Leicester City: A Former Champion Hurting on the Inside but Regaining Strength on the Pitch
Leicester City’s football trail has left a somewhat bewildering feeling of an uncertainty. The English Premier League (EPL) defending champions achieved a fairytale feat last season, to finish top of the 2015/16 season with a clenching victory.
The same will not be said for the current 2016/17 season but while that is most times expected given the competitiveness of the EPL, it was at one time more surprising to see a team that beat all odds, begin to lose severely against most odds.
It was critically unacceptable for a previously top four positioned team, to hang by a thread as it battled relegation with a point off the bottom four of the EPL table.
Then a shocking turn of events, emotional at that but also almost inevitable, occurred. Claudio Ranieri – the man who was at the forefront of leading a written-off team to glory- was sacked halfway the current season.
It would seem Leicester was all about luck and good timing however seemingly otherwise, the team incredibly reinvented itself and slowly but consistently, pulled itself out of the EPL relegation danger zone but more impressively, qualified for the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”We’re capable of the best and the worst. We won the league last year when no-one believed in us, no-one expected us,”[/perfectpullquote]
last season’s PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez told SFR Sport.
He added, “This season, we’re in the quarter-finals even though we’re 14th, 15th in the Premier League.
“We’re a crazy team, we can do everything. We’re capable of going; I don’t know where. I’m not saying we can win the Champions League because for me it’s impossible, but we’ll see, we’re capable of everything.”
However, Ranieri’s exit in a way still looms over the club following reactions and tensions quite obviously made clear by the public outcry which made Leicester seem like it was shredding itself to non-existence and quite frankly, coming off as a one-hit-wonder.
Former Italy, Roma and Valencia Manager Cesare Prandelli opened up about an offer from Leicester as a replacement coach, which he turned down not on the basis of lack of interest to move to England, but because the build-up to the opportunity was rather an awkward and incomprehensible situation.
“I said no,” Prandelli told French TV station SFR Sport. “There was an approach, but I immediately said no.”
He added, “You don’t go to a place like that after seeing how Ranieri was treated. You don’t go there. Full stop.”
There was a bandwagon of solidarity from some of the top coaches who stood by Ranieri. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp termed it “strange” amongst a list of decisions he compared it to – USA president-elect Donald Trump and Brexit.
“I have no idea why Leicester did this,” Klopp said.
Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho also expressed his solidarity and disappointment in Ranieri’s sacking while Slaven Bilic of West Ham called it a “bad” decision.
However, these reactions did not come without the admission that change in management has also proved substantially impactful – a fact that is well received among Ranieri’s contemporaries and football critics.
Before Ranieri’s dismissal, Leicester had five losses in a row. They had not won away from home all season, suffered defeats at home and in addition to gradually dropping to the relegation zone, were also kicked out of both domestic cup competitions and nearly suffered the same fate in the Champions League.
The upside of the reform, Leicester won at home against Liverpool and Hull, beat West Ham at the latter’s home, and came from a 2-1 loss to beat Sevilla 2-0 at home to extend their winning run to four wins from under stand-in coach, Craig Shakespeare.
But the drop in form under Ranieri this season raised questionable player commitments which many accused to be the lead up to a betrayal by the squad as may have been suggested, by die-hard fans and critics.
In another interview, Mahrez told Sky Sports that players did not let down Ranieri and took out positivity from the criticism which he believes will be a driving force in the team’s efforts to display proof of commitment to the club
“The players and the club know we didn’t let Ranieri down so whoever wants to speak can speak,” Mahrez said.
“The criticism doesn’t affect us. People speak because it is their job, they have to criticize. We are here to play and to win games.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Criticism is good for the team, it keeps us strong and then we can fight with more power.[/perfectpullquote]
“We didn’t for six, seven months, now we have started. But that doesn’t mean everything is good, we’ve only won three games. We need to keep going because it’s not finished.”
Criticism it appears was not the only backlash the players received. Striker Jamie Vardy, recently came out to reveal death threats he and his family received since Ranieri’s sacking with the 30-year-old calling the accusations that he influenced the club’s decision to sack the Italian, “hurtful” and “false”.
“The stories were quite hurtful, to be honest with you,” Vardy said. “A lot of false accusations were being thrown out there and there’s nothing us, as players, could do about it.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”As soon as they were in the papers they were out there. We just had to put it to the back of our minds and concentrate on the football.[/perfectpullquote]
This follows his alleged involvement in the dressing-room revolt that sabotaged Ranieri’s authority and also led to a wrong impression of Vardy as someone “football fans don’t seem to like”.
“To be honest, I get them (death threats) every week. Football fans don’t seem to like me that much. I get abuse at every stadium that I turn up at. To be honest, you are always going to get stick from fans. It is part and parcel of football.
“I try to get on with it but when people are trying to cut your missus up while she’s driving along with the kids in the back of the car it’s not the best. It’s happened plenty of times. It is terrifying.”
Of a speculated feud between the former manager and the players, he added, “No, none at all.
“Basically if there was an issue you went and did it in the gaffer’s office, man to man. Or you did it on the tactics board because he was happy for you to come in and put your opinion across.
“Apparently the meeting that got him sacked I read one story that said it was straight after the Sevilla game. Absolute shambles.
“It said I was personally involved in a meeting when I was actually sat in anti-doping for three hours. The stories were quite hurtful. A lot of false accusations were being thrown out there and there’s nothing us, as players, could do about it.”
“It’s hard. Don’t get me wrong, what he did for Leicester was unbelievable and nobody would have expected that [title] in a million years.
“We can only thank him for that. The way this season has gone, players never seem to be the ones who get the sack. It always falls on the manager and that is what has happened. We are all sincerely gutted that it did.”
There is no making out how far the team will progress but coming from a hopeless run to a hopeful one in crunching time, leaves room for anxiety over the team’s overall season performance.
However, as harsh as it may seem, Leicester City management in its duty decided to put the interests and future of the club ahead of compassion and personal sentiments.
Following Ranieri’s dismissal, vice-chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha said, “This has been the most difficult decision we have had to make in nearly seven years since King Power took ownership of Leicester City.
“But we are duty-bound to put the club’s long-term interests above all sense of personal sentiment, no matter how strong that might be.”
Leicester is the only and final English team in the Champions League.
Featured photo: Getty Images