East Midlands history may be vital for Leicester’s Champions League ambitions
Leicester City made an encouraging Champions League debut with a 3-0 win against Club Brugge in their Group G opening tie.football Updated: Sep 18, 2016 13:36 IST
Leicester City made an encouraging Champions League debut with a 3-0 win against Club Brugge in their Group G opening tie.
While the English champions were brimming with confidence on Wednesday night, doubts have persisted whether they will be able to replicate last season’s incredible form that saw them win the 2015-16 English Premier League.
While manager Claudio Ranieri claimed “the Champions League music woke up” Riyad Mahrez and inspired him to score two goals, the Italian manager could draw inspiration from closer to home for the rest of the season.
Geographically speaking, Leicester City hail from England’s East Midlands — a district that hasn’t routinely been at the forefront in the football sphere.
However, the East Midlands does stake a claim to fame for producing the odd fairytale story every once in a while. In particular, Derby County won the 1971-72 First Division to make their European Cup debut the following season while Nottingham Forest did the same by winning the 1977-78 First Division title. Incidentally, both clubs were managed by maverick player-turned-coach Brian Clough.
The exploits of Forest should be of particular importance since they went on to win the European Cp in the 1978-79 and 1979-80 seasons. However, domestic league success was beyond them at that point.
During the latter stages of Leicester’s title-winning run last season, comparisons were made between Forest’s success and that of their own.
Starting with the eccentric personalities and tactical understanding of Clough and Ranieri, to the support staff that helped them put their team together, to the feet that dazzled on the pitch — Forest and Leicester would seem like peas in a pod.
Of little repute in both title winning sides were the men that did the recruiting. Clough’s trusted man Peter Taylor helped sign Kenny Burns, Archie Gemmill and Garry Birtles, while Leicester’s head of recruitment Steve Walsh (now functioning as Director of Football at Everton) scouted the likes of N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Marc Albrighton and Jamie Vardy.
Birtles himself drew comparisons between Forest’s squad of the 70s and modern-day Leicester, even claiming Vardy was a replica of his own likeness.
“Robert Huth and Wes Morgan remind me of Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd, Mahrez is a modern-day John Robertson - and you’ve also got the fact that both Vardy and myself came from non-league,” Birtles wrote in a column for The Telegraph published on May 6.
Interestingly, Birtles was Forest’s 1979 Man of the Year as they would go on to win their first ever European Cup in 1978-79.
And that’s where the comparisons begin again.
Ahead of their match with Club Brugge, midfielder Danny Drinkwater was asked if Leicester could emulate Nottingham Forest’s European success.
“I am not going to say we can’t (match Forest). I’d be daft if I said we can’t win it,” was Drinkwater’s curt reply.
He went on to say, “I think everybody would have thought we couldn’t win the Premier League and we did it.”
Forest had a simpler path in the European Cup since it was a mere knockout tournament with no group stages. However, any suggestions that it was an easy path would be incorrect.
Forest faced and beat defending European champions (and runners-up to their First Division win) Liverpool in the round of 32.
Following that, they took on Greek champions AEK Athens in the round of 16, Swiss champions Grasshopper in the quarterfinals, West German champions Cologne in the semifinals, and beat Swedish champions Malmo to lift the 1978-79 European Cup.
With the Champions League current format of group stages followed by knockout, predicting Leicester’s path to the final (should they reach there) is not accurately possible.
However, based on their opposition in Group G, most football pundits have predicted that they will reach the knockout stages.
Club Brugge were winners of the 2015-16 Belgian Pro League while FC Copenhagen are the regning Danish champions. The third team in the group are Porto who finished third in the Portuguese Primeira Liga.
Ranieri identified all teams in their group as formidable opponents because of their experience in the competition. What he hasn’t expressly addressed as yet is Leicester’s plans to tackle them.
Here he may just look to the comparisons made with Forest and identify how the last club from East Midlands featuring in the competition managed to win it.