Sunday, Oct 02, 2022

The Toil Of The Foxes

Leicester City’s Premier League triumph is a tale of courage and hard work.

Leicester City celebrate winning Premier League title Leicester City fans celebrate with flags. (Reuters)

When Claudio Ranieri led his players through the tunnel to the dressing room after Monaco had banished their Champions League hopes in 2004, the Italian kept lipping his mother’s (and his own) favourite verse. It was from Rudyard Kipling “If”. In times of distress, Ranieri always resorted to this verse. His Chelsea had lost in the semifinals, a month after they had finished second in the league. Creditable achievement for a then Chelsea who were always a rung below the elites. But Ranieri knew the times were changing, for he had a sense of foreboding that the club’s new owner, oil baron Roman Abramovich, would shunt him out. His foreboding came true.

No amount of protests outside the stadium changed the Russian billionaire’s mind. Suddenly, Ranieri, a charming, balding, middle-aged man was deemed soft to quench the lofty ambitions of a club burnished by petro-dollars. This was a symbolic moment in English football. Suddenly, the Fergusons and Wengers became a specimen; managers were getting sacked every six months; players were overpriced, transfer records rocketed. Chelsea and Manchester City splurged insane sums to land multiple titles. More established clubs had to keep up with the Joneses. The dichotomy between the rich and the poor broadened and began reflecting on the title count. Good-old themes of scouting and grooming were overlooked for more off-the-rack results, so much so that bad business virtually meant bad season. It was impossible for an outsider to breach into the top-10, let alone win the league.

This premise makes Leicester City’s triumph even more compelling to narrate. Here’s a team that has an entire wage bill of less than $100 million, almost a fourth of Manchester United. Their entire squad was assembled for roughly the same amount Manchester City shelled out to acquire Belgian midfielder Kevin de Bruyne ($75 million). The Foxes’ record signing last year was Croatian striker Andrej Kramaric (roughly $15 million), who was loaned out to German club Hoffenheim. Not that their benevolent Thai owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha didn’t have deep pockets, but he wasn’t cast in the Abramovich-Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan dazzle-frazzle mould. Srivaddhanaprabha, who runs a duty-paid retail chain in Thailand, was more old-worldish. He gave the club’s board and support staff a free hand in the transfer market, but opened his purse strings judiciously. They wanted to build the team incrementally. And unlike the “Sheik of City” (Mansour) or Abrahamovic, he had not only passion but also a deep knowledge of the game. So before Ranieri’s meeting with Srivaddhanaprabha, he did extensive research on Ranieri and sought the counsel of former players Ranieri had worked with — Franceso Totti and Gabriel Batistuta.

Such research went into recruiting each player. A case in point is French midfielder N’Golo Kante, who was playing in a mid-table French club. Steve Walsh, the Leicester scout, unearthed the stat that no other player in France had made as many tackles or interceptions per game. They unearthed another gem, their creative spark, Riyad Mahrez, playing in second division French side Le Havre. Walsh figured he had the pace and precision that fitted Leicester’s smash-and-grab game plan — a complete antithesis to Europe’s much raved about short-passing, butterfly football. The greatest story perhaps is that of striker James Vardy, who until four years ago was playing non-league football in the Sheffield neighbourhood. The rest of the squad comprised a few big-club has-beens and rejects, championship veterans and late bloomers. Mahrez and Vardy were the catalysts, but their triumph wouldn’t have been possible without the toil of their teammates.

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Not to discount the managerial acumen of Ranieri, chided by the man who replaced him at Stamford Bridge. Ranieri never over-complicated his tactics nor tinkered with, as he is prone to, the starting eleven. They steadfastly followed a template — defend resolutely and counter-attack with vigour, those ancient English football traits. They had the perfect, though unheralded, players to execute this slightly pedantic style, and they just kept on adding finesse and polish. Thus was achieved sporting immortality, a tale that would be told and retold for generations to come. A tale of courage, conviction, daring, purpose and incredulity. And when Ranieri passes the Stamford Bridge tunnel, after the last fixture, to hold aloft the 25kg-trophy, he would have Kipling ringing in his ears.

First published on: 05-05-2016 at 12:01:31 am
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