EPL history has been made! Leicester City's season of faith
In years to come, Claudio Ranieri’s transformation from nearly man to maestro will be part of any chapter on football miracles, writes Dileep Premachandran
As Eden Hazard’s magnificent first-time finish pegged Tottenham Hotspur back, and gifted off-duty Leicester City a first top-division title, talk inevitably veered to the Stamford Bridge curse.
Spurs haven’t won there in more than 26 years, and the scars from this disastrous second-half showing may take a while to heal.
In years to come, disconsolate Spurs fans will look back at the two games against Leicester that were pivotal in the final reckoning. At the King Power Stadium in August, Spurs led through Dele Alli’s 81st minute goal.
Chelsea fans celebrate as Leicester City became EPL champions in London on Monday. pic/Getty Images
The advantage lasted only 90 seconds though, with Riyad Mahrez — who would go on to be voted Player of the Season by his fellow professionals — lashing in a left-footed shot to ensure that Leicester went to the top of the table.
When they met again in January at White Hart Lane, the gap between the two teams was four points. Again, it was a late goal, from Robert Huth — once of Chelsea — that allowed Leicester to draw level with Arsenal at the top of the table.
Spurs fell seven behind, a gap that they couldn’t close despite eye-catching wins against the likes of Manchester City and Manchester United.
Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri
The oldest generation of Spurs fans would have winced at the identity of the teams involved in this year’s denouement. In 1960-61, Spurs had become the first team in the 20th century to complete the league-and-cup double. They romped to the league title with 31 wins in 42 matches. The team they beat 2-0 in the FA Cup final? Leicester City.
The top scorer that season was Chelsea’s Jimmy Greaves, who was sold to AC Milan that summer. After a torrid spell in Italy’s fashion capital, Greaves was bought by Spurs to bolster their title defence. The surprise package that season were Ipswich Town, who had been promoted as Second Division champions in 1961.
Ipswich beat Spurs 3-2 at home and 3-1 away, and finished four points — it was two for a win back then — ahead. Managed by Sir Alf Ramsey, they were powered to the title by Ted Phillips, who scored 28 goals.
Phillips was the Jamie Vardy of his time. Starting off at Leiston, his local club, he joined the army before Ipswich’s scouts spotted him. The club’s initial contract offer was refused because Phillips said he earned more money as a gardener! When Ramsey left to manage England in 1963 — he would win the 1966 World Cup — the Ipswich project fell apart. Leicester, the quintessential yoyo club, would lose two more Cup finals in 1963 and 1969 before a similar fade into mediocrity.
A generation later, another legendary manager would take an unfashionable provincial club and make them champions. When Brian Clough arrived at Nottingham Forest in January 1975, they were in the Second Division.
In 1976-77, they finished third and were promoted, an achievement that led to Clough being interviewed for the England job.
The Football Association chose Ron Greenwood instead, and Clough would outdo his remarkable achievements at Derby County by winning the First Division title at the first time of asking.
Forest finished seven points clear of a Liverpool team that were on the way to establishing their own European dynasty.
Forest didn’t lose a single home game, and lost just three all season. Their unbeaten run in the league, across two
seasons, would eventually stretch to 42 games, a record surpassed only by Arsenal’s Invincibles in 2004-05 (49 matches).
Back then though, clubs like Forest and Ipswich hadn’t effectively been priced out of the honours. In the Premier League era, only Blackburn Rovers [bankrolled by Jack Walker’s millions in 1994-95] have broken the stranglehold of United, Arsenal, Chelsea and City.
Leicester, who started the season as 5000-1 outsiders, have spent less in their entire 132-year history than United have in two seasons under Louis van Gaal.
Their scouts have done a stellar job in picking up Vardy from non-league Fleetwood Town, Mahrez from Le Havre in France’s Ligue 2, and N’Golo Kante from Caen.
In the years to come, Claudio Ranieri’s transformation from nearly man to Leicester maestro will be part of any chapter on football miracles, alongside the feats of Ramsey and Clough, and bolt-from the blue victories by Hellas Verona in Italy (1984-85) and Montpellier in France (2011-12).
With City welcoming Guardiola in the summer, Antonio Conte due to arrive at Chelsea, and rumours of Jose Mourinho taking up the Old Trafford hot seat, the old empires are likely to strike back with a vengeance next season.
For now, we should just reflect on and savour what the movie Finding Forrester called ‘a season of faith’s perfection’.