By: Chris Dagonas
Since 1992, there have been just five different winners of the English Premier League; Manchester United (13 times), Arsenal (3 times), Chelsea (3 times), Manchester City (2 times), and Blackburn Rovers (once).
It should not be much of a surprise that those teams, even Blackburn, were among the top five spenders during their championship seasons. With no salary cap or limits on transfers, the teams that win European soccer trophies tend to be the biggest spenders with the deepest squads.
That is, until this year.
At the time of posting, the team at the top of the English Premier League was Leicester City FC, also known as the Foxes. And if you don’t know a lot about Leicester City FC, well sit back and get comfortable.
The story begins, as fairytales so often do, with an orgy in a Bangkok hotel room in the summer of 2015. Three Leicester City players were caught on film engaged in sexual activity with several Thai prostitutes, including using derogatory comments toward them. This scandal led to the dismissal of the three players and the firing of the coach, Nigel Pearson, the father of one of the players involved.
Pearson was replaced by veteran Italian manager Claudio Ranieri. He was available after losing his job as manager of the Greek national team following an embarrassing loss to the Faroe Islands. He had a moderately successful spell in charge of Chelsea in the early 2000’s, but was let go when the club was bought by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
It’s not just the coach that is the cast off of bigger teams, either. This Leicester roster is full of players that were rejected, or ignored by larger clubs.
Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel is the son of one of the world’s most famous goalkeepers, Manchester United legend Peter Shmeichel. The younger Schmeichel had a hard time catching on at Manchester City in his first professional role. He bounced around a number of Championship and League One teams before landing in Leicester in 2011, after being released by Leeds United.
Robert Huth, Leicester City’s central defender, was a product of the Chelsea youth system, but played infrequently for the first team. After years of being left on the bench, Huth departed Chelsea for spells at Middlesbrough and Stoke City, where he was often considered lacking in match fitness, or replaced by more renowned defenders.
But on arrival at Leicester in February 2015, Huth was a catalyst in a defensive reformation that saw the Foxes win seven of their last nine games to stay in the Premier League at the end of last year. Huth is now a defensive mainstay with Leicester, and one of the big reasons why their defensive record is so strong this season.
Leicester lives with the counter attack, and perhaps no player is more crucial to that style of play than their midfield playmaker, Algeria’s Riyad Mahrez. The speedy winger and free-kick specialist is widely viewed as the leading candidate for the Premier League’s player of the year, above well-known stars like Wayne Rooney, Mesut Ozil, and others.
In his younger days, the winger actually rejected moves to Paris St-Germain and Marseille, two of France’s biggest, richest clubs, and chose to sign with Le Havre instead, a lesser-known team, because of their excellent youth system and greater opportunity for playing time. It obviously did him a world of good, as he is looking to become one of the most sought-after midfielders this summer.
Perhaps no Leicester City player encapsulates the unlikelihood of their journey more than striker Jamie Vardy. He signed his first professional contract with the eighth-division club Stocksbridge Park Steels in 2007, earning 30 pounds a week. From there, Vardy was constantly able to impress managers and teammates alike, rising through the ranks of English football with Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town until he arrived at Leicester in 2012.
Vardy is considered the hardest working striker in England, a tireless runner who puts pressure on opposing defenses and always gives his midfielders a moving target for through balls and crosses. He has 19 goals this season, the most in the Premier League, and has also earned 4 appearances for the English national team, a long shot dream come true way back to his days in the eighth level of English football.
Many other big teams, including Manchester City and Paris St-Germain, were vilified in the media when they were bought by wealthy foreign enterprises. Lost in Leicester’s surprise success is that they have been owned by a foreign investor, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, since 2010. The investment money on player contracts has not yet been seen, but perhaps after this season, the owner will open his pockets and elite players may see Leicester as a destination worth exploring.
Leicester’s total payroll for this season is 48.2 million pounds, which ranks 17th out of the 20 teams in the Premier League. By comparison, Chelsea’s payroll is 215.6 million pounds, Manchester United’s is 203 million, and Manchester City and Arsenal each pay about 193 million for their rosters. With a quarter of the payroll of the big 4, Leicester is about as unlikely a league leader at this point as you could have guessed.
Leicester City is a great story already, and even if they are not able to hold on to win the league in May, their run has been nothing short of inspirational. However, if Leicester CIty does lift the Premier League trophy this spring, they will have turned the English, and all of European football, completely on its head.
Let’s all hope this fairy tale has a happy ending.