26 Apr 2016

Leicester City: a season beyond all expectations

The pundits said Leicester would crumble but now, with three games to go, they need just three points to make the fairy-tale become reality by winning the Premier League, writes Malcolm Boughen.

This just doesn’t happen. As a lifelong supporter of Leicester City, I can vouch for the fact that following the Foxes is consistently a story of promotion followed – a few years later – by inevitable relegation. Yes, there is the occasional period of fleeting success – the odd League Cup win. But never an FA Cup and never, never a Premier League title.

And “lifelong support” goes back, in my case, about 50 years. I just missed the last time Leicester were in a position to win the top league title – in 1962-3 – when they became known as the “Ice Kings”, as their groundsman managed to keep their pitch playable while other clubs suffered a series of postponements through a bitterly cold winter.

With a handful of games to play they were top of the league and in the FA Cup final. But they stumbled on the run-in, finishing fourth and losing the Cup Final to Manchester United.

The die was cast

But that final was my first memory of the club. Growing up in rural Lincolnshire in a family with no particular sporting interest, I had not really noticed football, until there was a buzz around the primary school playground. Do you support United or City? I chose Leicester. The die was cast.

For the next few years I followed their progress, cutting out match reports and sticking them into an album, until I was old enough to venture off to see them in the flesh. I vividly remember my first home game, in December 1968, travelling with a coachful of Manchester United supporters (them again) to Filbert Street to see Leicester win 2-1 against a team including Best, Law and Charlton. I was the only one in the stand who was celebrating. I don’t think I could get away with that these days.

After that, I was hooked – finding one way or another to make it to the East Midlands from wherever I happened to be over the next half a century.

The first highlight came in the mid-70s when manager Jimmy Bloomfield put together a side of all the talents, including Keith Weller, Frank Worthington and, my personal favourite, winger Len Glover. It was great to watch. But the side never won anything.

Rag-bag side of scrappers

We had to wait 20 years for another golden period, under Martin O’Neill. He put together a rag-bag side of scrappers who consistently played above themselves, finishing in the Premiership top 10 for four successive seasons and twice winning the League Cup.

But it didn’t last. O’Neill went to Celtic and it all fell apart, ending in administration in 2002 and relegation down to the third tier for the first time in our history in 2008.

Then came Nigel Pearson. He built a team spirit and will to win that has lasted to this day. He got us back into the Premier League where, last season, he presided over the greatest of great escapes from relegation. They owe him a lot.

His methods were unconventional – there was the “ostrich” jibe at a reporter in a press conference, the touch-line tangle with a Crystal Palace player and then – after an unsavoury incident on a pre-season tour in Thailand involving his son (one of the team’s youth players) – Pearson was unceremoniously fired by the club’s Thai owners.

Claudio Ranieri? Really?

That was it, we all feared – a feeling hardly dissipated with the appointment of Claudio Ranieri as the new manager. Gary Lineker – the club’s most high-profile supporter – famously tweeted: “Claudio Ranieri? Really?” Leicester started the season at 5,000-1 to win the title.

But it’s been a season beyond all expectations. The Tinkerman has been an inspiration. There was the Jamie Vardy record run of scoring in 11 successive league games (the record-breaker coming against Manchester United), the magic of Mahrez, the irrepressible Kanté, our indomitable centre-backs Huth and Morgan. Every player has played his part.

For most of the season we couldn’t – daren’t – believe it. But on Saturday 6 February it began to seem possible – a 3-1 win at Manchester City, the Barcelona of the Premier League, with Mahrez at his brilliant best.

The pundits said Leicester would crumble. They said it before Christmas and again on the run-in. But now, with three games to go, they need just three points to make the fairy-tale become reality.

And the next game? Away to Manchester United. Surely it couldn’t happen there… could it?