Leicester City Are On The Verge Of The Greatest Underdog Story In The History Of Sport

The 2015/16 English Premier League season could go down as one of the all time greats.
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Credit to reddit user u/hipcatjazzalot for this brilliant write up.

Leicester City, or the Foxes, are a relatively insignificant team. They are often fighting for a mid-table place in the Premier League, just as often slugging it out in lower leagues.

An 18th-place finish in the 2003-04 season saw them relegated to the Championship (the second division of English football). The next few years they would struggle to retain their position in the Championship. After a poor 2007-08 season, they sank even lower to League One (which, confusingly, is the third division of English football).

They would climb their way back out of League One at the first attempt. The following season, Leicester were widely touted as favourites to win promotion back to the Premier League. In 2013 they finally snuck into a position high enough to secure a place in the play-offs for a promotion spot, but lost in absolutely incredible fashion to Watford.

It was the semi-final of the play-offs, a two-legged tie. Leicester saw out the first match in a 1-0 win. Next they had to go to Watford to see out the tie. Watford fought back on their turf, and as the match was winding down the score was 2-1, meaning that on aggregate they stood tied at 2-2. Extra time, and perhaps a penalty shootout beckoned. Then, with just a few seconds left on the clock, Leicester were awarded a penalty to book their spot into the final. What happened next... I will not even describe. Do yourself a favour and watch

Following this heartbreak, Leicester would come back stronger, finishing in first place in 2013-14, securing automatic promotion after 10 years out of the top flight.

Their first season back started promisingly, with a few initial decent results, most notably a stunning 5-3 win over Manchester United. Then misery followed, and after months of terrible results Leicester sat rock bottom with only 9 matches left to play. It looked certain that the door back into the Championship stood open after just one season with the big boys.

Incredibly, Leicester managed to win 7 of their last 9 matches to secure probably the most miraculous escape in Premier League history, finishing the season safely in 14th place.

Scandal struck the club during the summer. A sex tape of three Foxes players having an orgy in a Bangkok hotel room with some Thai women leaked out. The players shouted racist abuse including "slit eye." One of the players happened to be the son of Foxes manager Nigel Pearson. Pearson and the three players were subsequently let go.

No one was particularly impressed with Pearson's replacement, Claudio Ranieri. He had not managed any Premier League team since Chelsea in 2004 – back in 2004 he was shown the door by new billionaire investor Roman Abramovich, who felt Ranieri wasn’t a sufficiently glamorous manager and brought in Jose Mourinho. Ranieri had since had mixed success with various Italian teams, and his most recent job was manager of Greece – a job that ended in disgrace after just a few months, following a humiliating defeat by the Faroe Islands (yes, that place with a population of 50 thousand which is not even a country).

Things did not look good for Leicester. Ranieri was the odds-on favourite to be the first to lose his job. Their squad was made up mostly of unknown players and a few scraps from the table of bigger clubs, including Robert Huth and Danny Simpson, discarded from Chelsea and Manchester United, respectively, for not being good enough (Huth, in fairness, had since made a name for himself as a rock-solid defender at Stoke, but he seemed by now to be past his prime). Their most expensive signing of the summer was N’Golo Kante, brought in from French team Caen - not exactly a blockbuster signing. With this context, it's easy to understand why, going into the 2015-16 season, Leicester were favourites for relegation.

Leicester came flying out in their first match with a 4-2 win over Sunderland, and went undefeated their first 6 matches, the only Premier League team to do so. After a 2-5 spanking at home by contenders Arsenal, their hot streak appeared to be over, and the universe seemed to be back in order.

Undeterred, the Foxes would continue flying. They played extremely energetic, rapid, and deadly counter-attacking football. They were well organized at the back, with all the players knowing their jobs, doing them well, winning the ball and getting it quickly into one of their devastating counter-attacks, sprinting across the pitch like a pack of wild, well, foxes. And three previously unknown quantities – N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, and Jamie Vardy, started pulling off astonishing performances. As they continued winning week after week, the pundits picked up on a fascinating statistic: 28-year-old goalscorer Jamie Vardy was about to become a record-breaker. But first, more about Vardy. If you thought this was an impressive rags-to-riches story up until now, you haven’t heard anything yet.

Jamie Vardy dreamt of being a professional footballer, but at the age of 16 he was released from the youth academy of Sheffield Wednesday, a team now playing in the Championship. He wasn’t cut out for it. Nevertheless Vardy kept playing semi-professionally for minnows Stocksbridge Park Steels, a team in the seventh tier of English football. He would spend 7 years there, working 12-hour shifts at a factory to support himself and playing on the weekends for £30 a match.

After some impressive displays, he was signed by Halifax Town, a team then in the sixth tier. He finished as the league’s top goalscorer and helped his team win promotion before signing for Fleetwood Town, now in the fifth tier. Again he finished top scorer, and again he helped his team win promotion. His impressive performances got him a call from Leicester. Finally, in 2012, at the age of 25, when most players would expect to have a few years of experience behind them, Vardy could call himself a pro.

Vardy’s first season was poor, but in the 2013-14 season he paid off, and his 16 goals helped Leicester to get back into the Premier League. Early on in the next season, he turned in a man-of-the-match performance against Manchester United, scoring one goal and setting up the other four in that 5-3 win. Along with the rest of his team, he would fail to make a mark for the rest of the season, but came to life at the crucial moment, playing a key role in Leicester’s miraculous escape.

Like Leicester, Vardy got off to a blistering start to the 2015-16 season, scoring in the first match of the season. Failing to net in the next two games, he then scored again in the fourth match. And in the fifth. And in the sixth. Twice in the seventh. He scored again in the eighth. Twice in the ninth. And in the tenth. By the twelfth match of the season, Jamie Vardy, who five years earlier worked in a factory, was the top goalscorer of the most competitive league in the world, and he had now scored nine games in a row.

The Premier League record for goals scored in most consecutive matches, 10, had been set in 2002 by Manchester United legend Ruud van Nistelrooy, one of the greatest attacking players since the new millennium. Could Vardy match the great van Nistelrooy?

Could he ever:

Having equaled the record, there was one more challenge left: could he BEAT it? Well, what better opposition to go for it than against Manchester United themselves?

By the way, did I mention that Vardy did all of this with a broken wrist?

At the end of 2015, Leicester made history: they were the only team to ever go from being bottom of the league on Christmas Day one season to top of the league on Christmas Day the next season. Meanwhile, Ranieri got his revenge over Abramovich and Mourinho: Leicester City's victory over Chelsea on December 14 was the final straw in an incomprehensibly dreadful season for defending champions Chelsea. Jose Mourinho, the glamorous manager brought in all those years ago to replace the unfashionable Ranieri, was fired from his second stint at the club that catapulted him to true stardom.

Thanks for playing, Leicester, everyone said. But it’s time for the fairytale to end. Surely these plucky underdogs would start to feel the pressure, would fall apart at some point?

Last weekend was the true test. Leicester faced title favourites Manchester City. Manchester City, until very recently, were a club very much like Leicester in terms of their accomplishments and titles. In 2008, the club was purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group, a private equity company owned by Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. Overnight, this once middling team was one of the richest in the world. A slew of huge money signings brought a wealth of talented players, finally translating into first place success in the league in 2012 and 2014. Manchester City are for many a symbol of everything that is wrong with the hyper-capitalist world of football: forget the youth academy, the club philosophy, the team's history and core values. All you need is a lot of money, and the success will come.

Just to put the gap in resources into context between these two teams: Leicester’s starting line-up cost a grand total of £22.5 million to put together. Last summer, Manchester City brought in Raheem Sterling for a reported £49 million.

That’s right: ONE of Manchester City’s players cost more than TWICE AS MUCH money as Leicester’s ENTIRE first team put together.

Surely, surely, order would be restored?

Well, Leicester hadn’t read the script.

It was vintage Leicester: good organisation combined with terrifyingly fast counter-attacks.

They went to the richest team in the country, and they didn’t just beat them. They carved them apart, repeatedly, in front of their fans, on their own turf. And they did it in a thrilling, entertaining way that was an advertisement to everyone about why this sport is so great. Player-of-the-season Riyad Mahrez was at his scintillating best, bamboozling the Manchester City defence with a brilliant goal. N'Golo Kante was huge in midfield, charging down the ball and starting counter-attacks. Robert Huth, the Chelsea reject, was a beast at the back and bagged himself two goals.

Leicester now sit five points clear on first place. They are well over the halfway mark. No one is talking any longer about when they will fall away. They are odds-on favourites to take the whole thing. If they do, it will be an unbelievable accomplishment. This weekend, they travel to London to take on contenders Arsenal, one of only two teams who have beaten them (the other being Liverpool) early in the season. Whatever happens, it will be thrilling.