Thursday 29 September 2016

Leicester's heroes must decide if this is a one-off or the start of a new era

Paul Hayward

Published 04/05/2016 | 02:30

Yesterday's training session turned into a Premier League title celebration for Leicester
City players (Getty Images)
Yesterday's training session turned into a Premier League title celebration for Leicester City players (Getty Images)

The morning after a league title win Alex Ferguson would feel a creeping agitation. Yesterday's exhilaration would give way to thoughts about the next campaign: the need, not just the wish, to do it all again, "to repel all boarders" and make success for Manchester United self-repeating and endless.

  • Go To

Nobody could expect Leicester City to feel this Fergusonian restlessness as they stumbled into training after a night of explosive celebrations.

This was no time to be worrying about tomorrow. The 2016-17 Premier League campaign was a dot on the horizon.

United, Chelsea, Manchester City and the rest are set up as empires. Built into their cultures is an expectation of success. A non-negotiable demand for it, born of the money 'invested' and the profile of their owners.

But when the people of Leicester have returned to their routines, and the perma-grin has given way to a mere internal glow, how should Claudio Ranieri and his team see their place in the new world they have created?

Stars

The competing strands of the Leicester story are underdog miracle and carefully managed quest. The other day someone came on the radio to say they are a team of no stars and therefore all the more admirable. Au contraire.

This is a side of many stars, some of the overnight variety, which is the biggest threat to their reign as Premier League champions.

Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kanté, all Professional Footballers' Association Player-of-the Year nominees (Mahrez won it) are examples of inspired scouting, which Leicester will now need more of.

But what if lazy predators further up the fame chain take the easy option and pay whatever it takes to extract Leicester's ready-made warriors and add them to their own stagnant sides?

Something ended on Monday night when Eden Hazard returned from his eight-month unofficial sabbatical to kill Tottenham's hopes and hand the trophy to Leicester. The melodrama of 5,000/1 no-hopers winning their first championship was gloriously complete.

Once this season is over, and Leicester fans are no longer surfing bubbles, we will learn whether it was a one-off or the start of an era.

First, Leicester are not Wimbledon's Crazy Gang. They are not giant-killers or party-crashers or upstarts. They are a seriously good team, with a perfect balance of attributes.

Nor did the club's Thai owners throw just enough money at it to keep themselves in the trough of Premier League television money (the motivation for many speculators).

As the excellent Swiss Ramble football finance website points out: "The owners have certainly put their money where their mouth is, most evidently by converting over £100m of outstanding loans into equity and purchasing the stadium from Teachers, an American pension fund manager.

"Leicester's performance off the pitch has been every bit as good as that on the pitch, as seen by the 2014/15 accounts, which revealed record revenue of £104m and a pre-tax profit of £26m. After adding a tax credit of £5m, the profit after tax was even higher at £31m.

"The previous season in the Championship produced a loss of £21m, so the year-on-year improvement was a massive £47m.

"Revenue more than tripled from £31m to £104m with the vast majority of the million growth coming from the much higher TV deal in the Premier League, which was worth an additional £68m."

These bedrock figures are important because they say that Leicester have not been drained by the process of building a league-winning team. Quite the opposite.

Investment has made them stronger. They have not chucked money into a volcano, as so many have. A £49m net spend on players over the past two seasons is easily covered by income and has scooped up not only Kanté and Mahrez but starlets such as Demarai Gray.

But the human elements are complex. They appear on no balance sheet. This is the "heart and soul" Ranieri talked about on the morning after the night before, as he faced his own decision about whether to go on playing the humble outsider or bestride the scene like a Ferguson, or Jose Mourinho, who took Ranieri's job at Chelsea in 2004 but now surrenders his league title to him.

Hero

Ranieri was smart enough to see that last season's Houdinis were in no need of reinvention, just some organising, target-setting and calm stewarding. But with his £5m bonus in the bank and folk hero status assured, how does Ranieri handle the fulfilment of his own wish to be seen across Europe as more than a hired gun?

Calling himself an "old man" shows him still to be in pressure-deflecting mode. The story about him having lunch with his 96-year-old mother in Italy after the 1-1 draw at United was perhaps the last that will turn his audience dewy-eyed. From now on, Ranieri is the king, with a Champions League campaign ahead. Leicester are nobody's arrivistes.

This summer each player will face a reckoning. Some may feel 12 months of running and scrapping deserves a reward: a more sedate pace, perhaps, and a bit of cashing in. The endorsement industry is swarming all over the club.

Wes Morgan is already honoured on the label of special edition bottles of Captain Morgan rum. Marketing departments will be hanging off a tale that expresses all the most sellable themes around the little guy who beats the system.

Plainly the transfer industry, which relies on moving people around, often pointlessly, will find ways of telling Mahrez and Kanté they are below their station, and could be bathed in the holy light of Barcelona or Real Madrid. Other players and agents will yap in their ears.

And yes, those three PFA nominees are entitled to ask whether there is another step up in their lives, beyond the wonderful movie they have just been part of.

Their gamble is whether to stay at Leicester and risk second-album syndrome or be ruthless and strike out in search of other challenges.

There are risks both ways, and dangers for the predators. Lots of good teams have been raided down the years, only for the buyer to find that the players were not the same when removed from the environment that made them. Think Wimbledon, or some of the players lost recently by Southampton.

Schmeichel, Simpson, Huth, Morgan, Fuchs, Mahrez, Drinkwater, Kanté, Albrighton, Okazaki, Vardy. This is a starting XI we will recite in pubs 20 years from now. How sweet it would be to see it as Leicester's workaholic line-up again in August. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

Read More

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport