How 'Thinkerman' put Vardy and Co on top of the table
Former Fox Alan Smith goes back to his old club to discover the secrets of their remarkable success
Published 28/11/2015 | 02:30
Sheila has never seen anything like it. In all her 40 years at the club washing kits in the laundry room, she has never known Leicester City to be riding so high.
Top of the table going into today's home match with Manchester United and a player in Jamie Vardy tearing up the place and threatening to break Ruud van Nistelrooy's record by scoring in 11 Premier League games on the trot - heady times indeed at my first professional club.
The chance to return was irresistible, to gauge the buzz at the training ground.
Not surprisingly, Vardy has been in huge demand, particularly this week. Everyone wants a word with the new scoring sensation. But watching him bounce about Belvoir Drive on Thursday morning, hearing him chat to all and sundry with humour and wit, signs of stress or tension were pleasingly absent.
However, the top flight's leading scorer was more concerned with making sure he did not miss his barber's appointment. It turns out the old barnet gets trimmed every Thursday afternoon and, perhaps in this week of all weeks, he did not want to miss a routine that might now be part superstition.
I could understand that. I could partly understand how he is feeling as well, having graduated myself from non-league football to lead the line for this friendly club.
I was naturally keen to hear what the manager had to say, not just about Vardy but the situation in general. So after watching a lively session on the same patch of ground where Gary Lineker and I used to practise our finishing, I sought out Claudio Ranieri for a quick chat.
And the Italian did not disappoint with his description of Vardy.
"He's electric," Ranieri said with real passion. "I think if you give him a light bulb to hold, it would light up. He has that energy, that spark. High quality is fantastic but it is how you are here," he says, pointing to the heart.
That maxim does not just apply to the playing staff either.
Because when it comes to Leicester, you find a number of people working behind the scenes with the club deeply embedded in their hearts.
Alan Birchenall comes to mind right away. Now a club ambassador after joining Leicester as a player in 1971, and working there in some capacity ever since, he is the bloke you will hear on the microphone whipping up the crowd before every home match.
Everyone knows 'Birch' and everyone loves him. He is the joke-a-minute Londoner who never shuts up. On a more serious note, he is the figure mainly entrusted with representing the club throughout the county.
"I went to 24 funerals last year," he says. "I do it because outside of your family the next most important thing for a lot of people is their football team. You only realise when you go to these funerals just how much Leicester means.
"I've missed two home games in 40 years and that was when I had to go to India to represent Leicester.
"I've got to tell you, I am the luckiest guy in the world. I wasn't the best player at this football club, I didn't play the most games, I wasn't here the longest. But because I am how I am, because I enjoy life, enjoy being around people, this job just suited me.
"My role as an ambassador now far outweighs what I achieved as a player."
Sheila Kent, meanwhile, has had only the one job. But the business of cleaning the kit, like everything else, feels a little easier with the team doing so well.
"It's everybody's favourite time at the minute," she says. "I can remember being middle of the table with Martin O'Neill but this is the best we've ever been.
"Claudio comes in and says hello. He brings back chocolates from Italy."
Talking of food, the head chef at the training ground was busy shaping Cornish pasties when I popped into the kitchen just before lunch. Gary Payne is another who has been around for years. He remembers the dark days of administration when money was tight.
"Oh yes, that's Macca's favourite story," he laughs, referring to his mate Paul McAndrew, another stalwart, who started out as the coach driver before becoming the kitman nearly 20 years ago.
"Macca tells everyone that it was unbelievable what I could do with a pound of mince back then. I've seen all the ups, all the downs and everything in between. And this is the biggest up ever."
Gary goes on to explain how a certain pudding became essential to preparation.
"When Martin O'Neill came he insisted that we had cod and chips every Friday. And that's when the famous apple crumble came in. I made it one Friday and we won on the Saturday. So every day before a game now, whether it's in the week or at the weekend, it's always apple crumble and custard. That tradition has stuck for 18 seasons.
"Claudio loves it too. I was a bit worried when he first came. He was looking at this dessert and I thought he was going to ban it or something. But he had a big bowlful, then came back and had another!"
There is still a genuine family feel in these parts, just as there was when I pulled on the blue shirt. You will not be surprised to hear that there is also a great atmosphere among the squad, something Danny Simpson confirms.
"There's such a buzz at the moment," the right-back says. "Everyone is staying out doing extra work. The lads will be in the cryotherapy chamber in a bit. Someone goes in and you think, 'Oh, if he's going in, I'm going in'.
"Whether it helps or not I don't know," says Simpson. "It could be a mind thing. But we're all doing it and we're winning so we're not going to stop just yet."
This sort of facility and general attention to detail was something that struck Ranieri when he first arrived.
The former Chelsea manager did not expect a club like Leicester to be so organised. For that, his predecessor Nigel Pearson must be given lots of credit.
"I looked around at the staff, at the fitness side, recruitment, video analysis - everything was amazing. Why did I have to change anything? The organisation was perfect," he says.
You can see why he is so pleased. The exceptional talent-spotting abilities of his assistant Steve Walsh have furnished the side with some wonderful players.
Riyad Mahrez, for one, has set the world alight, while N'Golo Kanté's energy and tackling are fast becoming essential in central midfield.
Birchenall can only hope the hot streak continues.
"I don't know how long it's going to last," he says.
"We've got players who are flying. In Walshy, we've got the best scout I've known in 50 years. Claudio has been lucky in that respect. But he hasn't messed about with it. They called him the Tinkerman but I call him the Thinkerman.
"I've seen us go down to the third level. I've seen relegation, administration, promotion. I've seen everything at this place. But where we are now is the absolute pinnacle in this club's history."
Difficult to argue with that. For confirmation, just ask Gary, Paul or Sheila. (© Daily Telegraph, London)