As a sports fan, you are always ready for surprises. In fact, it’s those surprises that keep you glued to the action. They come few and far between, but the process of it unfolding is one of the most enjoyable aspects of sport.
The Premier League is one of the most followed sports competitions across the globe and there are few events that can match the drama it brings. In the Premier League, nothing is unfathomable. Yet in the summer of 2016, what unfolded, left everyone in utter disbelief.
“Leicester City! Leicester City are champions of England and the world is left to wonder, wide-eyed, thrilled, bemused, ‘How on earth did that happen?’.”
These words of Peter Drury as apt as they sounded couldn’t do justice to the emotion of the hour. Perhaps no words ever produced could achieve it.
Leicester City’s Premier League triumph of 2015-16 was stuff well beyond imagination, prediction, and even the wildest dreams. Even the pre-season odds of 5000-1 on Leicester winning the league was a mere number. In the weeks before it happened, everyone could see it coming, but no one believed it until it actually transpired.
In an era when financial might of the world’s richest football clubs had left no room for fairytales, Leicester City scripted one, rising from the ashes as nobody did.
A year before this remarkable triumph, the atmosphere in the midlands town was a stark contrast. In their first season since securing a Premier League return, they seemed destined to go back to the second tier.
But manager Nigel Pearson who had been at the helm since 2011, ever since owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha took charge of the club, guided the club to safety with seven wins in the last nine games. However, it wasn’t enough to keep Pearson who had fallen out with the board and was sacked at the end of the season much to everyone’s surprise.
After a lot of hesitation over his appointment, Leicester brought in Claudio Ranieri as his replacement, a man who returned to the Premier League after 12 years.
However, he wasn’t the only import that proved to be vital for the Foxes who had a busy summer. Former Chelsea defender Robert Huth arrived from Stoke City, Christian Fuchs from Schalke, Shinji Okazaki from Main 05. However, one signing that truly turned Leicester from a mid-table team into a champion outfit was the arrival of N’Golo Kante from the French second division side Caen. Nobody knew who Kante was at the time. The next ten months that followed were to tell everything about the little Frenchman.
After a solid pre-season that saw the Foxes remain unbeaten and record four wins, optimism was ripe at the King Power stadium. However, no one expected Leicester to do what they eventually achieved.
Beginning the season with a 4-2 home win against Sunderland when Vardy and Mahrez contributed largely, the tone had been set.
A victory at West Ham followed as the Foxes picked up from where they had left off last season. After going the first six games of the season unbeaten, Leicester found themselves in the fourth place.
No one, perhaps including Leicester City themselves took their challenge seriously.
A 2-5 home defeat at the hands of Arsenal was to be the moment when the bubble burst for Ranieri’s men. But emerging stronger from it, they went on another unbeaten run, this time with more wins than draws. Late goals and goals from Vardy were constant, so was the lack of clean sheets. However, such was Leicester City’s form that coach Ranieri could joke about it.
“I told them, if you keep a clean sheet, I’ll buy pizza for everybody. I think they’re waiting for me to offer a hot dog too,” the Italian said after his team kept the first clean sheet of the season in October in the 1-0 win over Crystal Palace.
Manchester United halted the Foxes’ four-game winning run with a 1-1 draw, but couldn’t stop Vardy from scoring in the eleventh game running to break Ruud van Nistlerooy’s record of scoring in consecutive matches.
The run was ended in the next match, but another star of that campaign got going. Mahrez, who later won the PFA Player of the year, netted a hat-trick in a 3-0 win over Swansea. Wins over Chelsea and Everton saw Leicester climb to the top of the table at Christmas, a highly accurate indicator of the impending champion.
If statistics were to be believed, Leicester had a smaller chance of losing the title after being top at Christmas. But “surely not,” was a general sentiment.
Ranieri, too, was happy to play it down. Deep down everyone knew something was happening at Leicester but the improbability of the outcome meant no one was quite prepared to stick their necks out.
After three winless games without scoring, the doubters found their voice again. But a champion-like 1-0 win at White Hart Lane revived the Leicester narrative yet again. A 2-0 win over Liverpool further strengthened it. It was February and the narrative that had outlasted its supposed shelf life was becoming a story.
A trip to Manchester City, perceived as the Foxes’ greatest challengers, awaited. Ranieri’s men triumphed 3-1. “You surely, got to believe them now!” were Peter Drury’s words. The improbable was becoming possible.
But then came a blow. A late 1-2 defeat to Arsenal gave optimism to the Gunners who were looking to end their own 12-year wait for the trophy.
But, Leicester, as they did with every defeat that season, bounced back with a win before being held to a draw at home to West Brom. Few at Leicester would have been too mindful of the result otherwise, but being in the title race comes with its own pressure. A point is not good enough.
Ranieri though exuded calm. In fact, he was jovial and could make those around him laugh.
“From the beginning when something was wrong I’ve been saying: ‘Dilly-ding, dilly-dong, wake up, wake up!’ So on Christmas Day, I bought all the players and all the staff a little bell. It was just a joke,” Ranieri said ahead of the Watford game where the Foxes looked to return to winning ways.
And they did just that. It was the start of a defining period in Leicester’s season, a time that every champion faces in their pursuit of glory. The form isn’t the best, the pressure is the highest and the need for points is never lower.
Ranieri’s men aced it. Four straight 1-0 wins followed by a 2-0 success sent Leicester 10 points clear at the top. Despite a late resurgence from Tottenham, the unthinkable was surely happening.
An upbeat West Ham United forced a share of spoils as a late Ulloa penalty earned the leaders a 2-2 draw. As the media pointed to dropped points, Ranier rejoiced in Leicester City sealing a place in next year’s Champions League. Also it was the first time the Italian admitted his side were favourites to win the Premier League title.
“Now we go straight away to try to win the title. We are in the Champions League, dilly ding, dilly dong - come on. We are in the Champions League, it is fantastic, terrific. Well done to everybody,” he said.
A resounding 4-0 success over Swansea followed and what seemed a matter of weeks became a matter of few days. Leicester City could lift the title with a win at Old Trafford. However, the Foxes only managed a 1-1 draw. It was then down to Tottenham to keep the title race alive with a win at Chelsea, a place where they had not won in decades.
A 2-0 lead at half time for Spurs suggested the title race would go on but a spirited Chelsea fight back in a physical second half saw the Blues eke out a 2-2 draw. Leicester were champions! The Leicester team who were following the game at Vardy’s house erupted.
It all happened at Stamford Bridge where Ranieri had last managed a Premier League game before his arrival at Leicester. He was sacked for failing to win the Premier League and it was there, 12 years later he led his side to the title.
The world spent the evening, perhaps next few days pinching itself, but Leicester had gone from underdogs to winners in space of months.
Sport is filled with remarkable underdog stories where triumphs are scripted against all odds. Few though would beat Leicester City and their heroics of 2015/16.