at the Euros this summer and has Champions League experience from his stint at Schalke so it's no surprise that he slotted seamlessly into his new environment. His wife is American and lives in New York so he nearly sought a move to the MLS but decided he could earn more money for the long term by taking the English option. Fuchs has set up a soccer academy in the US and plans to spend his future there so this is a stop along the way.

Wes Morgan

Age: 32

Honours: Championship winner (Leicester 2013/14)

Joined Leicester: 2012

Fee: £1m

Vardy is the rags-to-riches tale yet there's something equally impressive about the development of Morgan into a Premier League-class defender that will get the honour of lifting the trophy as captain if Leicester see this out.

As a teenager, he was by no means marked out for greatness. Morgan grew up in a rough part of Nottingham and his physique was an obstacle to his football ambitions. He was released by Notts County in his mid-teens and signed for a non-league team while enrolling in a business studies course because he 'wasn't too bad at maths' and heard the money in accounting was good. The coach of his college football team recommended him to Forest and they gave him a short-term contract on the condition that he lost weight. Morgan was kept in for extra running wearing additional layers of clothes and the boxing-style preparations led to him shedding two-and-a-half stone.

From there, he grew into a role as a Forest regular and the local lad graduated to become the club captain. He was popular and respected by his peers even if he had his ups and downs. Morgan thought he would never get a chance in the Premier League but a firesale at Forest, brought about by financial difficulties, led to a switch to Leicester, promotion and a starring role in the creation of this remarkable adventure.

Robert Huth

Age: 31

Honours: 2 Premier League wins (Chelsea 2004/5 & 2005/6)

Joined Leicester: 2015

Fee: £3m

Like Morgan, Huth is one of those players that appeared to be pigeon-holed at a particular level when he pitched up in his current abode. He was an emergency loan option brought in by Nigel Pearson from Stoke just over a year ago when the Foxes were engaged in a desperate fight against relegation that appeared to be going against them. The German centre-half played his part in the survival effort and agreed a permanent switch in the summer.

He came to England as a teenager and was a fringe member of the Chelsea squad when Claudio Ranieri was in charge. When Jose Mourinho took over, he remained a squad member that had spells in and out of a successful side and picked up two Premier League medals. Eventually, he expressed a desire for a new start and joined Middlesbrough for a three-year stay that culminated with relegation.

Tony Pulis brought Huth to Stoke where he racked up a ton of appearances and made some good friends, including Ireland star Jonathan Walters. They're regular sparring partners on Twitter.

Ultimately, he was allowed to leave for Leicester because he had fallen down the pecking order. Now he's looking down on his former clubs from a perch and Germany boss Joachim Low is even being asked about ending his international exile.

N'golo Kante

Age: 25

Honours: None

Joined Leicester: 2015

Fee: £5.6m

The heartbeat of the team is a player whose move from French Lique 1 side Caen last summer slipped under the radar as the big summer transfers were digested. West Ham's Dimitri Payet is his only rival for the signing of the season award - and both are in line to represent France at this summer's Euros on account of their exploits.

Kante is central to Leicester's work ethic, an energetic 5'6" shield for the defence that specialises in making breaking up play. In February, he became the first player to reach 100 successful interceptions for the season. Rio Ferdinand described the 25-year-old as the 'best tackler and retriever of the ball on the planet'.

Last year, Pearson tasked head scout Steve Walsh with the task of finding an industrious engine-room operator and Kante met all the criteria. Walsh convinced Ranieri to go through with the deal and the player's value has since multiplied. He only made his professional debut in 2012 with small, second-tier side Boulogne who initially baulked at offering a full contract and signed him on amateur terms. Kante's parents are from Mali and he grew up in Paris as one of nine siblings in a packed house. He's a religious character but his faith in Leicester will be tested this summer with Arsenal and Chelsea circling.

Danny Drinkwater

Age: 26

Honours: Championship winner (Leicester 2013/14)

Joined Leicester: 2012

Fee: £750k

Earlier this year, Drinkwater was in the headlines when he was turned away from a plush London nightclub with some fringe members of the squad because they didn't recognise him. The story was enhanced when a couple of players from title rivals Spurs were waved through. It tied in with the narrative that some of the prospective title winners literally wouldn't be recognised by the man on the street.

Drinkwater rubbed shoulders with the stars from an early age as a member of the Manchester United academy. He didn't make a Premier League appearance; Ireland's Darron Gibson was just one of the players that was considered superior to him. The 26-year-old is another advertisement for the loan route having sampled life at Huddersfield, Cardiff, Watford and Barnsley before pitching up at Leicester in 2012 for a cut-price fee. Fans at his temporary abodes didn't think they were watching a future England international; there's a whiff of Harry Kane about that journey.

Last season, he played second fiddle to Esteban Cambiasso and Leicester fans were worried when the Argentine veteran opted against staying on. Those fears soon evaporated.

Riyad Mahrez

Age: 25

Honours: Championship winner (Leicester 2013/14)

Joined Leicester: 2014

Fee: £350k

The front-runner for player of the year has a similar background to Kante in that he also grew up in a Parisian council estate and learned his skills on the streets. He was a member of the French capital's huge Algerian community and it took a while for his football talents to be appreciated. Six years ago, he was in the equivalent of the seventh division.

Mahrez progressed to join Quimper in the fourth division and went from there to Le Havre where he kicked off with their second team and then advanced to their first team in Lique 2 - he chose them ahead of PSG and Marseille because they had a reputation for giving youth a chance. Leicester spotted his skills there and brought him to England for the tail end of their successful promotion tilt in 2014. When initially informed of Leicester's interest, Mahrez was perplexed because he thought they were a rugby club.

He played for Algeria in that summer's World Cup - his selection was heavily criticised by their media - and then embraced life as a Premier League performer. Arsene Wenger was taken aback; he felt he was on top of the French scene and was aware of Kante but had never heard of Mahrez. Scouts did have concerns. In his youth, sceptics wondered if he was too much of a lightweight. "They said I was skinny, that everyone will push you off the ball," he recalled last year. These days, the ball is his friend.

Marc Albrighton

Age: 26

Honours: None

Joined Leicester: 2014

Fee: Free

What a season it is for Aston Villa. Think of the English Midlands, and they are perhaps the first club that springs to mind. But as they slide towards the inevitability of relegation, a neighbouring operation are on the verge of lifting the trophy with a motley crew that includes a player that was deemed short of the required standard for Villa just two years ago. Albrighton broke into the Villa picture under Martin O'Neill after coming through at the same time as Ciaran Clark and made 101 appearances for the Birmingham side. His best spell came under Gerald Houllier but he struggled to cope with the pressure of replacing Ashley Young and Stewart Downing when they were sold.

The wide man had spells in and out of the side and Paul Lambert wanted to adopt a different style of play. "They probably didn't want a winger like myself at the time," he said earlier this year, "They wanted to play more narrow and I wasn't angry about it." He was barely used by Pearson during his first six months at Leicester but he forged his way into the side for the great escape from the drop and hasn't looked back.

Shinji Okazaki

Age: 29

Honours:

Joined Leicester: 2015

Fee: £7m

Okazaki was 24 when he left his native Japan to try his luck in Europe with Stuttgart; he'd carved a decent goa-scoring reputation at home and 15 goals for his country in 2009 put him top of the international charts around the globe for that calendar year. He spent two-and-a-half seasons at Stuttgart, scoring just once in the league in his final year, and Mainz then moved to get him on board. He arrived at Leicester as a seasoned pro and he's another small man with a big heart and a versatility who has cemented a place in Ranieri's side; Glenn Hoddle has argued that he is the unsung hero as a link man between midfield and attack.

Mainz general manager Christian Heidel went public with his surprise that Leicester were prepared to pay £7m for a player approaching his thirties with just a year left on his contract and the move was considered an example of middle-tier Premier League sides paying over the odds because of bloated TV deals. It looks like money well spent now.

Japan has yearned for a Premier League star and, while Shinji Kagawa won a title with United and occasionally hit the high notes, he ultimately fell short of expectations. Ex-Arsenal man Junichi Inamoto was once flagged as the next big thing. Despite scoring in two World Cups, the Japanese public didn't view Okazaki as an obvious candidate to crack the English code. He's writing a new chapter.

Jamie Vardy

Age: 29

Honours: Championship winner (Leicester 2013/14), Conference Premier (Fleetwood 2011/12), Northern Premier Division (Halifax 2010/11)

Joined Leicester: 2012

Fee: £1m

The poster boy for the Leicester tale, and there is genuinely a Hollywood movie planned about the rise through the ranks of the prolific poacher that was turned away from his boyhood club Sheffield Wednesday as a kid because he was too small. Granted, the movie makers will have a few challenging issues to deal with - an assault charge which meant he was fitted with an electronic tag when he played non-league football in his early 20s and a dreadful incident in a casino last summer where he was filmed making racist comments to a fellow gambler from Japan.

Otherwise, he is an inspirational figure considering that he spent seven years earning just £30 a week playing ball for Sheffield amateur team Stocksbridge Park Steels while working 12-hour shifts in a carbon-fibre splint factory. Frazzled opponents used to try and intimidate him by employing physical tactics but he kept coming back for more. Halifax paid £15,000 for his services and sold him on to Conference challengers Fleetwood for 10 times that figure just over a year later. He scored 31 times to fire them into the Football League and Leicester paid a non-league record of £1m to bring him straight to the Championship.

The sanity of that deal was questioned by Leicester followers as he hit the target just four times in the 2012/13 campaign. Second time around in the Championship he played a starring role as they won the division. His first try at the Premier League was unremarkable until the final weeks and second time around he's weeks away from the title and a major role in the European Championships. It's quite a script all right.

The substitutes

Just five other members of Ranieri's squad have reached double figures in Premier League appearances this season, a reflection of his reliance on his core players with Swiss recruit Gokhan Inler barely able to get a look-in because of Kante and Drinkwater. One member of that quintet, Belgian defender Ritchie De Laet, is now surplus to requirements and on loan at Middlesbrough.

Left-sided Ghanaian player Jeffrey Schlupp was generally a fixture in the side leading up to Christmas when he suffered a knee injury. He was born in Germany but was raised in England and came through the Leicester academy.

Argentine striker Leonardo Ulloa is the emergency option off the bench. He was the club-record £8m buy from Brighton when Leicester were promoted in 2014 having adapted well to life in England following formative experiences in Argentina and Spain.

Nathan Dyer is on a season-long loan from Swansea, where he won a League Cup in 2013 and was part of their unexpected jump up the football ladder. Ranieri is yet to start him in the league and has sprung him from the bench 11 times.

Midfielder Andy King is a one-club man at senior level, who has made more than 300 appearances for Leicester across three divisions and for seven managers. Gary Megson was in charge when he arrived as a first-team player in League One in 2007. He was in the Chelsea academy in his early teens and was a ballboy at Stamford Bridge when Ranieri was boss.

English teen Demarai Gray has appeared six times since signing from Birmingham for £3.75m in January. His pace and work-rate have made him an ideal person to bring on and he should hit double figures in appearances by the end of the season.

Irish Independent

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