5000/1. The odds speak for themselves. When it comes to Premier League surprises, the 2015/16 season will likely always remain the benchmark.
A squad of underdogs led by a likeable yet much maligned manager turned football logic on its head. Everyone at the club played their part but three players, all recruited by one scout, gave Leicester City the stardust required to cause the most famous of footballing upsets.
The unfancied Foxes had staved off relegation in 2014/15 thanks to an inspired late season run. Supporters had been privileged to see Esteban Cambiasso grace the turf at the King Power and realistically most neutral observers would have thought that the Foxes had it as good as it was likely to get.
Those within the King Power had reason to think otherwise. They already had two reasons in particular to believe better was to come. That summer they signed reason three. Better did indeed come; but not even the most optimistic supporter could possibly have imagined what was happened next.
Jamie Vardy joined Leicester in the summer of 2012 for an initial £1m. He had spent the previous season lighting up the conference; finishing as top scorer in Fleetwood’s return to the Football League. Vardy’s exploits gained him recognition and his transfer fee broke non-league records but there was plenty of doubt as to whether goals in the fifth tier would translate in to success in the Championship.
For a month or so, the move looked an inspired one. Vardy scored key goals in early season victories over Burnley and Middlesbrough. The success though was short lived. A severe loss of form meant Vardy ended the season with just four league goals and facing backlash online from the club’s fans. Legend has it that Nigel Pearson and Craig Shakespeare had to talk him out of quitting football entirely to become a holiday rep in Ibiza.
Fortunately, for fans of the underdog story, Vardy stuck at it. The 2013/14 campaign saw a major upturn in fortunes as his 16 goals helped propel Leicester to the title.
It was halfway through Vardy’s breakout season that Leicester secured the second part of their holy trinity. Scout Steve Walsh was sent to Le Havre to monitor midfielder Ryan Mendes. He instead returned with glowing reports of a teammate, a little known winger called Riyad Mahrez.
Leicester stumped up £400k for the Algerian wideman in a deal now held as the benchmark for the value of an effective scouting network. He played a valuable role during the latter stages of the promotion season but really blossomed as he arrived on the big stage in the Premier League.
*If you were wondering, Ryan Mendes now plays for Sharjah and played 32 times on loan at Nottingham Forest in 2015/16. Riyad Mahrez now plays for Manchester City*
Vardy and Mahrez were solid if unspectacular in their first Premier League season under the rigid leadership of Nigel Pearson. Both helped aid ‘the great escape’ but nine goals between them left little clue to what was coming next.
The summer of 2015 was the defining period in the rise of Leicester City. Claudio Ranieri, an appointment ridiculed in many quarters, arrived with a playing style based on freedom and counter attacking flair. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed amongst the management whirlwind, the scouting team again looked to France. After negotiations with Caen, and a payment of £6.5m, Ngolo Kante became a Fox.
Kante went on to revolutionise the role of the holding midfielder within months of his arrival in England. League leading numbers of interceptions and challenges gave statistical evidence to the Frenchman’s importance but his role was easy to admire just from watching him play. Kante seemed to do the work of three men by himself. When asked how a team of journeymen were able to win the Premier League title, cente back Robert Huth’s answer was simple and decisive. ‘Ngolo Kante.’
Leicester set the tone for what was to come on the first day of the 15/16 season. Within 25 minutes, Vardy had a goal and Mahrez a brace. They went on to defeat Sunderland 4-2 to open a campaign full of fantastic results and entertaining football.
The title-winning season will live forever in football folklore, with three men remembered as the instigators.
Kante became a Leicester cult hero and a neutral’s favourite in his lone season with the club. His now legendary work rate and tenacity allowed his teammates the freedom required to attack opponents with reckless abandon. Chelsea signed Kante the following summer, guiding them to the title in the subsequent season whilst winning the PFA Player of the Year award. He has since added a World Cup winner’s medal to his Premier League haul.
Riyad Mahrez ended the title-winning season with 17 goals, 10 assists and a PFA Player of the Year trophy to his name. The Algerian exemplified his deft touch and ruthless finishing perfectly with his season defining goal at the Etihad as Manchester City were brushed aside in late March.
Mahrez spent one more statistically impressive season at the King Power before returning to the Etihad on a permanent basis for a fee 140 times the size of the one that originally brought him to these shores.
Of the three iconic signings, only Jamie Vardy remains at Leicester. He stands as perhaps the ultimate icon of the club’s rise. He scored 24 league goals in 15/16, establishing himself as one of the league’s top strikers as well as an England regular.
Vardy also wrote his name in to the record books by scoring in 11 consecutive league games, a record yet to be threatened let alone broken. He reached the 20-goal mark again in 17/18, bagging the Goal of the Season along the way. Five years after almost giving up football altogether, Vardy recently retired from International football after representing his country at a World Cup. It is safe to say the £1m fee was well spent.
Vardy, Mahrez and Kante cost Leicester a combined total of approximately £8m. They have already earned the club almost £100m profit even with Vardy committing his long-term future to the club. In modern football, though money means very little to the punters filling the seats. Three signings, from very different backgrounds and with very different playing styles, combined to create memories in the Midlands that will last for generations to come.