Sunday 25 February 2018

Leicester's merry misfits thriving on pressure of being tops

Marc Albrighton Photo: Getty
Marc Albrighton Photo: Getty

Kevin Garside

The only fan in Leicester with a complaint this season is the postman, having to heave love letters from all corners of the globe.

The upward surge in social mobility engineered by this eclectic mix of cast-offs and bargain buys has truly galvanised the footballing firmament.

As each week passes, another victory inspired by an improbable Jamie Vardy goal (18 and counting in the Premier League) widens the interest and deepens the fascination.

The next chapter sees the humble Foxes enter the house of Manchester City at lunchtime with an opportunity to stretch their advantage over the proxy Gulf kingdom at the top of the table to six points.

Cue the opening of more LCFC supporters' clubs in Kuala Lumpur, Myanmar and beyond.

"We get things through from all parts of the world, Vietnam, China, America, Scotland. They're all pretty much on the same lines - that they're over the moon at what we're doing this season and congratulating us on what we've achieved," observed winger Marc Albrighton, recruited in the summer of 2014 after being released by Aston Villa.

Taking his cue from manager Claudio Ranieri, Albrighton's attitude remains grounded, reflecting the nature of a group brought together in an exercise of footballing bricolage as opposed to the money-no-object assembly of their rivals in the title chase.

It is precisely the absence of a signature import of the calibre of Sergio Aguero, David Silva or Yaya Touré that has so captured the imagination and which Albrighton identifies as fundamental to the Leicester tsunami this season.

"There's players that could get in at the big clubs but maybe they wouldn't fit in at a Man City because it's a different style of play.

"The way we play suits every one of these players down to the ground," Albrighton said.

"Don't get me wrong, every one of those players deserves to be at the best club in the country because of how we've done this season. Man City and Man United probably wouldn't want a winger who goes to the byline, they're more into intricate passing.

"I'd agree that Vardy and Riyad [Mahrez] would walk into any other team. How they haven't got a player like Vardy, who will run in behind and stretch a defence, is beyond me because it's one of the best weapons you can have in a football team.

"You've got Mahrez who can do anything on his day. He can create, scores goals, assists, everything."

Vardy and Mahrez have commanded the headlines, but inside the King Power commune they have learned not to concern themselves too much with the narrative being spun.

These are players from the other side of football's class divide, an honest bunch not yet accustomed to being feted.

And, as Albrighton observed, many of the players have still to understand quite how they got here.

"I don't know whether we feel like we've been hard done by or whether we've got a point to prove," he said.

"We haven't fitted in where we were previously, whereas here we all have the same attributes to warrant a place in this squad. Those attributes are based on hard work from everyone in the squad.

"You won't get in this Leicester squad without working hard and that's the main thing that every player has got and that's the base that we start at.

"Obviously at Villa they probably didn't want a winger like me at the time. I wasn't angry about it. I would rather get told that I wasn't wanted there and come and play somewhere else rather staying there and not fitting into the system.

"It might be the same with the other lads, Danny [Simpson] and Rob Huth. They are probably the same. They probably didn't fit into the system but come here and everybody fits into it."

It is this absence of hubris that allows Leicester to take developments in their stride, or roll with it, as those arch-City devotees the Gallagher brothers might put it. After all, fighting for the title, however unexpected, sure beats fighting for survival, which was Albrighton's initial experience at Leicester.

"I've been asked if the pressure of what's happening now is more than the pressure of staying up last season. I wouldn't even compare the two. Last season, everything was riding on it.

"Pressure arises in those sorts of situations. What's happening now wasn't one of our goals. It's beyond our wildest dreams so anything from now on is just pure bonus.

"There's two ways of looking at it. One, we can play with freedom but on the other hand teams we're up against know how to win titles or get in the top four. They've been there before - they've done it. They know how it works whereas we're coming into it unknown.

"But if we keep working hard and carry on like we have been, it hasn't done us any harm to this point."

And that is the point. The question of Leicester's ability to see this home is rendered meaningless by the evidence thus far.

With 14 games to play Leicester lead by three points and arrive at the Etihad after a typically thunderous dismissal of Liverpool which sends them into the day's bill-topper full of confidence and belief.

"It all sounds strange, playing in the biggest match of the weekend," Albrighton said. "We stay grounded because, to be honest, I think we're as shocked as everybody else to be in this situation.

"We knew we had a great side and we knew we could do something special but not in our wildest dreams could we have thought we'd be in this position at this stage of season."

(© Independent News Service)

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