Leicester City: A Year After the Dream

Written By Salvatore Bono

Monday May 2, 2016, the Leicester City players gathered together inside teammates’ apartments or in bars to watch Chelsea play Tottenham.

As the members of the Foxes watched, their manager, Claudio Ranieri was returning to England from a lunch date he had with his mom in Rome that afternoon.

What the players and their boss wanted was to see Spurs tie or lose, if that happened, Leicester City would win their first Premiership title ever. Claudio Ranieri, who had managed teams all around the world, would also have his first championship as manager.

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Chelsea and Tottenham tied 2-2, the Foxes were crowned champions.

A year after their dream season everything changed and the club that had the world at their feet went back to being a midlevel club.

5,000-1

In the summer of 2015, Claudio Ranieri was appointed by Leicester City after they fired successful but controversial manager Nigel Pearson.

Pearson kept the club afloat in the Premiership but he had a tumultuous relationship with the board.  The final straw came following the publication of a “racist sex tape” featuring his son James along with three Foxes reserves while in Thailand during a post-season goodwill tour that summer.

The board had enough, sacked Pearson and hired former Roma and Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri who had been sacked by the Greek national team in November 2014.

For Ranieri and the board, the objective was to simply stay in the Premiership, what happened was legendary.

Players like Jamie Vardy, N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Danny Drinkwater, Wes Morgan, and Kasper Schmeichel, Christian Fuchs, quickly became household names and international icons thanks to their performance under Ranieri.

The club went from zeroes to heroes in nine months.

“Before we played our first match of the season, I told the players, ‘I want you to play for your teammates. We are a little team, so we have to fight with all our heart, with all our soul. I don’t care the name of the opponent. All I want is for you to fight. If they are better than us, Okay, congratulations. But they have to show us they are better’,” Ranieri wrote on The Players’ Tribune in April 2016

“There was a fantastic electricity in Leicester from the very first day. It starts from the chairman and goes to the players, the staff, the fans. It was unbelievable what I felt. In the King Power Stadium, there was a terrific energy,” he added. “Do the fans sing only when we have the ball? Oh, no, no, no. When we are under pressure, the fans understand our pain and they sing their hearts out. They understand the complexity of the game, and when the players are suffering. They are very, very close to us.”

Ranieri and the players became heroes to their city, the Italian tactician was left speechless weeks before winning the title after fans made a tribute video for him to show their appreciation.

“The Leicester fans I meet in the street tell me they are dreaming. But I say to them, ‘Okay, you dream for us. We do not dream. We simply work hard’,” he wrote on The Players’ Tribune.

After bookies made a 5,000-1 bet at the Foxes winning the title at the start of that season, he eventually led the team and the tiny British city to glory and the world watched and applauded. Suddenly, everyone was a Leicester fan.

Don’t Dream, It’s Over

For the last home game of the historic 2015/2016 season, Leicester hired Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli to perform inside King Power Stadium as they were handed the trophy.

There was Champagne flowing, fans in ecstasy and a manager and club who tasted glory for the first time, not to mention their first Champions League berth.

As the team and club were recognized through the summer, not much was added to the squad. In fact, Kante left for Chelsea and his vacancy created a major hole in the midfield that was never filled.

Once the 2016/2017 season started, Ranieri was worried about the team resting on their laurels and that is exactly what they did. They looked complacent, they were beatable, and looked like the Leicester of old not the one the world became accustomed to under the Italian.

As the season went on, the losses piled up. The spark that Ranieri gave his players just a year prior had faded away. Vardy couldn’t find the back of a net even if it was open. They looked tired, uninspired and most of all, boring.

The Italian couldn’t do anything to help them. The January transfer window came and went and instead of adding players or dropping underperforming ones, they kept the same losing squad which continued to be in free fall.

Yet, they were doing surprisingly well in the Champions League, making it out of the group stage and into the Round of 16, which surprised the world again – could Leicester City challenge for the greatest trophy in European sports?

Leicester were staring down the bottom of the Premiership table and were looking good in a harder league.  Truly, with this team, anything was possible.

By the end of February, the board of directors had enough and in a controversial move, they sacked the Italian and replaced him with his assistant manager, Craig Shakespeare.

Ranieri was too upset for words and the fans were outraged. They staged protests, chanted his name inside King Power, and nearly every pundit around the globe couldn’t believe it. Even players from other teams were outraged, no one wanted to believe that the man who led the club to their first trophy would be fired 298 days later.

“We share the blame for our performances on the pitch but we wouldn’t be able to influence a guy like that,” Schmeichel told BBC shortly after Ranieri was fired.

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Suddenly, everyone believed the players were staging a quiet coup to get the man who made them global sensations fired. In the past it had happened at clubs like Chelsea during the end of Jose Mourinho’s second spell, as well as the end of Louis Van Gaal’s term at Manchester United and Rafa Benitez’s short tenure at Real Madrid. It wasn’t impossible to think that way.

“I cannot believe that my players killed me. No, no, no. The players maybe don’t give their maximum because there are other problems,” told Sky Sports shortly after his firing. “Other problems could be that when they were here before they earned a little less, and after that they earned double or triple. Maybe when you were safe in the last match and restart the season, you are so concentrated to be solid and strong. We started very well the year before. Then when you come back in pre-season when you have won the title, you go around the world. You go to America to play against big teams for the first time in your life. The situation is totally different.”

Despite the emotional attachment to Ranieri, Shakespeare proved his worth and turned the season around.

The club finished 12th and had a respectful performance in Champions League after being defeated in the quarterfinals by Atletico Madrid.

The dream for Leicester ended but it wasn’t a nightmare.

Awakening

What Leicester needs to do next is try and retain the players from their magical season and build around them. The spending that did not happen but should have in the 2016 offseason needs to happen this summer if the Foxes want to be a major club again and not just a fluke.

Craig Shakespeare is staying on as manager and is doing his best to hang on to some of his stars like Mahrez who is rumored to leave the club and head to either Arsenal or Chelsea this summer. Also, Demarai Gray is rumored to head to Tottenham but Shakespeare has promised him more playing time should he stick around. Club-record signing Islam Slimani, who arrived just last year, is already available to be transferred and could help fund other moves for the Foxes before the season starts next month.

Earlier this month, Vicente Iborra came from Sevilla to help Vardy in attack.

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As for Ranieri, the Italian is headed back to France where he will manage FC Nantes.

Whatever happens with the Leicester next season and the season after and so on is unknown, but what has already occurred is something football fans will remember for ages.

What Leicester gave the world of sport is something that will be spoken about a hundred years from now. The Foxes became the symbol of hope and that anything is possible. They still must believe that and push for a better tomorrow.

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