The Greatest Cinderella Story Ever Told
From 5000–1 to champions… How did Leicester get here?
It is the greatest Cinderella story the sporting world has ever seen.
It’s bigger than March Madness and sweeter than Boise State and more historic than Namath’s Jets. It’s more shocking than the Miracle on Ice.
It’s the story of Leicester City.
You’ve seen Cinderella before, maybe as an individual rising above the moment or a team winning a game no one thought possible. You’ve followed Cinderella as she danced all the way to the most unlikely of playoff wins and even the rare championship celebration.
You’ve never seen a story like this.
Imagine you’re a fan of an average, mostly forgettable Major League Baseball team. Maybe it’s the San Diego Padres or the Milwaukee Brewers or the Houston Astros. Baseball has been around forever, and you have a team on the big stage, but it’s not like anyone really notices most of the time.
You’ve never won a World Series. You’re rarely even in the hunt. Seasons go by 162 games at a time. You win some, you lose some, players come and go.
Professional baseball has a litany of teams across many levels. There’s Triple-A and Double-A and Single-A, and it breaks down even further from there. There are actual professional teams called the Roswell Invaders and the Vermont Lake Monsters and the Savannah Sand Gnats, and they’re all part of a huge system of professional baseball leagues.
Suppose a new rule will integrate the leagues more moving forward. The worst three teams in the big leagues will be relegated to AAA next season, while the best AAA teams will join the majors. Bad Triple-A teams will move down to Double-A, and so on and so on. And your Astros, your proud Astros who were pretty good in the ’90s not all that long ago, have been losing a lot.
Your beloved Astros have dropped to Triple-A and then, in the worst of times, all the way to Double-A baseball. They’re not on TV anymore, no one comes to games, and baseball fans have halfway forgotten you exist. Across the country there’s a brash mid-20s guy that plays on an otherwise irrelevant 8th-division Idaho Falls Chukars team, making $50 a week for his efforts.
In just 8 years, that young man will lead your team to a title.
May 4, 2008.
It was the darkest day in club history.
Proud Leicester City had drawn 0–0 at Stoke City on the final day of the Championship season, the second highest division in English football. It was the 19th time that year they had failed to score a goal. A couple hundred miles away, Southampton pulled off a stunning 3–2 upset.
Those results left Leicester 3rd-worst in the league and relegated them out of the top two divisions in England for the first time in club history.
Although Southampton’s win had secured their place in the Championship for another year, it was not enough to save manager Nigel Pearson’s job.
In late May 2008, Pearson was relieved of his duties at Southampton. He was hired one month later as the new manager at Leicester City.
Leicester City felt it did not belong in League One, the English third division, and they looked the part under Pearson the following season.
Leicester dominated their inferior opponents, losing just 4 times in 46 league games including a four-month unbeaten stretch, winning the league under Pearson and securing their place in the Championship division once again.
Strained relationships with the team chairman and CEO caused Pearson to lose his job in 2010 but he was back at the club again barely more than a year later. In 2013, he led the team to the Championship playoffs but they were eliminated in the cruelest of fashions. With a penalty kick opportunity in the game’s dying moments in the 97th minute, Pearson watched hopelessly as the kick was saved leading to a fastbreak goal by Watford’s Troy Deeney on the other end- essentially a season-ending buzzer beater.
Leicester were on the wrong end of Watford’s Cinderella finish:
The next year, Leicester City left nothing to chance. Nigel Pearson ‘s team dominated the Championship division and won the league title, securing promotion to the Premier League- the majors, the top level- again at last.
That 2014–15 season was a struggle for Leicester City, to say the least. In their first 29 games that year, they had won just 4 times, drawn 7, and lost an embarrassing 18 times. As the calendar wound down on the season with only nine games remaining, it looked certain that Leicester would be relegated. No team in Premier League history had ever escaped relegation after digging such a serious hole with so few games remaining.
On April 1st, 2015- just over a year ago- these were the Premier League standings. Pearson and Leicester City were dead last, doomed for sure:
Leicester City went on to win a remarkable 7 of its 9 games a year ago, after just 4 wins the first 8 months combined! The Foxes finished 14th in the table and escaped relegation in incredible fashion.
It was quite the story for English football fans, a miracle really.
The oddsmakers were less impressed. They installed Leicester as 5000-to-1 underdogs to win the 2015–16 Premier League title. Many prognosticators figured Leicester were among the most likely teams to be relegated.
Leicester City management apparently were not impressed enough either. Nigel Pearson was fired at the conclusion of the 2014–15 season, and Italian Claudio Ranieri was hired to take his place.
Claudio Ranieri is no stranger to managing a football squad.
Since his first top-level job in 1988, Ranieri has managed 13 different clubs. His long résumé includes stints at Cagliari, Napoli, Fiorentina, Valencia, Atlético Madrid, Chelsea, Parma, Juventus, Roma, Inter Milan, Monaco, the Greek national team, and now Leicester City. That list includes 10 teams that played European football this year as well as each of the top 5 teams in Italy.
You have to be a pretty good manager to work at that many different football clubs.
You have to be pretty good but not pretty great to work at that many different football clubs.
Ranieri is also no stranger to relegation and promotion battles. He helped Cagliari and Fiorentina to promotion in his first seasons with the teams and did so again later with Monaco.
He also led many clubs to the brink of glory. In 2008 Ranieri took just-promoted Juventus to third place and a berth in the Champions League. A few years later he took his hometown club Roma to the brink of a title but had to settle for second place. In his season with Monaco at the top French division, he again led his team to a second place finish.
Ranieri’s most famous runner-up finish came with previously unremarkable Chelsea. He had been the Chelsea manager since 2000 and brought in and nurtured the likes of Frank Lampard, John Terry, William Gallas, and Wayne Bridge who would form the core of a decade-long Chelsea dynasty. His team peaked in ’04 with its strongest finish in 49 years but did so the same year as the famed Invincibles of Arsenal, who did not lose a league game all season.
Arsenal’s final win to cap off that historic ’03-’04 season was a 2-goal comeback against Leicester City on the final day of the season. Leicester were relegated from the Premier League and would not be back for a decade.
Chelsea came in second place, and Claudio Ranieri was relieved of his duties.
Ranieri has still never won a top-flight title. Until today.
One of the players Ranieri managed on that Chelsea squad was a 15-year-old Welshman named Andy King, a player in the Chelsea youth system.
King was a nice enough young player but his path to the senior team looked increasingly difficult with the rise of Lampard and the other young Chelsea stars. He was released from the Chelsea youth system in 2004 under Ranieri. He signed on with Leicester City instead.
In 2006 King was called up to the senior Leicester squad and made his first start. He’s now the highest scoring midfielder in Leicester City history.
He’s the only player on today’s roster that was there on that darkest of days in May 2008.
King is joined at the heart of the Leicester City squad by a handful of others that have been around for this historic Leicester rise.
Danish Kasper Schmeichel is the son of longtime Manchester United goalkeeper great Peter Schmeichel, he of five Premier League titles in the ’90s. Kasper’s journey has not been so easy. After losing his job to Joe Hart at Manchester City, he followed manager Sven-Göran Eriksson to Notts County and eventually to Leicester. Eriksson was replaced by Nigel Pearson shortly after Schmeichel arrived at Leicester City, but he may have never made it there without the singular belief of that manager.
Englishman Danny Drinkwater spent a decade in the Manchester United youth system. After ten years progressing through the ranks, Drinkwater finally made the United squad for the final match of the 2009 season but did not get to play. He would never suit up for Manchester United again, a dream dashed. Drinkwater played for four middling English clubs over the next two and a half years before joining Leicester in January 2012.
Drinkwater was joined there by a young Jamaican named Wes Morgan. Morgan was a bit of a controversial addition. He had played most of his career for Nottingham Forest, Leicester’s biggest historic rival just 27 miles down the road. His club had had one of its brightest days on May 4, 2008, securing promotion to the Premier League while watching rival Leicester’s relegation on the same day. Morgan too joined Leicester in January 2012, and fans soon learned to love their young center back. He was named team captain by the end of the season and has held the position ever since.
King, Schmeichel, Drinkwater, and Morgan were joined by one other key player in 2012: Jamie Vardy.
Jamie Vardy was born in Sheffield, England, and spent time playing football for local team Sheffield Wednesday as a young man. He looks less like a soccer player and a bit more like a hooligan, and indeed he has a bit of a checkered history with an assault charge and a few unsavory quotes from time to time.
Vardy was released by Sheffield Wednesday and moved on to tiny Stocksbridge Park Steels in the 8th division of the English football system in 2007. At Stocksbridge he was paid a handsome fee of just £30 a week to play- about $44 a week. His home stadium seated just 450 fans. In his final season with the club, he led the team in goals and helped them secure the title.
After three seasons at Stocksbridge, Vardy made his way to Halifax Town, a team barely five years old, in the 7th division of the English system. He was outstanding there, leading the team in goals and helping the squad to a league title and their best finish ever.
In 2011 Vardy transferred to Fleetwood Town in the 5th division. On a good day, Vardy could be seen playing in front of as many as 5,000 fans. He scored 31 goals in 36 games that year, his highest scoring season ever, to lead the league. Fleetwood Town won the league that year and were promoted to The Football League at the 4th level for their first time ever.
That May, Jamie Vardy finally made his way to Leicester City where he would join Drinkwater, King, Schmeichel, Morgan, and Pearson. Leicester paid just £1 million (under $1.5 million) to acquire his services, a record purchase fee for a player making the leap from the 5th division all the way to the 2nd. The following season, Vardy was named Leicester City’s player of the season as he helped Leicester win the title and secure promotion to the Premier League.
Over the course of just seven seasons, little-known Jamie Vardy had gone from an unwanted player on an 8th level English football team to a key starting player on a Premier League team. In his first month in the Premier League, Vardy had a goal and 4 assists in an historic 5–3 win against the vaunted 20-time English champions Manchester United.
Jamie Vardy had made it. But he was not done yet.
Vardy and his Leicester City squad have since been joined by Riyad Mahrez and N’golo Kante and Shinji Okazaki and many others, each with their own Cinderella story as well. Together they make up this amazing 2015–16 Leicester City squad.
Leicester began the season with three wins and three draws in their first six matches against mostly unremarkable opponents before falling at home to Arsenal on September 26th. It was the last time Leicester would lose at home this season, and they would only lose two more games the rest of the way.
Jamie Vardy scored a goal in that losing effort to Arsenal, his fourth straight effort with a goal. He would go on to score in each of the next seven matches, scoring a goal in 11 straight. That streak broke the all-time Premier League record set by Ruud van Nistelrooy and put Leicester firmly on the map.
Everything was supposed to finally come tumbling down during a busy month over the holidays with matches against Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Bournemouth, and Tottenham Hotspur. The Foxes did pick up their second loss of the season but also added victories over Chelsea, Everton, and Tottenham.
For most teams like Leicester City, a month like that would be the greatest in club history. Even one win over a club like Chelsea would be historic, an event to remember for fans.
It’s not much more than a footnote on this historic Leicester City season.
Leicester have won 10 of their 14 games since that busy month, and now on May 2nd they have completed the greatest Cinderella story modern athletics has ever seen. Leicester City are English Premier League champions!
This is no miracle shot, not one perfect game, not even a hot stretch over a month or two of tournament games. Leicester City have been the best team in England from start to finish, just 3 losses in 36 games.
Vardy, Mahrez, Kante, and Morgan have been named to the Premier League team of the year. Mahrez and Vardy have won player of the year awards. Several of these long-forgotten Leicester City players have been called up to their national teams this season after long upward journeys.
Jamie Vardy played and scored a goal against both Germany and the Netherlands in March. He has now won a championship in 4 different English divisions in the past 5 years- 7th, 5th, 2nd, and now 1st!
The impossible has become reality, and it’s done it time and time again.
This is not just one Cinderella story. It is the Cinderella story of a team filled with countless Cinderella stories of its own.
Not one of these players or managers were ever supposed to be here, not a single individual on their own. No one could ever have imagined they might be here together as Leicester City. Even the most hopeful of fans could probably have never even prayed for something like this.
The dream is real. Leicester City are champions.
Jamie Vardy is a champion. Claudio Ranieri is a champion. Andy King is a champion. Morgan and Schmeichel and Drinkwater and Mahrez and Kante, champions each and every one.
It is the greatest Cinderella story in sports ever told.
For Leicester City, the clock will never strike midnight again.
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