The look on Nathan Dyer’s face said it all.
With Leicester City captain Wes Morgan and manager Claudio Ranieri standing to his right, Premier League title lifted proudly above their heads, Dyer’s expression was one of wide-eyed disbelief as he jumped up and down on the podium that had been erected on the King Power Stadium pitch as a platform for the newly-crowned champions to mark the most extraordinary domestic triumph in the history of English football. Even after nine months, 23 wins and 67 goals, loanee winger Dyer – as well as many of the club’s supporters and football fans in general – could not seem to get his head around what his side had just achieved.
There was something refreshing about Leicester’s euphoric and exultant celebrations three months ago, which began when primary title rivals Tottenham Hotspur failed to beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on 2 May and continued way beyond the trophy presentation detailed above that took place after the Foxes’ 3-1 defeat of Everton five days later. In a world in which we have grown accustomed to the same old teams scooping the end-of-season prizes, the way Leicester commemorated their accomplishment, as well as the accomplishment itself, was a welcome departure from the norm.
There was hardly any talk of things to come and no mention of “building a dynasty” or “focusing on the next title”. That is not to say that these Leicester players lack ambition – they will be determined to prove people wrong all over again in the upcoming campaign – but their reaction to the success was pleasingly retrospective, with everyone involved determined to simply enjoy the moment without feeling compelled to immediately turn their attention to the task of retaining their crown or adding more items to the East Midlands club’s trophy cabinet.
“I’m emotionally drained,” Morgan, the 32-year-old centre-back who has spent 13 of his 15 seasons as a professional in the Championship and League One, told Sky Sports shortly after being handed the Premier League title for the first time. “It’s an unbelievable feeling … walking up to the podium [I was] quite emotional: I had to hold back the tears. But I held them back, got my hands on it [the trophy] and lifted it up. [It was the] best feeling in the world.”
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Given that their exploits last time out were without precedent in the modern era, it is extremely difficult to predict how well Leicester will do this season; after all, nothing – relegation, top four, another first-place finish – would be as surprising as their victory in 2015-16.
There is, however, a feeling among many of the club’s followers that it almost does not really matter: whatever happens, nobody can take their historic triumph away from them, and this campaign can therefore be enjoyed without the pressure that is usually piled on top of the holders as they embark upon the defence of their title, which in Leicester’s case begins with a trip to promoted Hull City on the opening day next weekend.
Not that anyone would be foolish enough to write Leicester off after their constant confounding of logic last season. Ball-winner supreme N’Golo Kante has joined Chelsea, Riyad Mahrez continues to be linked with a move to Arsenal and joint assistant manager and head of recruitment Steve Walsh has been snapped up by Everton, but the squad remains largely intact at the time of writing, with Jamie Vardy’s decision to put pen to paper on a new four-year contact a major boost for Ranieri and the club as a whole. Ahmed Musa, Papy Mendy, Raul Uche, Ron-Robert Zieler and Luis Hernández have all been added to the ranks, moreover, with talented Polish teenager Bartosz Kapustka set to sign in the coming days.
Leicester will also hope to be able to fly under the radar once more, with the revamped and remodelled Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United – who face the Foxes in the curtain-raising Community Shield at Wembley on Sunday afternoon – all aiming to end the campaign at the summit of the standings. Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur will be targeting an improvement, too, which should allow Ranieri’s charges to escape much of the scrutiny as they attempt to battle it out at the top for a second successive season.
That, at least, is the optimistic reading: in reality, it is highly probable that Leicester will find things a great deal tougher this term. In many respects 2015-16 was the perfect storm for the East Midlanders, who benefited from a remarkably low number of injuries and the collapse or underachievement of almost all of the Premier League’s customary championship challengers. While such factors were not enough to tip the balance away from the traditional powers, who still enjoyed a massive financial advantage over the eventual victors that they were unable to exert, it is difficult to foresee another collective shortcoming on a similar scale.
Leicester will also have the Champions League – “Champions League? I don’t know what that feels like, but I’m going to enjoy it,” said Morgan in his television interview after the Everton match – to contend with. The Foxes will be in Pot One when the draw for the competition’s group stage is made later this month by virtue of having won the Premier League, which should theoretically give them a greater chance of progressing to the round of 16, but it is inevitable that their European adventure will take some of their focus away from domestic affairs.
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Not that it necessarily matters: Leicester are not a club who have ever been defined by trophies and thus will not automatically consider 2016-17 a disappointing campaign if they end it empty-handed – in fact, that eventuality would simply mark a return to the norm after the incredible exception that was last season.
Many have wondered whether Leicester’s success will usher in a new era of ultra-competitiveness, where sound recruitment, astute management, a ferocious team spirit and a well-conceived and well-executed game plan can propel so-called smaller clubs to Premier League glory. That still seems highly unlikely, chiefly for the reasons already discussed in this article, but it is to be hoped that Leicester’s triumph will imbue such sides with a sense of confidence and belief that they too can punch above their weight and take on the big boys, if not over an entire campaign than at least in one-off matches.
Ranieri’s side also reminded us of the value of victory for victory’s sake and how to celebrate the moment without having to immediately talk of validating or ratifying the trophy by winning more in the near future. Leicester’s players knew last season was most probably a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment that they will surely never sample again, and their determination to enjoy it for what it was helped to make the occasion all the more memorable.
“We know very well that next season everything will be different, but the fans are dreaming,” Ranieri told the BBC after his side clinched the title in May. “Keep dreaming. Why wake up?”
Whatever happens over the next nine or so months, the city of Leicester will forever be grateful for what the Italian and his players achieved at the King Power Stadium in 2015-16.
By Greg Lea. Follow @GregLeaFootball