Saturday 21 July 2018

Money talk being silenced by plucky Leicester's roar to glory

Foxes' roller coaster may fail logic but as title glory looms, now it's all about enjoying the ride

Captain Wes Morgan celebrates his late winner against Southampton as Leicester maintained the form that has taken them to the brink of the title with six clean sheets in their last seven games. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Captain Wes Morgan celebrates his late winner against Southampton as Leicester maintained the form that has taken them to the brink of the title with six clean sheets in their last seven games. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Susan Whelan

Miguel Delaney

Just before Claudio Ranieri walks into a reception room at Leicester City to do his usual job of charming everyone present, one of the staff attempts to get a stadium information sheet with the club crest printed on it, only to struggle. "They must have all been taken last week," she says with a laugh. "Everyone wants a souvenir."

All around the King Power Stadium - and the city of Leicester itself - there are little signs of a club gradually registering that they really are on the brink of something huge. There's more of a buzz around the town. There are more tourists around the stadium. There are more international media present, as one of the club's receptionists struggles to organise taxis for yet another group of journalists leaving Ranieri's Friday press conference.

"Yep, me again," she chirps. "Yep, more to the train station . . . yep, we do deserve it!"

There are also more well wishes from outside than for pretty much any other Premier League team before. Marc Albrighton is one of many players to have been stopped by supporters from local rival clubs, telling them to "go and win it now". It still doesn't really compute for him, and he can't but reach for the religious term that has been used about Leicester for a year now. "It's pretty crazy," Albrighton says. "Obviously, something just clicked last season, and we went on to perform a miracle to stay up, and to be where we are at this stage of the season is just incredible. I believe we've already made history."

That may be so, but it would no longer be enough. Leicester are now just a few games from producing what would statistically and logically be the most improbable title win in history. The way in which this run-in has taken on a life of its own, not to mention the bald facts of where Leicester were a year ago, make it easy to forget there is much more to this story than a team going from bottom to top in 12 months.

This is the story of a club that has never won a first division league, a manager who has never won a league, and a squad of players that has barely come close to ever challenging for anything individually. Yet, as their style of play emphasises, this is a team that has actually made a dynamic virtue out of everything that would usually be dismissed. This is a club that has exploited the cash-sedated complacency of the Premier League. This is a club that has turned everything about the competition on its head by maximising every bit of themselves.

They've pushed everything to the limit but now need to make the most of the last few steps. So much of the club seems set up for that right now.

A marathon out of small steps

If the pre-season predictions that Leicester would go down and Ranieri would be sacked now seem laughable, it's worth remembering the reaction to Thai owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha's big claim when they got promoted in 2014. He asserted Leicester would finish in the top five within three years.

"It will take a huge amount of money, possibly 10 billion Thai Baht [£180m], to get there, but that doesn't put us off."

At the time, those words seemed little more than the overexcitable naivety of a relatively new foreign owner with too much money and too little knowledge of English football. They were actually understated. Leicester have secured a higher position by spending less money than that, and in a much quicker time.

Those aren't the only numbers that are impressive, and emphasise the improbability of all this. If Leicester do claim the league having finished 17th last season, they will have made the biggest leap to the title since Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest won it straight after promotion in 1977-'78. Leicester will be England's first new champions since 1978. In the years since then, no club has won it from lower than seventh, and no club has followed Forest in winning the league for the first time either. They will just be more stats strengthening the comparisons to Clough's sides, not to mention the nature of the team.

Of course, the nature of modern football means this can't be a complete fairytale. Vichai is a billionaire and, just this week, The Guardian reported that the Football League is still investigating concerns that Leicester might have broken financial fair play rules in 2013-'14.

None of that, however, means they should have been able to get around the realities of the modern Premier League in the way they have. Paying out £48.2m a year, Leicester are estimated to have the 17th highest wage bill in England. Given that is exactly where they finished last season shows how the final Premier League table correlates to the cash clubs can pay. That is what Leicester have changed.

This type of feat just wasn't meant to be possible any more. The game was supposed to have eroded it.

It also shows that, for all Vichai's money, this has not been a Manchester City-style turbo-investment. Rather, the club's hierarchy have steadily put building blocks in place. With various individuals of specific expertise occupying key positions between manager and owner, one football industry figure says they have a far superior infrastructure to Manchester United. They have spent the available money cleverly and sustainably.

Andy Palmer is a club scout who also works with the academy and does not see any radical revolution. "As a club, I would say it's about continuity," he says. "There's not a separation between youth team and first team. It all amalgamates right the way through. The staff have been there for years. That's been the story, all little steps on the way."

It might mean they finish first in a long marathon.

A shade of green to the blue

Leicester's owners have put an unmistakably Thai identity on the club, as can be seen with how a model of a traditional Thai boat sits alongside a replica of the old Filbert Street stadium in reception, but there is a considerable Irish angle to the story too. That angle also sums up some of the defining characteristics of all this too: improbability married to intelligence, and the right people in the right areas.

Dublin-born Susan Whelan (above right) is the club's chief executive, while Dr Ian Flanagan is commercial director. The latter is a doctor who earned a PhD following years on the arts side of education, having also studied Irish poetry. That's a very unorthodox route for someone in such a heavy-handed business but Flanagan recently told Cork's Evening Echo of an endearing conversation with his careers officer at Oxford. They asked him what he wanted to do with his life and he responded: "Watch football for free".

Flanagan ended up doing exactly that, albeit with 15 years in sports business, majoring in areas like sponsorship strategy and sales. That has seen him work with an elite list of clients since a first job in business management with CSS Stellar: the England football and rugby squads - including for the 2003 Rugby World Cup win - the South African rugby team, and Abu Dhabi's royal family for events like the city's first Formula One race and the Fifa Club World Cup. He moved to DHL, where he brokered the company's massive partnership deal with Manchester United, before joining Leicester in 2011.

Whelan has been with the club's owners for much longer. A job with Aer Rianta International took her to Thailand, where Vichai spotted her capability and asked her to work for his King Power firm, long before buying Leicester in 2010. Completely trusted by the owners, Whelan runs the business side of things at the King Power Stadium, such as ticket prices and merchandising. Her astute approach has meant Leicester's blue has become as visible in Thailand as the red of United or Liverpool.

She also sits in on player contract negotiations and was involved in the fateful appointment of Ranieri. It was Whelan who told disbelieving fans at the time to trust the decision. They now disbelieve in another way.

The unlikely lads

When you bring it down to the nuts and bolts of the Leicester story, perhaps the most amazing aspect is the nature of those nuts and bolts themselves: the players. It's the nearest you're going to get to a rag-tag bunch in the modern era, and a group that really shouldn't be challenging in any era. If that sounds disrespectful, consider the profiles. Of the remarkably-low 15 players mainly used, 10 are aged 27 or over, and very few of them have achieved anything of any note.

There are a grand total of seven league medals in the squad and they come from Robert Huth's two bit-part roles for Chelsea, Marcin Wasilewski's three for Anderlecht, and Gokhan Inler's two Swiss titles. Other than that, the closest anyone has got to something like this season are Danny Simpson's fifth place with Newcastle United in 2011-'12 and Christian Fuchs's Champions League finishes with Schalke.

The vast majority of the squad have experienced rejection rather than success, with Leicester's promotion proving a first taste of regular Premier League football for seven of the players. Albrighton feels it has bound the group together. The midfielder enjoyed his own quirk of fate typical of the squad, having been released by his boyhood club Aston Villa two years ago. He wasn't good enough for one of the worst sides in Premier League history, but is now the player with the most minutes in one of the competition's greatest rises.

"It [rejection] probably has been a big factor because it shows the character we have," Albrighton explains. "Earlier in the season, we were behind in a lot of games and fought back. We've faced low points in our time but have got back on the horse and made something good of it. Sometimes you get some brilliant individuals who can't piece it together as a team. We are the opposite to that."

That is emphasised in every interaction. All hugely respect 32-year-old captain Wes Morgan but, when he was doing media after one game, there was clearly the good humour in the camp for Kaspar Schmeichel to walk up behind and just interrupt with "this guy's well boring".

There are only three regular players really different in profile - but by no means outsiders in the group - and they are N'Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Jeffrey Schlupp. All are under 25 and up and coming, but they only personify another factor in this success . . .

The brains behind it all

When it comes to signing a player, the hugely admired head of recruitment Steve Walsh does not just look at their ability or personality. He also looks to find out about their contract, since the club try and target those at the end of their deals. It explains why they have pulled off so many signings of exceptional value - such as the free transfer of Fuchs - and indicates the innovation behind everything they do.

Walsh makes sure to watch every player in the flesh to assist a final judgement, with every scout's viewing complemented by analytics that allow them to get as full a picture as possible. That is how they divined Mahrez's magnificence amid so many doubts about his physique.

Once players arrive at the club's Belvoir Drive training ground, they find a set-up where every millimetre and moment are maximised. It's again a case of not letting anything go to waste. Take when the squad go for a massage after training. At most clubs, it's the start of their down-time, and many coaches complain it's impossible to get players off their smartphones. Leicester's backroom have sought to use this by putting in place iPads that have personalised programmes for every squad member. These are designed to properly involve the player and make them think about what they're doing, rather than serving as dull videos that just wash over their heads.

It's the same in training. Walsh's fellow assistant manager Craig Shakespeare is loved among the squad for his good humour and enjoyable sessions but Leicester have taken that to another level. They put up the physical stats for every player and it has effectively created weekly competitions as they push each other in everything from fitness drills to work under strength and conditioning coach Matt Reeves.

"Danny Simpson and I were chasing each other up and down the wing just to get our stats up," Albrighton says. "Some are off the charts, like Kante's."

Vardy recently complained that, with one running drill, Huth just gets to one side and sticks a big arm out to stop anyone getting by. It has helped to play a part in the squad's notably high fitness levels, but the club are also at the forefront of medical technology in sport, and have recently installed a cryotherapy chamber.

In terms of fundamental football training, two or three purely tactical sessions are done during the week so the players are not overloaded with information they can't register before a match. There is foresight and thought put into everything, giving Ranieri a perfect platform. The Italian's reputation as an old-school manager might be a romantic part of the story, but he enjoys a sophisticated backroom.

Redemption of the Roman general

Out of everything that has happened this season, there is one thing Albrighton still can't believe, and it came just last week: Ranieri's tears after the 2-0 win away to Sunderland. "We have never seen the emotional side of him. I think it shows how much he cares and how much he has put into this job since the summer. People questioned it, but we have been fantastic and it has worked."

It could all work towards Ranieri's grand redemption too. As the tears flowed, it's hard not to think his mind was filled with thoughts that he might finally win the first Premier League title of his career after six failed attempts, or his sacking from Greece just 18 months ago after losing to the Faroe Islands.

He was asked on Friday whether he cried because he finally realised what he has achieved. "I don't realise yet," Ranieri responded.

He did try to make everyone realise something else, with a pointed comment: "Nobody remembers the first match," he said. "Ranieri was sacked. Leicester was relegated. I remember."

Now, he could be responsible for something no-one will ever forget, but that offers something else that should be remembered about Ranieri. The Italian has endeared himself to people through his human touch - such as saying that he just loves the competition's theme music on being asked about securing Champions League qualification - but it would be a mistake to think he is a happy-go-lucky throwback just riding the wave of this unexpected last opportunity. There is a hardness and direction there too.

A clear example is his current attitude to predecessor Nigel Pearson. Initially gracious when the question first kept coming up, he has gradually grown irritated by it and now insists on pointing out that this sensational season is his own work, while constantly defending his record at other jobs, including Greece. He is only humble to a point, but that attitude is key for something like this.

Tor-Kristian Karlsen was the CEO who appointed Ranieri at Monaco four years ago, and he is surprised by none of it.

"I don't think anybody could've predicted Leicester's success, but when they appointed Ranieri I knew the club would be in good hands. He's a smart tactician and stays true to his concept. He's also got great people around him."

That also shows his intelligence. Ranieri was initially going to bring in more of his own staff but realised what an exceptional set-up there was at Leicester, so held off. He did feel Pearson's tactics didn't fully suit the squad, though, so discarded last season's 3-4-1-2 for a more efficient counter-attacking 4-4-2.

This has been one of his greatest personal successes. No-one has yet adapted to it. Ranieri has given Premier League teams a problem they have forgotten how to solve. He has exposed their complacency, and how much ready cash has made many teams lazy in their thinking.

That is the last thing you could accuse his Leicester of. They now must avoid their own complacency at the death.

A run that hasn't stopped

On Thursday, the PFA Player Of The Year nominations were announced, and brought almost as much discussion at Leicester as celebration The club has three players named - Vardy, Kante and Mahrez - but it's very hard to find any consensus on who should win. When asked, Ranieri said: "All my sons".

That isn't as solely diplomatic as it sounds. Part of the debate is because different players have defined different stages the season. The first few months were undeniably fired by Vardy, as he set Leicester on the way to a record-breaking achievement by scoring in a record-breaking 11 consecutive games. The middle months were illuminated by the elite creativity of Mahrez, as he added big goals to his glorious assists. The last seven games, then, have been defined by the defence. That no-nonsense resilience is just as appropriate since this is the run-in, when it gets serious, and so many other sides have buckled. There has been none of that so far with Leicester. They have kept six clean sheets in those last seven games, and five in a row.

Running through all of that, meanwhile, has been the energy of Kante and the steady consistency of players like Albrighton and Drinkwater.

It has all added up to ensure Leicester have just kept going. The pace was set on the first day of the season, in so many ways. They just got the ball at Sunderland and ran at them directly. From that exhilarating 4-2 win, they haven't stopped.

The manner has been slightly altered but the momentum has remained. The belief, however, has only grown. While Vardy became the first player to publicly talk about the title last week - finally breaking the mundane but understandable mantra of "taking every game as it comes" that Albrighton mischievously mocked last week - those close to the squad say it was around Christmas when they realised this really could be on.

"One thing that's massive is a winning habit," Albrighton says. "You get in that habit of grinding out wins and winning in different ways. It keeps you going."

That has built up to something that is almost as astounding as the idea that a squad like this is competing. It's that a squad like this, with no experience of challenging, have shown no sign of nerves. None of it has got to them. The constant comment is that it's been a mood of "relaxation", but with focus.

The great irony of this historic campaign could be that, as thrilling as they have made 2015-'16, they could make for an anti-climax because Leicester - of all clubs - can win it with games to spare. Much will depend on West Ham today, but we could really see something akin to Forest 1977-'80 or Greece 2004.

Ranieri was asked that on Friday. He merely perpetuated the attitude that has propelled them throughout. "Not yet, because they won. We made a good story but to make something you remember in 30, 40 years, you have to win."

It's time for the ultimate souvenir: the trophy itself.

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