Leicester City

This week, I handed the blog over to Andrew Houghton, a former Kaiminite who is the most die-hard Leicester City fan I know. He has been there every step of the way, and now writes to you about the dream season.

There’s one moment that, I think, defines Leicester City’s now-legendary season better than anything else.

It was in their first Chelsea game, way before they clinched the Premier League title, way before they were even considered a serious contender. Jamie Vardy’s record streak of scoring in 11 straight Premier League games had been broken the week before against Swansea.

Early in the first half, Vardy slid hard into Chelsea striker Diego Costa, fouling him. Costa, a hulking player who’s habitually one of the most confrontational players in the league, got back to his feet and stepped towards Vardy, hoping to intimidate the Leicester player. What he found instead was Vardy right in his face, barking back at him. Vardy, with his skinny build and spiky haircut, looked like a rooster facing down a bear. But the message was clear: “We’re not scared of you or anyone else in this league.”

We know how the rest of that game went, with Vardy scoring on a beautiful volley in the first half before Riyad Mahrez made Cesar Azpilicueta look like a giraffe on roller skates and whipped in another goal to give Leicester a 2-1 win over the defending champions.

And now we know how the rest of their season went, with Tottenham’s 2-2 draw against that same Chelsea team on Monday handing the Premier League title to the Foxes, a.k.a. the biggest underdogs of all time.

But what we couldn’t have known was how big Vardy not backing down was, and how much it defined this magical season.

Leicester started off last fall with (now famously and oft-quoted) 5000-1 odds to win the Premier League. In European soccer, because there’s no salary cap, the bigger teams can keep buying the best players with no consequences, and because the champion is decided by a full 38-game schedule and not a playoff series like in America, it’s much more difficult for lesser teams to keep pace over the long haul. In the 23-year history of the Premier League before this year, only five teams have won championships, and four teams (Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City) have won all but one.

In fact, most statistical models had Leicester’s shot at a title at even lower than the 5000-1 odds given by the bookies.

Early in the season, it looked like they would be an exciting team that would be better than projected, but nothing more. They scored goals in bunches, relying on a fantastic, quick-hitting counterattack that thrived thanks to the pure speed of Vardy, a former factory worker whose inspiring story of making it to the Premier League from the fourth division would dominate headlines, and the wondrous skill of Mahrez, a Algerian midfielder whom Leicester had bought from a team in France’s second division for just £400,000.

(There is one thing that has to be addressed here: yes, before the season Vardy used a racial slur against an Asian man at a casino. It’s entirely possible that he’s a bad person, or a racist, or merely someone who got drunk at a casino and said something regrettable. I don’t know. Nevertheless, it was a deplorable incident. And yet, I rooted for Jamie Vardy the entire season. He’s a joyful player to watch—fast, skilled, always running. His skill and spirit, as typified in the Costa incident above, was the beating heart of Leicester’s success. I don’t know whether this makes me a bad person, or someone who condones racism, or just someone who can be inordinately swayed by wonderful displays of athleticism. Regardless, I had to at least mention this.)

But the fast start gave them confidence, and they continued to score and to win and the headlines went from “Leicester City Can’t Really Be this Good, Can They?” to “So Leicester City Might Actually Do This, Huh?” to “Uh, Can Anyone Catch Leicester City?

Because the thing is, they weren’t just some mediocre team getting lucky for a few months. They were talented. Beyond Mahrez and Vardy, there was French midfielder N’Golo Kante, somehow seeming to appear all over the field and leading the league in tackles and interceptions. There was goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, coming into his own after long being regarded as nothing more than the son of legendary Man United ‘keeper Peter Schmeichel. Midfielder Danny Drinkwater, once cast out of United’s academy, playing his way into starting for England.

They were good players, and their talent buoyed their confidence and their play. Vardy and Mahrez ran at any defender in the league, no fear, no matter that they were unheralded nobodies and the defenders were international stars.

Late in the season, they were still in first. And then they ran off a streak of five consecutive shutout wins, and destroyed Swansea 4-0, and Vardy and Mahrez split the two biggest player of the year awards, and the impossible looked more and more likely every day.

And then, on Monday, Tottenham drew with Chelsea, and the impossible became gloriously real. Nobody could catch them anymore. 5000 to 1 odds, and they were the one.

So how can you comprehend the impossible, especially if you were there every step of the way? I started rooting for Leicester last spring, when they were making their impossible escape from the bottom of the league. It would be almost an injustice to this season to call it “a once in a lifetime season.” I certainly wasn’t expecting it to happen in my lifetime, and, honestly, it wasn’t likely to happen in my grandchildren’s life either. How can you put something like that into words, and have the words mean anything?

I could talk about the odds, try to put it into context, to grasp for some meaning like so many other people have done this year. But in the end, that’s not the way I’ll remember this team, or this season. I’ll remember Nathan Dyer’s brave header to complete an amazing comeback against Aston Villa, and Shinji Okazaki’s bicycle kick goal against Newcastle, and the countless examples of Mahrez doing some inconceivable move with the ball at his feet. I’ll remember Vardy flashing the scoreline at Joe Hart when they were beating Man City 3-0, and Leo Ulloa’s late winner that caused an earthquake in the stands against Norwich.

And, yes, I’ll remember Vardy popping back to his feet and getting in Costa’s face in that Chelsea game. They were still nobodies then, but they carried themselves like they were just as good as the defending champions.

They played like they didn’t know the odds. They weren’t scared, they ran right at people and they ran them over, and that will be how I remember this magical season. They believed, and they made me a believer too.