At Leicester City, a revival fueled by sense, not sentiment

At Leicester City, a revival fueled by sense, not sentiment

With injection of youthful blood in James Maddison, Ben Chilwell Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans, the lack of title-winning members in Brendan Rodgers' new Leicester City setup is being hardly felt.

Jamie Vardy is leading the scoring charts in the league with nine goals. (Source: Reuters)

by Rory Smith

The tears, for Danny Simpson, started to flow in the changing room, as he said goodbye to the club he had called home for five years, the club he had helped make improbable history. In a way — the nicest possible way — that is just how Leicester City had wanted it.

Leicester’s executives had known, for some time, that Simpson would leave the club when his contract expired in May 2019, and they had known that they wanted to give him and his teammate Shinji Okazaki, whose contract was also expiring, the right sort of goodbye, one last act of gratitude for all they had done.

Despite neither being a regular for much of the 2018-19 campaign, both were brought on as substitutes for the season’s final game against Chelsea. Both were given chances to take the applause of the crowd one last time. Both were afforded lavish tributes once they left the field. Both were moved by the affection that lingered.


Leicester has done the same with almost every player who was part of the most famous team in the club’s history, the team that emerged from nowhere to claim the Premier League title in 2016. It is a subject Leicester’s power brokers have discussed at length over the last couple of years: how to pay tribute to the past while ensuring the club does not become ensnared by it.

In each case, Leicester has taken great care with its farewell. It has not tried to smuggle players out of the club, brooding over their treatment. The club’s owners — first Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Thai benefactor who was killed in a helicopter crash at the club’s stadium a year ago, and then his son, Aiyawatt — have thanked each player personally for his contributions.

Many, like Simpson, have been given one final game at Leicester’s King Power Stadium. More still have been offered a trinket of the club’s affection: several have received a statuette of a fox, the club’s emblem, cast in silver.

Those who left when the club might have preferred that they stayed — N’Golo Kanté, Riyad Mahrez — have not done so with any bad blood. Leicester’s communications strategy, in those cases, centered on affection, and thanks.

But that treatment has not been limited to those players who were central to Leicester’s miracle; the club has been conscious of the need to honor even those who were in the supporting cast. Leonardo Ulloa was a substitute, more often than not. Marcin Wasilewski was barely even that. They were both given the fondest of farewells, too.

None of this, though, should be mistaken for sentimentality. Three years since the proudest moment in the club’s history, and only two after its maiden appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals, Leicester City is almost unrecognizable.

It has wheeled through three managers since the departure of the man who delivered the title, Claudio Ranieri, and is on its third head of player recruitment in three years. It has sold not only the likes of Kanté and Mahrez, but also Harry Maguire, brought in a year after the title was won, and now the most expensive defender in history. It has lost scouts and analysts to its rivals, all of them keen not only to strengthen themselves but to weaken an insurgent. Most tragically, of course, it lost the man everyone connected to Leicester calls Khun Vichai, the owner whose clear vision and deep pockets helped it sweep through the leagues, right to the summit.

Though a handful of members from the title-winning squad remain, only two, the goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and the striker Jamie Vardy, are core components of Brendan Rodgers’ current team. Surrounding them now are a clutch of bright young things. Some of them, like Ben Chilwell and Hamza Choudhury, were drawn from Leicester’s own youth system. Others, like James Maddison, were recruited from lower down England’s league pyramid. More still, like Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans, arrived from abroad.

This has been Leicester’s velvet revolution: quiet and respectful, but ruthless, too. There was a time when it seemed Leicester might be weighed down by the memory of 2016, when loyalty to the players who had done the impossible appeared likely to hamstring the club.

The squad’s power was widely believed to have been a defining factor in Ranieri’s demise, and in the appointment of Craig Shakespeare, Ranieri’s assistant, as his successor. The failure of Claude Puel, who came next, to win over those players ultimately cost him his job, too, despite the reservations of ownership about the optics of another managerial change. Leicester, at times, seemed to be struggling to overcome its own success.

Now, though, the club is in the rudest of health, with an ambitious, promising squad; a charismatic manager in Rodgers; and, in Vardy and Schmeichel, two unifying, experienced figures in the changing room, embodiments of the spirit of 2016. And crucially, all of it is coming together at a time when so many members of England’s traditional Big Six are in a moment of uncertainty, trapped between generations.

With Leicester third in the table ahead of Sunday’s trip to Crystal Palace, a return to the Champions League seems feasible. Another title may be a step too far, but Leicester is dreaming, once again. It is building a new training facility, now that it has outgrown its current home, and the way Susan Wheeler, its chief executive, handled the sale of Maguire to Manchester United last summer made it clear it no longer believes it needs to be pushed around by its supposed betters.

What is harder to discern is how much of this has happened as part of some grand design, and how much is — if not exactly an accident — simply an ability to roll with the punches, to have enough institutional expertise to ride out the sort of seismic changes that Leicester has seen in the last three years.

Perhaps, in a sense, it is both. That Leicester recruits well is not in question; the braintrust that surrounds Jon Rudkin, the director of football, has developed a reputation not only for thoroughness, but for decisiveness, too, particularly when it comes to young players.

Maddison, now something of a cause célèbre whenever the England national team squad is announced, is a case in point: Leicester scouted him for several months, as all teams would, but was then willing to take the plunge, and declare its interest, as others prevaricated.

Maddison’s final choice was Leicester or Southampton, for some time considered the gold standard for youth development. Both were prepared to offer him the playing time he craved. But he knew Chilwell and Chaudhury from England’s youth system, and that was enough to swing it for him.

What he did not know is that he would be joining a club where the owners believe not only in giving youth an opportunity to shine, but are convinced that happy players are better players; a club where the mood in the changing room is still set by the veterans of 2016; a team where many members of the support staff have been in place for years, if not decades, and where, eventually, a manager with the self-confidence to empower his staff would arrive.

To an extent, too, how Leicester got here is not as compelling a question as what happens now. What Leicester had in 2016 was a breathtaking, wondrous one-off achievement. Few, even inside the club, thought the miracle could be repeated. That team went straight to a destination; this latest incarnation is in the middle of a journey.


For those outside the established financial elite of the Premier League, that is a fragile thing. Boasting a collection of promising young players is a pleasure, but it is also a threat. Eagle eyes will be watching. How Leicester responds to that — whether it holds firm, persuading its players that there is no need to say goodbye, to be handed that silver fox just yet, or whether it cannot resist the pressure — will determine, however the club got here, precisely how long it will stay.