LONDON: Leicester City celebrated one of the most remarkable football achievements when the 5,000-1 outsiders won the English league for the first time – without playing.
The Foxes’ amazing adventure was crowned when pursuers Tottenham conceded a two-goal lead and were held 2-2 away to Chelsea. That ensured Leicester the title and broight manager Claudio Ranieri his own first league success in a 30-year career.
Everything was heading Tottenham’s way when they led at half-time at Stamford Bridge through strikes from Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.
But Chelsea, outgoing champions, stepped up their game after the interval in an increasing bad-tempered game. Gary Cahill pulled one goal back and Eden Hazard equalised with seven minutes of normal time remaining.
Oddly it was the second season in succession that Hazard had scored a league title-winning goal. Last season he did it for Chelsea; this time his goal presented the trophy to Leicester.
Three years ago Leicester burst into the world headlines when the long-lost bones of King Richard III were discovered in an archaeological site buried deep beneath a car park in the centre of the city.
His tomb has become a great attraction for tourists and now the football club has benefited from the ‘magic spell’ just 12 months after the Foxes were scrapping their way off the bottom of the table.
On the pitch the honours have been shared among Kasper Schmeichel in goal, Robert Huth, Wes Morgan and Christian Fuchs in defence, hard-working N’Golo Kante in midfield and the high-scoring attacking duo of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, the newly-crowned FWA Footballer of the Year.
But equally acclaimed has been manager Ranieri. The appointment of the 64-year-old Italian last summer was greeted with a frown by fans and media after a 30-year career which had taken him to some of the biggest teams in Europe – Chelsea, Valencia, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Internazionale – but without a league title to show for it.
Instead he earned a reputation for perpetual ‘tinkering’ in self-defeating fashion in pursuit of the success which always eluded him.
Finally, it seems, Ranieri has learned his own lesson. This season has made little more than two dozen changes to his Leicester starting lineup.
Perhaps the lack of pressure helped. He was not expected to win anything. His only challenge was to keep Leicester in the Premier League. Until the last few weeks he talked only of securing the essential number of points for survival rather than for glory.
Ranieri benefited from the work undertaken by predecessor Nigel Pearson. But this is his own side. Pearson’s back three has been replaced by a resolute back four and the results were evident from no clean sheets in the first nine league games of the season to 12 in the last 18.
For Ranieri this season is no one-year wonder. Ahead of Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United Ranieri had said: “We are building a good team for the future, we are building the foundation, for the first time in their lives now they must work with the pressure of being able to win something.
“All the media attention is good but to be solid and to improve next season is the way the big names of football are working. This is the ambition – every time a little higher.”
The financial prizes are enormous. Premier League success is worth a prospective £93 million from the TV share-out. This would be an increase of £21m on last season because the new champions receive a merit payment of £25m compared with the £8.7m that Leicester received for finishing 14th place last time.
Leicester are also due more than £14m for their increased tally of live televised matches compared with £8.8m a year ago.
Entry into the Champions League will bring a a further £30m in appearance money and TV share-out and while new Premier League TV deal will also mean a 50pc rise to domestic revenues. Of course Leicester can negotiate far better deals for shirt sponsorship and stadium naming rights. Probably double the current annual £16m.
But of course, more than the money, this success is about all the glory and living the dream . . . that dream common to every fan but an achievement uncommon to most.