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23rd Nov 2015

OPINION: A tale of love, loss, more losses, and Leicester City

J'aime Jamie

Mikey Stafford

Have you heard the one about the former steelworker, the Tinkerman and the Thai duty free shop?

They have combined to put Leicester City top of the Premier League. Little old Leicester. The second division specialists, the four-time FA Cup final losers, a club most famous for the support of their most famous son, the club overshadowed by their all-conquering rugby-playing neighbours.

Top of the Premier League, after 13 games.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

You’ll have to forgive me this indulgence, but a life devoted to Wexford GAA and the Foxes has not afforded too many opportunities to gloat, so gloat I will.

It’s been close to 20 years in the making. Back then I was a bored Manchester United fan won over by a jersey, signed team photo and personalised Julian Joachim autograph, sent from the team’s German training base by my brother.

Sure, there were moments of triumph, such as a couple of unlikely League Cup wins, a League One stroll and a Championship title, but they have been outweighed by administrations, relegations, disastrous signings and worse managers.

Of course, as a fan, I’ve had no monopoly on misery or Milan Mandaric, but Leicester do right now have a monopoly on the summit of English football, which for most of the last two decades seemed about as likely as Gary Lineker receiving a pleasant reply to a tweet.

From one great Leicester City striker to another. Fair play to anyone who saw this coming from Jamie Vardy, because to most Leicester fans this has been akin to something Roy Race might do on the pages of a comic book.

The 28 year old has scored 13 Premier League goals this season, including 12 in his last 10 appearances, which means his opener at Newcastle on Saturday equalled Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s record for consecutive Premier League matches.

It is perfectly plausible the newly-minted England striker could score against Manchester United and Swansea to equal Jimmy Dunne’s all-time English football record of 12 straight games.

Incredible. Then you mull over the fact Vardy scored five goals last season.

Even with five goals, the £1million spent taking Vardy from Fleetwood to the King Power Stadium seemed like good business, especially considering his 16 goals in the Championship-winning season that preceded it.

The man who worked in a steel plant while playing part-time has been moulded into something special by the tinkerman.

He’s no angel. He played at Fleetwood with an electronic ankle tag after being charged with assault and earlier this season he racially abused an Asian man in a casino, but on the pitch he is impossible not to like.

He works like a dog, displays a Jonathan Walters-like appetite for the fight, runs the channels at the speed of light, shows a level of unselfishness that should be banned in strikers and, obviously, finishes clinically.

It wasn’t always so.

I can still remember being in the car listening to the radio back in 2000 when the £5.5million capture of Adi Akinbiyi was announced on the sports news. Martin O’Neill had left for Glasgow, Emile Heskey has been sold to Liverpool and, having let Stan Collymore leave, new manager Peter Taylor had £11m of Anfield dosh burning a hole in his Le Coq Sportif tracksuit.

Taxi deregulation came in around this time but there was probably still more value in £5.5m of Dublin taxi plates than Akin-bad-buy. Despite his almost comical performances in front of goal Leicester were briefly top in the autumn, enjoyed a very brief Uefa Cup campaign and managed not to disgrace themselves until the following season. When they won five games and dropped like a stone.

Claudio Ranieri was few peoples’s idea of the ideal Leicester City manager when he was appointed during the summer. Most people’s idea of of the ideal City manager had been sacked to create the vacancy.

Nigel Pearson was confrontational, bad-tempered, purposefully obtuse and occasionally downright aggressive, but he was Leicester’s thug and anyone who didn’t see the attraction was clearly an ostrich.

Sure, Leicester were bottom of the table for most of last season, at one point looking doomed with 19 points from 29 games, but they genuinely were playing well without getting results.

Despite the unseemly spats with reporters, and unseemly scrap with James McArthur, it was presumed that Pearson would be kept on after guiding the club to safety with a run of form that featured seven wins and just one defeat in their last nine games.

However it seems there was more going on behind the scenes and the Srivaddhanaprabha family saw fit to remove a man who was successful in both his stints at the club and replace him with a man who was last seen getting the bullet from Greece.

All I can say is fair play to the duty free shop-owning Srivaddhanaprabhas and fair play to Ranieri.

The Italian has done bugger all tinkering. He realised he won the football manager lottery by landing a position that became available for reasons other than his predecessor doing a terrible job.

He has persevered with a counter-attacking style despite his side’s less than stellar defensive record and has shown faith in the attacking talents of Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, Marc Albrighton and Jeff Schlupp.

It wasn’t always so.

The 2007/08 season ended with relegation to League One after a typically Mandaric-esque campaign saw the trigger happy owner go through three permanent managers as they slipped into the third tier of English football for the first time in their history.

Martin Allen and Mandaric did not get along, with the former leaving after four games. Then came the curious case of Gary Megson and the six-week spell in charge that ended with an offer from Bolton that he could not refuse. So it was left to Ian Holloway to lead the club into uncharted and unwelcome waters.

After that there was the first coming of Pearson, Paulo Sousa, Sven-Goran Eriksson, the second coming of Pearson and now Ranieri.

And so to Sunday night and the sheer pleasure of watching Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel on Match of the Day 2 talking about his table-topping team-mates.

Sure the next six games suggest the joy might be short lived but having spent years listening to Leicester on the radio and begging editors to let me cover League One schaudenfreude derbies against Leeds, it is very nice to be box office.

It is very nice to be top of the league.

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