Leicester City’s incredible 2015/16 can be compared to a script retrieved from the bin after the screenwriter originally believed it to be too far-fetched. Filmed on a shoestring budget, it then goes on to break box-office records and is currently in line for a clean sweep of awards. You couldn’t write it. Only someone, somewhere in the universe, has.
The Foxes’ Rocky-esque rise from rags to glory has made bona fide stars of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez while N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater have been plucked from straight-to-DVD obscurity to be lavished with glowing reviews and offers to top the bill on Broadway. Director Claudio Ranieri, meanwhile – previously considered an erratic art-house auteur – is now set to helm the sequel entitled ‘The Amazing Foxes 2: Euro Trip’.
But enough of these filmic analogies, because it’s time to celebrate the supporting cast, the players who may not have enjoyed as much screentime as Vardy or Mahrez, but without whom none of this would have been possible.
Seven years ago Manchester City had two young promising stoppers on their books competing to establish themselves as the club’s number one. One has proven himself to be a commanding Mr Reliable this season with the third best shots-saved-to-goals-conceded stats in the Premier League and is on course to steward his side to a title. The other is Joe Hart.
Ever-present between the sticks, the 29 year old with the impeccable goalkeeping genes took the brave decision to drop three divisions after City to forge his credentials, but has now indisputably stepped from his father’s shadow to be considered a fantastic talent in his own right.
Blessed with quick feet, clear organisational skills and astute distribution, perhaps Schmeichel’s biggest asset to a side that has a propensity to get caught up in adventure is his terrific one-on-one attributes.
If Vardy best symbolises Leicester’s surreal trajectory, Simpson epitomises a team who are punching above their perceived weight. Having played his part in QPR’s promotion in 2014 the Hoops evidently regarded the right-back as not being sufficiently of Premier League standard following his two patchy seasons in the top flight with Newcastle. So with Rangers ‘upgrading’ to Mauricio Isla, the Foxes benefited with the bargain purchase of a player desperate to shake off his journeyman tag.
Simpson may have made the headlines for entirely the wrong reasons on numerous occasions in recent years, but on the pitch he has flourished into the defender he once promised to be coming through the Manchester United ranks.
The Leicester skipper began this campaign as the weak link, looking decidedly shaky at times despite the club’s fantastical start to 2015/16. As autumn chilled to winter however, the Jamaican has formed a muscular partnership with Robert Huth and grown into a dominant figure capable of nullifying the Agueros and Kanes of the division.
When Ranieiri’s men have required a siege mentality, it’s been the 32-year-old emitting a calm authority that his team-mates thrive off and if we need yet another example to illustrate just how magnificent Leicester’s season has been consider this: Should they win the title in May the list of captains who have held aloft the trophy in recent years will read Nemanja Vidic, Vincent Kompany, John Terry and a defender who made his top flight debut at the age of 30.
Morgan’s rise to prominence has been hard earned and richly deserved.
Released by Aston Villa in 2014 after 16 years’ service, Albrighton found himself on the fringes at the King Power Stadium under previous boss Nigel Pearson until utilised as a makeshift wing-back. Thereafter we have witnessed a truly remarkable discovery of form and consistency from a winger who had long shown glimpses of such heights but usually, ultimately, failed to deliver.
The 26-year-old may not be as eye-catching as Mahrez on the other flank, but with his work-ethic and protection of full-back Christian Fuchs he has offered balance and been a significant part of why Ranieri’s 4-4-2 is rarely over-run in midfield areas.
His six key assists have been a huge boon too along with countless occasions his dangerous crosses have resulted in corners and penalty area chaos.
All the talk prior to last January’s transfer window centred on Leicester’s need to buy additional firepower as surely Vardy couldn’t be expected to shoulder the goalscoring threat alone season-long. Not only has the Albert Steptoe lookalike remained fit and firing, but increasingly we are seeing Okazaki come to the fore, providing invaluable energy and clever movement from deep to ensure Leicester’s frontline poses a threat to beleaguered defenders from the first minute to the last.
It has been an outstanding debut season for the Japan international, and while the bargain fee for Mahrez is deservedly mentioned often it’s worth remembering that this 100-cap bundle of trickery cost a mere £7m.