The madness of how Leicester turned from dreamers into dream-makers

The Leicester City story is so captivating because Claudio Ranieris champions in waiting have brought hope where many thought there was none

This, perhaps, is an opportune moment to recall a line from Graham Chapman a man born in Leicester even if his unofficial plaque, pointing out he is not the Messiah, is located outside one of his favourite drinking holes in Highgate when he and John Cleese were writing what turned out to be the Dead Parrot sketch for Monty Pythons Flying Circus.

What is not entirely known is that it was originally a faulty toaster that the customer was taking back to the hardware store. It was Chapmans intervention that turned it into gold. How can we make this madder? he had wondered. The toaster was replaced by a dead Norwegian Blue parrot and television was given one of its more surreal pieces of lunacy.

How can we make this madder? would probably be an apt title when someone gets round to writing the book about what has happened to Leicester City. None of it really makes sense. Baffling, beautiful and stamped with its own copyright. Where else, just for starters, has a story of this nature begun with a manager, infamous for calling a journalist an ostrich, being sacked after an orgy involving several players, one being his son, on a club tour to Bangkok? What kind of logic went into deciding the best person to replace that manager was someone who had lost his last job, in charge of Greece, after losing to the Faroe Islands? And good luck to any prospective title-winners trying to copy the formula.

Some enterprising street sellers have appeared outside the King Power Stadium in the past couple of weeks with several bags filled with Champions scarves. Some were held aloft after the win at Sunderland last weekend and Alan Birchenall has used his column in the Leicester Mercury to urge supporters not to get too far ahead of themselves. Not yet, anyway. I know some of the fans who wore them got an ear-bashing from other fans, Birchenall says. Lets park those sort of things until the time is right.

Yet Leicester is being dizzied by title fever. Claudio Ranieris latest press conference featured questions from Barcelonas Sport newspaper, Fox Australia, La Repubblica, the Discovery Networks and BT Sport, a Danish newspaper which has a correspondent in Leicester for the next three weeks. The problem is we cannot get into any games, its reporter, Farzam Abolhosseini, says glumly. Leicesters press box is oversubscribed and buying a ticket is not straightforward unless you can afford the obscene amounts the touts are asking (up to 15,000). Otherwise, there are Sold Out posters around the stadium where, walking down Lineker Road, past the old electricity station, the car garage and along Filbert Way to the home of the champions in waiting, one word stands out. It is emblazoned on the side of the stadium in giant capital letters: Fearless.

Leicester have already appeared on the front of the Wall Street Journal in an article that handily explains it is Less-ter, not Lie-ches-ter, and asks whether a correlation can be drawn between the discovery of Richard IIIs remains in the city and the fact that ever since he was ceremonially reburied, in March last year, the team have barely stopped winning.

Sports Illustrated has introduced readers to the story with the headline: As likely as Elvis being alive. CNNs cameras have been carrying out vox-pops in the city centre and a small army of Japanese journalists, following Shinji Okazakis progress, has flown into the place where JB Priestley once wrote he was quite ready to praise it, but glad to think I did not live in it. Leicester: the city of Showaddywaddy, Joseph Merrick, Willie Thorne, Engelbert Humperdinck and Adrian Mole. Population: 330,000. Motto: Semper Eadem. It means Always the Same and in a football context that is not a bad description of the clubs 132-year existence. League titles pre-2016: zero. FA Cup wins: same again. Fairytales: ditto.

It has not been an entirely heroic journey and they might have to forgive us for suspecting some fancy footwork, to put it in the most generous terms, to circumnavigate the Football Leagues financial fair play regulations when they were promoted two years ago.

Jamie Vardys racism, caught on CCTV at a late-night casino, is not a stain that will wash out easily and let us not forget it was Leicester going into administration, wiping out 50m of debt, that shocked the Football League into imposing 10-point penalties for any clubs planning similar tactics. Leicester owed 6m in tax at the time and perhaps it would be a decent gesture, on the verge of hitting the jackpot, if they remembered the 16,000 they owed to East Midlands Ambulance Service or the 4,415 that should have been paid to St John Ambulance for providing first-aid volunteers. They have never seen a penny and nobody can possibly say Leicester cannot afford to put it right.

All the same it would need a remarkable killjoy not to appreciate what has happened at a club that spent almost six months 175 days, to be precise in the bottom three last season with their toes in danger of being tagged for the relegation morgue.

Leicester has had a world snooker champion, an X Factor winner, a Glastonbury-headlining band and a secret diary-keeper, aged 13 and three-quarters, who once had a go at glue-sniffing and accidentally stuck a model aeroplane to his nose. What they have never had is a title-winning football team and, barring one near miss in 1962-63, they have never really been close since finishing as runners-up to Sheffield Wednesday in 1929. Since the second world war Leicester have spent as many years outside the top division, 35, as they have in it. They have managed only five top-seven finishes, the last being 40 years ago, and were grubbing around for points among the puddles and potholes of third-tier football as recently as 2009.

On this weekend seven years ago they were preparing for League Ones run-in on the back of a 3-1 win against Hereford United at Edgar Street, in front of 4,389 people. Leicester had three matches left: Southend, Scunthorpe and Crewe. Dont assume Riyad Mahrez was joking when he said he had never heard of Leicester until they tried to sign him. I thought they were a rugby club, the Algerian explained.

Claudio
The belief Claudio Ranieri has instilled in his Leicester City side is remarkable as the Premier League title beckons. Photograph: Plumb Images/Getty Images
What we have now is thrilling schadenfreude for those of us who find ourselves peering inside footballs bubble and not always liking what we see about the establishment, the churn of success for the same old superpowers and the way, at some clubs, it sometimes feels as if money is the way they keep the score. Leicesters entire wage bill, to put it into context, is 57m, roughly a quarter of that of the Manchester United side who are now barely a speck in their wing-mirrors.

It may seem surprising that Leicester are the eighth-highest net spenders since promotion but, then again, just consider how much the three players nominated for the Professional Footballers Associations Player of the Year award cost the club. Four years ago Vardy was turning out for Fleetwood Town, Mahrez was playing for Le Havre reserves and NGolo Kant was breaking through in a Boulogne side slithering towards the Championnat National, Frances third division. They cost a combined 7.1m and heaven knows what they would fetch in the current market.

Not that Leicester need to think that way these days. The dreamers have become the dream-makers. They have reached this point with starting odds of 5,000-1 and, in the process, they are changing all our perceptions. Because if Leicester can win the league, then, crazy as it sounds, what is to stop the supporters of Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and other like-sized clubs wondering whether the same can happen to them one day?

The truth, of course, is more prosaic and it is much more likely normal service will resume next season when Manchester City will surely improve under Pep Guardiola, Chelsea cannot be so bad again and Manchester United would presumably like to think the same about themselves. But this is why Leicesters story is so captivating. They have brought hope where many thought there was none. They have supplied hard, exhilarating evidence that it is possible to catch and overhaul the super-rich and, in doing so, they have made glorious buffoons out of all of us who imagined them in the relegation quicksands.

The stampede of people tipping Leicester to slip into the Championship included correspondents from the BBC, ITV, the Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and, yes, the Guardian. Leicesters title odds were the same as Dagenham and Redbridge winning the FA Cup or the Loch Ness Monster being discovered in the River Soar. And how many people had a flutter? Twenty-five, according to William Hill, ranging from a woman in Edinburgh who put on five pence and might get 250 for her troubles to the two largest stakes, 20, placed in Warwick and Manchester.

The gamblers include a Brighton supporter, Nathaniel Whessell, who placed his 60p bet for a laugh and plans to spend the summer in Ibiza if he rakes in 3,000 winnings. In total the 25 bets amounted to 68.55. Only three, however, were placed in Leicester, which suggests that many people in the city shared Gary Linekers suspicions last July about the appointment of their new manager. Claudio Ranieri? Lineker wrote on Twitter. Really?

Not everyone, though. Leigh Gilbert stuck a fiver on as soon as the former Chelsea manager was hired. I think I was the only one who liked the idea, says the 39-year-old carpenter. Everyone else I spoke to was incredibly negative. You can imagine what it was like The Tinkerman? Oh great, hes going to do nothing but that was the moment it clicked in my head and I thought: Im going to stick some money on this. I really thought Ranieri, with all his experience, all the teams he has managed, could do something. Though I have to admit it did help that Id had a few drinks that night.

Gilbert used to sell raffle tickets for Leicester in their days at Filbert Street, when one side of the ground was so much smaller than the others a dozen or so enterprising supporters would get a free view from the roof of Bentleys, an engineering factory in Burnmoor Street (hence the fans forum known as Bentleys Roof). Next season, he says, he hopes to spend his winnings on a season ticket. It is not straightforward, however. They tell me the waiting list is astronomical.

From Ranieri, taking his seat for a standing-room-only press conference, there was an apology for abandoning his usual policy of shaking everyones hands. I would lose one hour, Ranieri said, looking round a sweaty, airless room filled with 70-plus journalists. Ranieri talked about how much he loved the Champions League music and his tears at Sunderland. He called his players my sons and reminisced about starting the season as the manager with the shortest odds to be sacked (I remember it very well). His eyes twinkled, his smile was never far away.

Would he like a statue? In Italy we have a saying that you get a statue only when you are dead, he replied, and he rocked with laughter.

Its too easy to have a great season with great teams, Alessandro Vocalelli wrote in Corriere dello Sport this week. Leicester are the tangible demonstration that fairytales still exist and the classic clubs arent the only ones who can have a go at winning something. But you can root for Claudio, too, and his ability to be moved, those tears he wiped away and how natural he is in interviews, which he always undertakes with a smile, without any sense of arrogance or tension, admitting hes emotional. I am, yes. Whats wrong with that? The only risk is that he makes everyone else working in this stressful profession look even more sad and weary.

A club that played Lincoln City, Mansfield Town, Burton Albion, Rotherham United and Birmingham City in pre-season have been confirmed for this summers International Champions Cup with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Leicesters story is sport as we would like it, Maurizio Crosetti, La Repubblicas correspondent, has written, noting the temptation to switch over from Serie A where people get kicked in the head, throw fireworks and live with suspicions, hysteria, victim complexes and whining. Ranieris tears of joy are much better. Hes a good person who has worked a lot and won little, from Vigor Lamezia to the Premier League, via Spain, France, Greece, Juve, Roma, Inter and many other places without ever showing a lack of class.

A book, incidentally, is three-quarters written (though Rob Tanner, chief football writer of the Leicester Mercury, has named it 5,000-1) and its pre-orders come from as far away as Singapore. Tanner has a copy of the front cover Hope and disbelief in the Premier Leagues greatest-ever season but, first things first, Leicester have to make sure it is a happy ending and that nothing stops their captain, Wes Morgan, getting his hands on the trophy.

Morgan is another classic Leicester story: a wall of a centre-half with a tattoo shop called Ink-credible and a childhood rejection from Notts County for being so overweight. Morgan has been such a rock in Leicesters defence Harry Redknapp paid him the ultimate compliment last week. I think he has been very unlucky not to have got an England cap by now, Redknapp said. I dont think he would let anyone down if given the chance.

The news of Morgans 25 caps for Jamaica has clearly not reached everyone but, somehow, that oversight fits neatly into the Leicester narrative. The mind goes back to a feature on Sky Sports a few weeks ago when various Tottenham fans were asked outside White Hart Lane whether the title could still be heading their way. All of them said yes. Leicester are nobodies, one loudly exclaimed. Come on, you do the maths. Glorious nobodies on the point of history. And it really could not get any madder.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/apr/15/leicester-city-dreamers-dream-makers-claudio-ranieri

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