This is the eighth instalment in Football FanCast’s Legacies series, which pays tribute to those players and managers who leave a compelling story behind as they move on to pastures new.
Shinji Okazaki, the unlikeliest of title-winning heroes, departed Leicester City earlier this summer after a spell in the Midlands that not even the most optimistic – or perhaps deluded – of Foxes fans could have anticipated.
The Japanese forward signed a permanent deal with Spanish second division side Malaga on Wednesday after being released earlier in the summer, and it will be intriguing to see how he fares in a fresh footballing environment.
But how will the 34-year-old striker be remembered for his contribution during a miraculous and historic time for Leicester?
Okazaki’s first taste of European football came in the Bundesliga with Stuttgart in 2011 before he joined Mainz in 2013 and then Leicester in 2015, where he would remain for four years, his longest spell at a club outside of Japan.
The striker was a fully-fledged international upon his arrival in Leicester, and joined as part of a new-look side that would take the top flight by storm having narrowly escaped relegation in the 2014/15 season.
N’Golo Kante, Robert Huth and Christian Fuchs all joined in the summer of 2015, and formed wonderful partnerships with each other as the Foxes recorded the most famous season in their history.
It’s easy to forget that the season didn’t start off with the promise that characterised it’s culmination.
The Foxes lost manager Nigel Pearson after a summer of problems away from the field, and Claudio Ranieri’s appointment was met with scepticism from fans, journalists and pundits, including Gary Lineker, who described him as an “uninspired choice”.
A classic case of famous last words.
Ranieri’s men found their feet quickly, taking 11 points from the first available 15 in a run that set the tone for a truly unprecedented campaign.
The footballing world are familiar with the story that unfolded thereafter and, while Jamie Vardy stole the headlines during a clinical season in front of goal, Okazki diligently grafted to create spaces and opportunities for his strike partner, starting 28 of the 38 league fixtures.
A return of five goals and two assists captured the modesty and selflessness of his play: he was never going to light up the Premier League with regular goals but Riyad Mahrez and Vardy were major beneficiaries who owe Okazaki a great debt for their respective individual achievements.
His involvement gradually decreased thereafter as changes in management, the arrival of new players – such as Islam Slimani, Kelechi Iheanacho and James Maddison more recently – and a natural decline in physical capacity left him surplus to requirements earlier this summer.
An emotional goodbye rightly greeted his departure.
Some say a more infectious smile will never grace the King Power turf again.
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Okazaki’s stats aren’t anything to shout about but that’s less a reflection of the role he played rather than his quality.
In 114 league appearances, Okazaki was often the man to link midfield to attack and suffocate the opponent’s attempts to control the spaces in midfield.
His energy and work ethic was crucial to Leicester’s pressing game, but he also provided an outlet for the midfield when the instinctive through ball to Vardy wasn’t available.
That’s not to say he didn’t show moments of brilliance in front of goal, with his most notable strike arriving against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup.
Okazaki was seemingly the perfect partner for Jamie Vardy and that is perhaps a legacy in itself.
During his time at Leicester, he combined with the once non-league hotshot to goal scoring effect on seven occasions.
It doesn’t need to be reiterated or argued that Leicester’s title win will be the highlight of Okazaki’s career.
He was part of a team that beat 5000/1 odds to win the title, and he didn’t do it as a bit-part player: he was a crucial element of the miracle.
His best moment of individual quality, though, came at the King Power against Newcastle United as the pressure of the title race began to squeeze with just nine fixtures left to play.
Jamie Vardy rose highest to head the ball back into the centre of the penalty area and, with the ball gravitating towards the turf, Okazaki manoeuvred his body and executed a clinical bicycle kick, finding the bottom corner of the goal to earn Leicester a 1-0 win.
That iconic grin naturally beamed around the stadium as he wheeled away in celebration.
Okazaki will always be a huge part of Leicester’s history for what he achieved during his time in the Midlands.
He was the embodiment of everything Leicester represented in their title-winning season: a group of immensely hard-working and over achieving underdogs.
He proved that a side doesn’t need to be made up of 11 world beaters and he will forever be a cult hero to remember with nostalgic sentiment on the terraces of the King Power.