Leicester City, a slump as sudden as the rise
Champions in 2016, in The Championship seven years later
Bookending Leicester City’s story of triumph and disaster are two seven-year cycles. From 2008-09 to 2015-16, they went from League One to winning the Premier League, a feat so incredible that then manager Claudio Ranieri had said ET landing in Piccadilly Circus was more plausible than Leicester City retaining the title. Seven seasons on, Leicester City have been relegated to The Championship.
That it would happen around one year after they were playing in the semi-final of the Europa Conference League makes this even more of a free fall than Leeds United who went down in 2003-04 after playing the Champions League semi-final in 2000-01.
Like with Leeds United then (who have gone down this time too along with Southampton), Leicester got singed by the sun for aiming too high. So dire was Leeds’ financial situation then that it led to points deductions twice, in The Championship and in League One. They had gone into administration, a situation Leicester too have found themselves in till help came from a Gary Lineker-fronted consortium.
Things may not be that bad now and chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha has promised “to come together and fight to return to the Premier League” but fans know that it took the club nine seasons to do that when Leicester were last relegated, in 2003-04. Champions have gone down faster in English football’s history –Manchester City were relegated one season after winning the league in 1938 and Liverpool were in second division in three years after doing that in 1904 – but among the seven who have won the Premier League, Leicester City are the second after Blackburn Rovers to be demoted. And Rovers haven’t been in the Premier League since 2012.
2012 was also when Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Aiyawatt’s father who died in a helicopter crash in 2018, bought Leicester City. A decade of mellow fruitfulness followed in which Leicester City returned to the Premier League in 2014, played the Champions League quarter-finals in 2016-17, won the FA Cup in 2020-21, the Community Shield in 2022 and twice finished the season as fifth.
It took a combination of financial missteps that included aggressive investment in infrastructure hoping for it to be funded by regular presence in Europe, Covid-19, a manager backed by owners based more on what he had done than on what he could do and key players not being able to hit the heights regularly that put the club on the road to perdition. Making this annus horribilis was Leicester’s under-23 team too being relegated and the women avoiding the drop on the season’s last day.
Bankrolled by a company that deals in duty free meant income slipped significantly as Covid-19 paused travel in 2020. Expenditure though didn’t as Leicester City were building a state-of-the-art training complex and, in a bid to be competitive, had run up a players’ wage bill of £69.5 million, the eighth highest in the league last term. Yet the club needed reinforcements but manager Brendan Rodgers was told players would need to be off-loaded first.
Since their Houdini act, Leicester had sold well. N’Golo Kante, Harry Maguire, Ben Chilwell, Wesley Fofana, Riyad Mahrez and Danny Drinkwater had fetched enough for rebuilds. But player recruitment is not an exact science and Patson Daka, Boubakary Soumare, Ayoze Perez, Jannik Vestergaard and Dennis Praet did not bed-in as expected. Nor did they find takers at a price that would have made selling worth it.
There are a number of players, including Youri Tielemans, Caglar Soyuncu and Jonny Evans, who will leave for free this summer so that again was an opportunity lost. This season, Leicester were also hit by injuries to Ryan Bertrand, James Justin, Ricardo Pereira and Evans. And key players such as Jamie Vardy (37 games; 3 goals, 4 assists) and Wilfred Ndidi underperformed.
The inability to replace Kasper Schmeichel too didn’t help. With John Terry in the coaching staff, Leicester were the only club in Europe’s top five to have not kept a clean sheet from November till the barren draw against Newcastle last week, a result that had got Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha to say, “the odds may be against us, but we have overcome odds before.”
Leicester scored 51 goals, like Aston Villa who finished seventh, but leaked 68. Nottingham Forest conceded as many and Bournemouth 71 but both lost fewer games than Leicester’s 22.
Keeping the faith in Rodgers, not unlike Arsenal and Arsene Wenger, too accelerated the slide that began at the start of the season when Leicester got one point from seven games and had eight defeats and one draw between February and April. Rodgers had said at the start of the season, the club should aim for 40 points. They got six less (West Ham, whom Leicester beat 2-1 on the final day, got 40) but it was the kind of negativity no club aspiring to be among the top six needed.
Dean Smith, Rodgers’ replacement, had seven weeks and eight games to salvage the situation. His target was 11 points from those games. He managed nine. “So I failed,” he told reporters on Sunday. Not all fairy tales, after all, have happily-ever-after endings.