Friday 20 April 2018

Unity and team spirit drives sexy football show to brink of immortality

Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez
Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez

Tommy Conlon

Last summer they began their pre-season with a friendly against Lincoln City in front of fewer than four thousand fans. Leicester City's summer schedule this year will include games against Barcelona in Stockholm and Paris Saint-Germain in Los Angeles.

They've come a long way, baby. The question now of course is whether they can go all the way. Starting against Southampton today, they have seven games left to accomplish one of the greatest sporting achievements ever. Seven games to rule the Premier League world. Seven games to reach a destination that was so improbable it would, as Gary Lineker recently said, be "hard to find a bigger surprise in any team sport in history".

Leicester's priorities were a lot more modest when they fetched up at Sincil Bank to play Lincoln that day in July. Already many of their fans were fearful of relegation, and perhaps worse.

The club had dumped Nigel Pearson, the manager who'd steered them into the Premier League and who then had orchestrated, late in 2014/'15, a miraculous escape from the drop having spent 140 days at the bottom of the table. In addition, their player of the season, the Argentine Esteban Cambiasso, was leaving. "The best player I have ever seen in a Leicester shirt," lamented one supporter. And now they had appointed Claudio Ranieri as manager, last seen in November 2015 presiding over a 0-1 defeat for Greece - against the Faroe Islands. The Greek FA duly sacked him. Ranieri, to many observers, was a beaten docket.

Robert Huth had played a crucial role in Leicester's unprecedented surge to safety. Pearson had brought the powerful but wooden centre-half in on loan from Stoke City for the last 14 games. Before he was sacked, Pearson signed the German on a permanent deal. Showing a fair share of self-deprecation, Huth tweeted: "Now the sexy football show rolls into Leicester!"

Everyone laughed and maybe nobody was more surprised than the veteran himself when Leicester actually started the season playing said sexy football. Their 4-2 win against Sunderland was the club's best opening day in the top tier since 1927. They would become the only Premier League team to score goals in the first 17 games of the season. During that run Jamie Vardy scored in 11 consecutive games to break Ruud van Nistelrooy's record.

But something else was also manifest by then: a vibrant togetherness, an ironclad unity. It was there in the results. Two-nil down against Aston Villa in September, they won 3-2; 2-0 down against Stoke in the very next game, they drew 2-2; 2-0 down away to Southampton in early October, they drew 2-2. They had also been 1-0 down to Bournemouth, Tottenham and West Brom and had scrambled for points. After 11 games they had salvaged 10 points from losing positions.

"We have fantastic team spirit," Ranieri declared after the Southampton game. "We believe everything could be possible. I believe in this team. When we are desperate we make more, more and more."

They went into Christmas top of the table. By now their names were becoming familiar way beyond Leicester; by now the football world was waking up to their story.

Riyad Mahrez was showing pure star quality and sharing the limelight equally with Vardy. But other players were shedding their journeyman status: the midfielder and Manchester United cast-off Danny 'Drinky' Drinkwater, described by team-mate Christian Fuchs as "the English Andrea Pirlo". Fuchs, the veteran Austrian international, had become another linchpin in their defence; Shinji Okazaki, 93 caps for Japan, was also making his mark in attack. Both, like Huth, had also been signed by Pearson in the summer. All three were battle-hardened professionals with the right attitude. Vardy himself was a factory worker and part-time player until his mid-20s.

It was Huth's 83rd-minute header that stole all three points in their critical encounter with Spurs last January. And now in these heady times even Per Mertesacker's fond designation by English fans as the "Big F*****g German" is being seriously challenged. Huth may well become the BFG of choice. "It's not often," he tweeted after his winner, "having a square-shaped head comes in useful!"

Ranieri's first signing was another discovery: the unrelenting N'Golo Kanté, all 5' 6" of him, signed from SM Caen in France for a reputed £5.6m and probably the bargain of the season. The team now had a formidable duo in midfield. "Drinky is a pilot of the car," said Ranieri in his broken English. "The engine is Kanté, never stopping."

Kasper Schmeichel, released at one stage of an up-and-down career by Leeds, was providing authority and stability in goals; Wes Morgan likewise in the centre of defence. And Marc Albrighton, released by Villa without much regret, doing a sparkling job on the wing.

"We have gone through a lot," said Morgan in February. And maybe it is one reason why they have played with such enormous zeal game after game: people who get a second or third chance to make a good life for themselves don't easily forget the struggles they endured to get there. They have learned the hard way.

After that cavalier start to the first third of the season, Huth & Co have racked up 12 clean sheets in the Premier League; they have lost three games in total.

Seven to go: a small city in midlands England is holding its breath, its people petrified with hope.

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