Tuesday 12 December 2017

Miguel Delaney: Leicester's utopian dream delivers new lease of life to league

Champions Leicester left wondering what else is possible after becoming a global phenomenon

eicester City captain Wes Morgan and manager Claudio Ranieri lift the Premier League Trophy after at The King Power Stadium yesterday. PhotoL Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
eicester City captain Wes Morgan and manager Claudio Ranieri lift the Premier League Trophy after at The King Power Stadium yesterday. PhotoL Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leicester City's English striker Jamie Vardy runs with the ball during yesterday's match against Everton at King Power Stadium. Photo: Adrain Dennis/Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

Finally, as Wes Morgan said, "it's real". The arrival of the Premier League trophy at a rapturous King Power Stadium yesterday has made tangible what had been described all week as "a dream". Those around Leicester City say that, even though everyone at the club celebrated and then trained with that floating lightness that only comes when something special has been achieved, it still seemed so airy and "surreal".

Then, Morgan and Claudio Ranieri together lifted the Premier League trophy to a joyous crowd, signalling that the club had been lifted to a new plane.

It is not just that the silverware and medals make all this real, after all. It is that reality is now different for the club, as are all perceptions, and will be forever.

Leicester City are no longer just a middling, midlands clubs whose history is only really remembered by their fans, and garners occasional recognition from everyone else. That history is now international, and something to both admire and be envious of.

They are, in short, special.

No matter what happens to the club from here on in - and 'what next?' is now a question worth asking as the glittering gold and blue ticker tape settles on the King Power pitch - Leicester will always be associated with one of sport's great feats. The stadium tour will have a real value. Looking around the stands will have that grandiosity that only comes from the knowledge they have witnessed something momentous. You can feel that the ground, and city, have been imbued with history.

On the walk down from the stadium, blue banners and portraits of the players lined the roads, as cars tooted their horns. Some fans had Italian flags wrapped around them and sang the country's national anthem in honour of Ranieri, and there were even a group of Roma fans who travelled to celebrate. They were some of what was estimated to be well over 60,000 people in and around the King Power, where there was a funfair outside. Ranieri's friend Andrea Bocelli sang on a pitch that had special stars mown into it. The singer wasn't the only one serenading the manager, as the fans sang his name, louder every time.

Leicester easily beat Everton but, on a day like this, the match was only the support act for the main event: the presentation of the trophy, something many in the stadium were saying they still couldn't believe even as it happened in front of them.

From Manchester United's first title for 26 years in 1992-93, to Sergio Aguero's last-minute goal in 2012, there can't have been too many moments in English history to be greeted with a roar as loud as that. The players were laughing, fans crying, but Ranieri impressively held it together. His glassed did, however, fall off amid all the celebration.

It was glorious chaos all around, "the biggest day in the club's history", as the announcer proclaimed.

For Brian Carey, one of only a handful of Irish internationals to have turned out for the club, that is something still hard to comprehend. It's a bit of a leap to equate what he watched this season with the side he played for between 1993 and 1996, and the rickety old Filbert Street Stadium.

"It was an old ground," Carey says. "The first year I was there, they were in the process of building a new stand, and that was the thing. They were just like any other club back then, one of these provincial big clubs, not in a big city, that just toyed with promotion and relegation every few years and never, ever stabilised. It was always 'we're just looking at the next three or four years', or, as far as the manager was concerned, 'we're just looking at the next three or four months'. Back then, so much money went into the new stand, and Leicester weren't looking too far ahead."

They are now looking down on everyone else, and on to bigger feats. "It's a massive, massive turnaround."

It's also a turnaround for English and European football, as well as cause for contemplation as to how this has happened and whether it can happen anywhere else. In the continental media, many have been asking football figures whether the same can be accomplished in their countries. Sassuolo manager Eusebio Di Francesco said he would like to see his side become "the Leicester of Serie A".

"It's a utopia," Di Francesco said. "Why can't we dream of an Italian team repeating such a fairytale?"

As regards the 'why', many have tried to derive meaningful lessons from the Leicester story, and not just in football. Business self-help pieces have already been written on it, and one Tennessee Christian ministry released a pamphlet on the subject of what the club's "rise to soccer infamy can teach us about the Bible". That is despite the possibility that this is still just one perfect storm, a massive outlier that is unlikely to ever be repeated.

At the same time, it does feel both significant and symbolic that such a seismic defiance of football's recent economic realities came in the very first season after the announcement of a staggering multi-billion-pound broadcasting deal. It was as if that guarantee of so much money suddenly changing thinking and action at all levels.

Middle-tier clubs were immediately more resistant to selling their best players, as the very fact that John Stones was still in an Everton jersey illustrated, just as the wealthiest clubs became too complacent about using their cash. Spending became the primary solution to any problem, with not much thinking about whether there was another way.

In essence, the Premier League had got to the point where there was so much money that greater amounts didn't make the same difference. It had reached a critical mass. In real terms, it meant big clubs had to spend more on players not really worth the price, and the real advantages came from where you spent it rather than how much you were able to spend.

As one chief executive of a top-four Premier League club confided recently, the new broadcasting deal shrunk the market. The key from then on was to "innovate", to think ahead of the pack.

Leicester became the first to do this. Everything about the champions' season reflects that. They crafted a squad through creativity in the market - not least the targeting of players at the end of their contract - while Ranieri crafted a team through pragmatism in approach. He adapted his tactics to both the abilities of his players and the general play of the Premier League, giving teams problems they had forgotten how to solve.

The wonder is whether this is truly a new reality for the league as a whole. It does feel as if this season has been such a jolt that the earth is already shaking back to where it was. Most of the under-performing top clubs, after all, have responded by making big changes. Manchester City and Chelsea are appointing new managers, with Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola two of the most innovative in the game, while Manchester United are expected to.

On the other side, though, the difference might be that lesser-resourced clubs might not feel so constrained by the cash available. Leicester have shown that the old limits no longer apply, and that might bring a new bravery.

"What it's done is given everyone a lease of life and everyone in football a jolt," Carey says. "This is the future, hopefully."

As regards the future for Leicester themselves, much was already made this week of their already low relegation odds for next season. Ranieri laughed.

"Let me relax," he pleaded. "When I come back, I'll tell something to my players . . . and something different to you!"

The big question is whether the team will be different. Leicester are confident of keeping virtually everyone bar N'Golo Kante, who has a low buy-out clause, but very high interest from everywhere. Riyad Mahrez is expected to stay, but some change might suit them. The very fact they are champions will surely change how teams face them, so they might have to come up with something different. They will certainly pose a different challenge to Champions League teams, even if Ranieri responded to that in the way that has been typical of the season.

"I think everybody will want to get Leicester in their group," Ranieri said in that typically self-deprecating way. "They'll say: 'OK, it's Leicester.'"

They might but, after this season, the meaning behind it will never be the same again.

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