As Leicester City wrap up the most remarkable Premier League title win in history, Richard Jolly highlights five reasons that make this such a unique achievement.
Claudio Ranieri seemed to personify the theory that nice guys don’t finish first. He was the likeable nearly man, one who had been a runner-up in three countries but, in 16 previous jobs dating back almost 30 years, had never actually won a league title. Oh, and he had lost to the Faroe Islands while failing to win a game in charge of Greece. Nearing retirement age, he could be a manager in decline. He seemed to exist to generate unflattering comparisons with Jose Mourinho and to be on the receiving end of the Portuguese’s least flattering remarks. He appeared a very unlikely replacement for Nigel Pearson, his unsmiling predecessor whose squad comprised largely of graduates of England’s lower leagues, and was thrust into the job a month before the season started after the 52-year-old Pearson’s surprise sacking following lurid headlines created by badly-behaved players on a post-season tour.
Jamie Vardy did not enter the Football League until he was 25. He was a former factory worker who had played for Stocksbridge Park Steels in the depths of non-league and, before this season, he had only scored five top-flight goals. Riyad Mahrez came from Le Havre in Ligue 2. N’Golo Kante at least had one season in Ligue 1 before joining Leicester. Captain Wes Morgan had not made his top-flight debut until he was 30. Leicester were rejected by Jordan Veretout, who signed for an Aston Villa team who went on to become one of the worst in Premier League history. Marc Albrighton had already been discarded by Villa after losing his place in their side. He and Danny Drinkwater started fewer than half of Leicester’s games last season. Fringe figures scarcely seem ripe to be reinvented as pivotal players in a title-winning team.
Manchester City spent £158 million (Dh848m) last summer. Manchester United spent £285m over the past two years. Chelsea added to a title-winning team by investing a further £70m on new players. Even Newcastle, desperately fighting relegation, spent £80m on recruits over the last year. Ranieri settled on a starting 11 that cost just £22m. Perhaps even more remarkably, his outstanding individuals included the cheapest. Mahrez, the newly-crowned PFA Player of the Year, came for £450,000. Vardy, who made Premier League history by scoring in 11 consecutive games, was acquired for £1m. So was Morgan, another who was named in the team of the season. Albrighton and left-back Christian Fuchs were free transfers. Kante was bought for £5.6m. His arrival barely rated a mention in the footballing media.
Leicester were widely tipped for relegation (including, it must be said, in these quarters). Yet pundits and journalists were not alone in fearing the worst: Ranieri revealed Leicester's owners had the same worries and even told him they wanted him to stay if they were in the Championship. It enabled him to shrug off talk about their fine early-season form by saying his objective was to reach 40 points. It was only in the last few games that Ranieri started talking about the Champions League, only recently he began to mention the title.
The footballing world
Leicester finished 14th last season. No team has come from such a lowly position to win the league 12 months later since Nottingham Forest, promoted in 1977, sprung a surprise straight away. But those were more changeable times. Forest became the seventh champions in nine seasons. In contrast, only four clubs have won the Premier League in the last 20 years. Only six have even finished in the top four in the last decade. The dominance of a select few has become entrenched, and not just in England. Paris Saint-Germain confirmed their fourth successive French title in March. Bayern Munich are on course for a fourth Bundesliga crown in a row. Juventus have already secured the Scudetto for a fifth consecutive year. Spain’s title race is more closely contested, but between three participating clubs with 65 titles to their name. Leicester, in contrast, have a best finish of second, in 1929, and have not mounted a title challenge since 1963. They were in League One as recently as 2009 and bottom of the Premier League for 140 days last season. Before the last nine games then, they seemed set to revert to the Championship. Instead they are champions.