WHEN LEICESTER CITY faced Manchester City earlier this month, it felt like a throwback at the King Power Stadium.
A high-octane start generating a raucous atmosphere, Riyad Mahrez’s deft touches slicing apart the opposition defence and Jamie Vardy smashing home goals for fun.
By the final whistle Leicester City were 4-2 winners and the home fans celebrated as the rain teemed down on a Saturday December evening.
In the context of the Premier League season, the result and performance served as a welcome respite. In the context of the 2016 sporting year, it seemed fitting.
Leicester City went from 5,000-1 outsiders in August 2015 to Premier League champions in May 2016.
Their epic triumph stands out from 2016 as one of the most remarkable and startling tales produced.
Jonathan Northcroft, Chief Football Correspondent of The Sunday Times, lives in Leicester and followed their title winning campaign closely.
In the aftermath he has written – ‘Fearless: The Amazing Underdog Story of Leicester City – and The42 spoke to Northcroft to try to make sense of how this stunning achievement happened.
Leicester City became the kingpins of English soccer last May, but how much did they feature in your working life before that and how did the book come about?
“My start with Leicester City would be back when I was working in Scotland – Scotland on Sunday and The Sunday Times – and when Craig Brown started trying to cap everybody who had a Scottish granny.
“Matt Elliott was one of the first in that process that he capped – Martin O’Neill was Leicester manager then – and I came down to speak to Matt at Filbert Street.
Martin O’Neill and Matt Elliott after the 2000 Worthington Cup final
Source: EMPICS Sport
“I had my eye on Leicester at that point but really since I’ve worked for The Sunday Times, it was as Northern Football Correspondent – that was the Manchester and Liverpool clubs – and then as Football Correspondent, you’re covering everything.
“I wouldn’t say Leicester was off the radar but it’s one of a number of clubs you’re covering. I do have a connection with the city which is my wife’s parents live here, which is why we moved here.
“Quite a few of the lads have said, you’re the ultimate glory hunter, moving there when they’ve won the title and writing a book about it, which is kind of half true.
“It’s more that my wife’s family live here, we’ve got a couple of young kids and we moved here for family reasons.
“We started the process of talking about moving in April 2015 and that point I was just hoping Leicester could stay in the league and I could get the odd couple of local games every season.
“I never thought I’d be moving to the home of the champions. We arrived in March and because I was moving to Leicester, a literary agent that I knew quite well texted me at half-time of the Man City game last February – ‘Seeing as you’re moving there, why don’t you write a book?’.
“I kind got swept away by the magic of it all because writing a book is not a good idea when you’ve got young kids and a full time job.”
Robert Huth celebrates scoring against Man City
Source: PA Archive/PA Images
Truth time. At the start of 2015-16 season when you gazed into the crystal ball, what did you see in store for Leicester City?
“Thankfully there’s no proof of predictions in print! We used to do predictions but we don’t any more. I’d have had them battling relegation certainly.
“They were a really good team at the end of 2014-15. But I just thought they’d had a really good run to survive.
“The one thing that was obvious was that they’d a really good spirit. I do know Kasper Schmeichel quite well – I used to ghostwrite his dad Peter when he’d a column at The Sunday Times.
“I interviewed Kasper at the start when Leicester were back in the league, went down to see him at the training ground and he was raving then that this place isn’t like anywhere else. There’s a very different bunch of lads here.”
Kasper Schmeichel celebrates with Jamie Vardy
Source: PA Archive/PA Images
Were you as uninspired as everyone else by the decision to put Claudio Ranieiri in the Leicester hotseat?
“Yes I was. I think like a lot of people, I quite lazily looked at what happened him with Greece and said this guy is on the downslope as a manager.
“I thought he was good with Chelsea and harshly treated then, and he’d done really well with Juventus and Roma.
“But I thought his career was starting to peter out a little bit and his appointment was probably one of those that happens when foreign owners rely on reputation.”
So at what stage did you start to think there was something different about Leicester’s season?
“The game where Vardy broke the record against United last year. I was at that game and that was the first time I thought something really special was happening.
“The whole world had their eyes on that match because of Vardy and his record. It would have been easy for Leicester to under perform and United were doing quite well at that time.
“But they were absolutely terrific and should have beaten United. I came away thinking this was quite special what this club were doing, although I still didn’t think they were going to win the league!”
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And that leads us on to when did you realise you were watching the new champions?
“After the Manchester City game (in February), I still thought Arsenal would do it, but a couple of games later after the Norwich one, I thought Leicester are going to win this league, Ulloa got a last minute goal.
Claudio Ranieri sends Leonardo Ulloa into action against Norwich City
Source: AP/Press Association Images
“But certainly after the City game, I felt if Leicester did fail it would be because of injuries and not because of mentality or anything like that. ”
You watched their games, you live in the city and you’ve written the book about them. Any wiser as to how the hell this happened?
“We’ll probably be thinking of that question for the rest of history really! I started off writing the book, thinking that I’m going to find the secret of Leicester but actually I realised it’s very shallow to think there must be a secret, there must be a formula.
“I don’t buy the others under-performed line as a reason for them winning. That created the conditions for another team to win it. But that doesn’t explain why Leicester did it.
“It could have been Southampton or West Ham or Spurs, who could have come from outside that title winning elite. Why didn’t they do it?
“You have to look at how the club was built, that starts with the dressing-room Kasper had told me about 18 months before. Then the players, it’s rare you get 10, 11 players having the season of their lives all at the same time.
“I think tactically Ranieri, where he made the difference was in refining that game plan. He freed up Mahrez.
“Ranieri has a brilliant track record with attacking players. James Rodriguez had the best season of his career under Ranieri at Monaco, his Chelsea team had Damien Duff and Joe Cole playing at their best.
“Another thing is it was a very unified club, not one pulling in different directions. That sounds simple but it doesn’t happen often in the Premier League.
“And the big thing they did was a mental trick, never to think about the consequences. It’s difficult to achieve but they stayed in the moment brilliantly.”
Source: Martin Rickett
How did you find spending time with some of the stars after Leicester’s win – Kasper Schmeichel, Marc Albrighton, Robert Huth, Wes Morgan and Andy King – players who were unheralded and had reached the summit of their sport?
“I did my main interviews for the book in between them winning the title and finishing the season because they didn’t want to speak before winning the title.
“They were in a kind of dreamworld, reality hadn’t struck. But I’ve seen them since and they’re all pretty unaffected by it.
“You’re right to say these guys were unheralded and hadn’t achieved anything like this before and when you think of the places they’d come from, a lot of them had come up against real adversity either in their lives or careers or both.
“There’s a kind of stoicism about them all. That was really nice. Most of them talked about their families, most of them talked about where they’d come from in their careers.
“That was them mentally understanding the context of what they’d done and being very mindful of that.”
Going back to the fact that you were living in Leicester in the last couple of months of the season. There must have been an amazing atmosphere at that time?
“Leicester is an unusual city. It’s the only minority white city in England. It’s got incredible multi-culturalism and it’s a real strength of the city.
“It’s got a different vibe to everywhere else because of that and that gives it a different flavour in football terms. I’ve lived in Liverpool before, I used to live in Glasgow and I’m from Aberdeen.
“Now certainly Glasgow and Liverpool are real football cities. It is on everyone’s mind. Aberdeen to a lesser extent but still the football club is a thing people do talk about.
“Leicester’s not like that. There’s a lot of people who aren’t into football. What I find with some of my Asian friends, are quite often Liverpool, Man U or Chelsea fans because basically their Mums or Dads supported those teams before they arrived in Britain.
“The city was enjoying itself but I lived in Liverpool when they won (the Champions League) in 2005 and that was just bedlam, sheer madness.
“Leicester was a lot more gentle than that but also really nice because it was people enjoying it in a very innocent way.
“The two things I remember most were the night they won it, being down at the King Power and seeing different scenes to what I’d seen in Liverpool in 2005.
“A lot more families, a lot less drinking because quite a lot of the Asian population don’t drink.
Leicester City fans celebrate after Chelsea drew with Tottenham to hand them the league title
Source: Nigel French
“A really sort of good natured celebration but also you could see in people’s faces they didn’t really know what to do. They’d never been in anything like that before.
“And then the parade was incredible because the King Power only holds 30,000 and tickets are limited so not everyone can go but everybody can go to the parade, which was much more inclusive of the different cultures and people in the city.
“People that maybe hadn’t been to a football stadium before but wanted to see what the parade was going to be like. That was an incredible day, you just saw everybody of all ages.
“Women wearing blue hijabs and old Caribbean guys watching the parade, that was a really special day. I’ll remember that for a long time.”
Leicester City fans celebrate their glory
Source: Nick Potts
Looking at Leicester’s form this season seems to confirm how incredible it was what they achieved last May. Does it seem more special to you now and will we ever something like it again?
“It was like stepping out of a time machine a couple weeks ago against City and being back there. They’ve reverted to something a bit more like what you’d call normality this season.
“I was speaking to a friend of mine recently who’s a Leicester fan. It was after they drew with Middlesbrough where there were a few boos of the team. He was laughing and saying, ‘Look, a draw against Middlesbrough, that’s actually historically a good result for Leicester. That’s kind of what we do’.
“People are kind of forgetting that. I’m surprised how quickly they’ve fallen back to what you’d call normal Leicester because I did expect them to have a bit more momentum.
“There’s been the difficulty of coping with new found success and I don’t think they’ve recruited very well. I agree that it seems more special now. I think Ranieri himself said these things happen once every 50 years. He’s probably right.
“I wouldn’t say it’ll never happen again because the fact it happened once shows it could happen. As I’ve said the big clubs under-performing created the conditions for it to happen and it’s hard to see those conditions available again for a long, long time.
“It’s definitely shocked the big clubs into acting. Look at their recruitment. I think the bigger clubs will be stronger in their planning from now on.
“But what I do know is that I will be looking back on what Leicester did at the end of my football reporting days and thinking how being there is one of my career highlights.”
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