Can Norwich poop all over the Leicester party? Dan Brigham asks Foxes fan and writer Leigh Riley to tell us about their remarkable season, what the future holds for Leicester, looks back at the Martin O'Neill and Emile Heskey era and how Norwich can beat them on Saturday
Dan: Hi Leigh. For the last preview we did, you predicted Leicester to finish 12th or higher this season. Well, that is kind of right… but it's safe to say this season has gone slightly better than just '12th or higher' (although, to be fair, most people still thought that was overly optimistic despite Leicester’s excellent start).
So, tell us, what the hell is it like supporting a club who were tipped for relegation but instead lead the Premier League table with 12 games to go? Norwich fans experienced that back in 1992-93 – probably the last side to shock the league to such an extent – but the Premier League is a world away from what it was in its first season now. Has your title challenge properly sunk in yet?
Leigh: I was surprised when people thought 12th was overly optimistic. We finished 14th last season, went on a run of 10 games with only one loss, didn’t lose by more than two goals to anyone throughout the whole of last season, and were competitive even if we were bottom for the majority of it. Sounds silly saying that but most fans didn’t lose hope because we knew we were that little bit of confidence and little bit of luck away from stringing good results together… and that’s what happened.
That said, no one expected that to turn into only four Premier League losses in what’s now 36 games! I would have snapped your hands off with survival at the start of the season but right up until Christmas I thought 12th or higher would be a great result… now though, I mean, wow. We’re in dreamland. We are very realistically looking at a top-four finish and Champions league football next season. It’s unreal.
It’s not sunk in yet. Every week I still turn up to games and think ‘this could be the week we’re turned over and found out’. But that’s the life of being a supporter of any club punching above its weight isn’t it?
Probably the best thing about being a Leicester fan right now is the story; growing up around friends that chose to support more successful teams in the late ’80s/early ’90s, it’s nice for the tables to turn. The story is brilliant, the fact the majority of the squad is made up of players who were promoted with the club two seasons ago, and the Jamie Vardy story is something else.
The fact we haven’t spent huge money and we’re outdoing some of the biggest clubs in the country is so satisfying. We feel like the whole country (whole world?) is rooting for us. Most fans of other clubs stating “if we can’t win it we want Leicester to win it”… it’s a victory for football. And if it wasn’t us challenging for the title I think I’d be just as happy rooting for the likes of Watford, Palace or Norwich if they were in our shoes.
Dan: You're right. I can't imagine there's a neutral in the country who isn't hoping Leicester win the Premer League. Having said that, I really like the Tottenham side under Mauricio Pochettino, and I wouldn't be too unhappy if they won it. But it would just mean so much to football in this country if Leicester managed the unthinkable and took the title. Plus, well, it's hard to find a more likeable manager than Claudio Ranieri (and he provides a nice balance to Vardy, who doesn't seem quite so likeable...).
Has it got to the stage yet where you'd be pissed off if Leicester didn't win the league, or are you still just happy that you'll almost certainly end up in the top four? And does Ranieri's record of title-chases hitting the wall with a couple of months to go worry you? What's the biggest challenge to Leicester winning the league?
Leigh: I wouldn't begrudge Spurs if they won it. More than anything else I think the league needs someone other than a big four team winning the league. It’s also great for the England team too with Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane being key assets in the Spurs title challenge.
Vardy is one of those players who is loved by his club but not so much by other clubs, but he give 110% every game and he makes things happen. In footballing terms he’s a star player for us even without his goals. In personal terms, although he has mellowed since becoming a father, his actions can be very questionable. That said, his rise from non-league to England striker and Premier League record-breaker is phenomenal.
I couldn’t be happier for Ranieri after all the stick he got when we hired him. He’s funny and operates with bags of class, and you can see a real difference between him and Nigel Pearson on and off the field – Ranieri is tactically astute and seems to know exactly when to make changes that can win a game, while Pearson never had a plan B. I guess that’s what 30 years of management offers you.
It doesn’t bother me too much that Ranieri has always been the ‘nearly man’. The season he finished 2nd at Chelsea was the Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ year. The years he was in charge of Juventus and Roma he was up against Jose Mourinho’s formidable Inter side. With Monaco he had literally just got them promoted from Ligue 2 to Ligue 1 and finished 2nd to an incredible PSG side. Call it bad luck but parting ways with clubs for failing to win the league under these circumstances is horrendously harsh in my book, and I feel the media often provide the headlines without the circumstantial information that puts it into perspective.
What he has done for Leicester shows what a great manager he is. People may say we haven’t changed all that much but you can see players like Riyad Mahrez and Danny Drinkwater are playing with a freedom and confidence they never had under Pearson. We are so much more defensively sound despite only one new addition in Christian Fuchs at left-back. I really can’t speak highly enough of the credit owed to Ranieri for what Leicester are currently achieving.
Would I be disappointed with not winning the league? No. I would be disappointed but not heart-broken if we finished outside the top four now, but I’m ok if we don’t win the league. It’s possibly the best chance we will ever have in this modern era, but the joy this season has given us, the hope it has given other teams, that;s enough for me. But of course it would be the single most incredible moment in my lifetime as a City supporter if they do go on to win it.
Our biggest challenge? Keeping our first XI fit and injury free, particularly Mahrez, N’Golo Kanté, Huth, Drinkwater and Vardy – they are the players I think we miss most when they aren’t in the side. I’m confident we won’t pick many more losses up, our run-in is looking pretty good, but I think Spurs also have a great run-in and are probably our biggest threat to the title.
Dan: I think I'm right in saying the highest you've come in the top league is 2nd, but that was back in 1928-29, so I'm assuming you won't quite remember it... So this must be completely alien territory for Leicester fans. How does it compare to the 1999-2000 season when you came 8th in the Prem and won the League Cup?
Those were the days of Martin O'Neill as manager, Tony Cottee banging in the goals, Emile Heskey not banging in the goals, Robbie Savage being a dick and Muzzy Izzet and Neil Lennon completing a pretty tenacious midfield. I think you brought in Stan Collymore as well, didn't you? How does the current team compare to that?
Leigh: The O’Neill era was special for me. It was the first stint of success Leicester had experienced in my lifetime – two League Cup wins and one League Cup runners-up, and as you say, the 8th-place finish, the best in the club’s Premier League history. The end of the O’Neill era led into the darkest era in the club’s history with many bad managers, administration, buy-outs, and culminating in relegation to the third tier for the first time in the club’s history. So, there’s very little to savour between the O’Neill years and what Leicester are currently enjoying.
There are many similarities between then and now, both sides feature players that were plucked out of the lower leagues, both sides were underestimated week in week out by their opponents, both sides work tirelessly, and possibly the defining part of both squads – both are punching above their weight through a good motivator.
That said, I feel this squad is stronger than the squad under O’Neill. Ranieri’s squad is made up of internationals and features two players that captain their country in Fuchs and Gökhan Inler. The financial power of the club in this day is far in excess of what O’Neill had at his disposal, the club now has first-class training facilities and can afford to attract a better calibre of player.
If we were to finish in the top four however, I would say it surpasses what O’Neill achieved, although I do feel it’s unfair to compare the two considering the very different eras in football.
Dan: O'Neill's success at Leicester always makes me wonder how he'd have done at Carrow Road if he'd been given proper backing by the club.
Since we last spoke for the last preview, there's been a big change in how Leicester are viewed. Not only are they you as real contenders now, but – and this is what I'm really interested in – your defence has morphed from a leaky shambles at the start of the season into one of the most solid in the league. This is probably the key difference between this Leicester team and the Norwich side that were pushing for the title in ’92-93: you can see out games.
Where do you think that change has come from? Your full-backs seemed to be a bit of a weakness earlier in the season – has that now changed? And what is the best way to score against you? Exploit wide areas like Arsenal did recently?
Leigh: Believe it or not, it was the Norwich game where Ranieri changed the defence and that’s where it all started. We’Basically he swapped Ritchie De Laet for Danny Simpson and Jeffrey Schlupp for Fuchs at right-back and left-back respectively, and both have risen to the challenge and suddenly we started to get clean sheets! Schlupp still featured in the first team before his injury as a winger (probably a more apt position for him) but De Laet is now on loan at Boro.
The best way to score against us seems to be corners. Kasper Schmeichel isn’t the best at coming for the ball and Simpson and Fuchs aren’t the best marking at corners, so it seems set pieces and corners are our soft spot.
Arsenal’s success out wide was solely down to Simpson being sent off and Marcin Wasilewski (an out-and-out CB) having to come on in that role. Before the red card I am sure you will agree it was 50-50 which way the game would go.
Dan: Well in that case, if Leicester do win the title, it's nice to know we played our part in the success...
I realise you won't be thinking ahead to next season yet, but your mega-rich owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha did say when you were promoted he wanted Leicester to be a top-four side within three seasons. It looks you may well achieve that this year, but do you think it's sustainable? Is there enough money to keep hold of your better players, and attract more quality? Can you see you regularly challenging for the top four over the next decade?
Leigh: I believe we’re one of the richest clubs in England, with the owners worth over a billion. They seem to have the club at heart, they’ve bought our stadium back, written off our debts, and invested heavily to get us to where we are now. Further more they have been growing the brand in Asia with King Power, so it seems they are here to stay and in it for the long haul (fingers crossed).
Whether or not becoming a top-four club is sustainable is another thing. It’s no coincidence that the biggest clubs around the world tend to have large populations within their city, and they also tend to be in more desirable locations (Barcelona, Madrid, London, Paris etc etc), making them tempting clubs to join. Failing that clubs just throw money at it, like Monaco, which is unsustainable as Monaco cannot fill their stadium due to such a low population.
For Leicester to sustain a top-four position for years to come the city as a whole needs to improve, and with King Richard being recently buried there it’s now at least on the map. The question is will they be able to attract the calibre of player needed to compete at the highest level. My biggest concern over the next few years will be keeping hold of Kante and Mahrez, becaise if an offer from one of Europe’s elite comes in, namely PSG, I cannot see them staying. That said I would be very surprised if any of Leicester’s players left for other Premier League teams. The club can compete financially but I don’t think they will pay extortionate wages.
It would seem they are already building for the future with acquisitions of Demarai Gray and Daniel Amartey, both young up-and-coming talents, Schlupp having already broken into the first team and Ben Chilwell coming through the youth academy and already catching the eye of Arsenal and Manchester Cit. But as you say, I haven’t even thought about next season, most of us are just enjoying it while it lasts!
Dan: It'll also be interesting to see how long Ranieri is intending to stay, and if the board already have an eye on a successor.
So let's finish things off with a final look ahead to Saturday. You've only lost once at home all season. What are the secrets to your strengths at the King Power, and do you expect Leicester to bounce back from a rare defeat against Arsenal? With Alex Neil saying Norwich are going back to their high-pressing, attacking style from the start of the season, that's probably going to play into your hands isn't it...
Finally, I can't end this without asking the biggie: Will Leicester win the Premier League?
Leigh: The atmosphere: it’s deafening at the KP at the moment, and it has been for the last three years. The fans really get behind the team, and even when we lost 5-2 to Arsenal before the last Norwich game the players were cheered off as if they had won. There’s a just a real belief and spirit around the club and the fans at the moment – the players play for the badge and the fans turn up for the players, so it feels like a combined effort.
The club have helped a lot with this by treating the fans with respect, they put on free Tifo displays, subsidise away tickets and put on free pie and beer games too. The clappers, although heavily criticised by traditionalist fans, actually help the atmosphere immensely too… those who would usually sit there not singing or clapping along to songs in the stand now clap along, so it gets the prawn sandwich brigade involved too.
I expect Leicester to be fired up for the game after losing to Arsenal in such a painful way, so I expect an end-to-end fiery game played at an extremely high tempo. Leicester’s game has come on a lot since the last Norwich match and against many teams they have begun to dictate play themselves at times, although they are still a very counter-attacking side.
Once again, if I was to predict a result I would go for another 2-1 win to Leicester, and it could even be more considering the flaws at the back for Norwich and how fired up Leicester will be (sorry but just being honest). But then there’s a part of me that knows Norwich are a very good side on their day and could easily get a draw out of us – but not if they come with the aim of playing an open, attacking game. As you say, I think that will play right into our hands.
Will Leicester win the league? My heart says yes, my head says no. We’re in pole position at the moment and with the run-ins the other teams have it’s difficult to see why not. But then, I’m a Leicester fan, and years of heartache has tainted my rose-tinted glasses – I would be happy with 4th (we are 12 points clear of 5th with 36 points to play for, so it’s looking like a very realistic target).
That said if we won the league… I would shed a tear (the kind that only football can reduce a man to) and savour the moment, probably wishing it would last forever. And of course, plenty of beer would follow!
Dan: I’ve been weirdly positive about this game since our draw with West Ham. Maybe it was the relief of going back to our attacking style, but I keep telling myself we’re going to get a result at your place. But then my head tells me to stop being a dick, and I realise we’re probably going to get battered. So my heart says 2-1 to us, and my head says 3-1 to Leicester.
Best of luck for the rest of the season!
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