‘Nothing will ever replace how I felt at that moment’: Leicester’s title heroes four years on

Tom Petrini Leicester City FC

The captain dragged across the kitchen floor by his ankles. The star striker tweeting a picture from the Lion King. The right-back in the garden, sobbing his eyes out.

Each player engrossed in their part in football’s great miracle. Moments earlier, they had been in the circle of bodies bouncing up and down, roaring and singing, an explosion of realisation, relief and ecstasy wrapped up in a load of what-the-hell-have-we-just-done.

The party is at Jamie Vardy’s house. May 2, 2016. Just before 10pm. Leicester City‘s players have just watched Tottenham throw away a two-goal lead at Stamford Bridge. Eden Hazard has scored the goal that meant they could celebrate being Premier League champions. Wes Morgan free to be hauled over the cold tiles.

Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016 is one of the greatest underdog stories

Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016 is one of the greatest underdog stories

Jamie Vardy held a party at his house the night Leicester City found out they had won the title

Jamie Vardy held a party at his house the night Leicester City found out they had won the title

A club that spent 140 days bottom of the table the previous season, at odds of 5,000/1 to win the thing before a ball was kicked, with a manager in charge in Claudio Ranieri whose last achievement had been to lose to the Faroe Islands.

Yet here they were, the unlikeliest kings of England. Four years on, their achievement still remembered by many as the greatest underdog story of them all.

‘Nothing will ever replace how I felt at that moment in his house with the whole team,’ Danny Simpson, the man in tears on Vardy’s back lawn, tells Sportsmail. ‘I know we lifted the trophy the following weekend but it was that moment when you know you have won it. The table comes up and there’s Leicester with the C next to it.

‘I was in his garden crying my eyes out. I’d gone through a lot of ups and downs in my career and it was now all worth it knowing no one can take that away from you. As the years have passed, the longer it goes on, the bigger it will feel.’

Even more so for midfielder Andy King, the club’s longest-serving player. ‘My wife tells me I was crying on FaceTime,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘I don’t believe that!’

Thousands of people lined the streets for Leicester City's title winning celebrations

Thousands of people lined the streets for Leicester City’s title winning celebrations

The Wales international has experienced it all at Leicester. Relegation to the third tier, promotions, play-off heartbreaks, great escapes and titles. Three to be precise. Still the only player to win League One, the Championship and the Premier League with the same club.

‘That’s what made it for me,’ King tells Sportsmail. ‘We had some bad away days looking back, which were actually brilliant times as well, going to Hereford and Yeovil. That drop into League One started that winning culture. The mentality changed.

‘Then when the owners came in they took it to a whole new level. There is no doubt the club would not be in the position it is now without them.’

So, how on earth did Leicester manage it? It was no fluke. They took advantage while many of the big clubs slept but they won it by 10 points. Only five teams in Premier League history have won it by a bigger margin.

More than one thing came together to make a miracle.

Start with the team. ‘We were a group of lads who all had something to prove,’ says Simpson.

Marc Albrighton had been released by his hometown club Aston Villa, Simpson got told to leave QPR, Robert Huth joined on loan and then a free from Stoke. Kasper Schmeichel had been told by Leeds boss Simon Grayson he was not good enough. Danny Drinkwater was let go by Manchester United. Jamie Vardy, ‘well, everyone knows his story,’ says Simpson. N’Golo Kante told he was too small. Riyad Mahrez, too skinny.

‘Maybe everyone writing us off played its part,’ adds Simpson. Well, it was Leicester after all. The bond between them was unbreakable. ‘I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like it. I miss it every single day.’

A few diamonds sparkled among the misfits.

Ranieri had needed much convincing to sign Kante. He only allowed former head of recruitment Steve Walsh to do so on the proviso he was allowed to bring in defender Yohan Benalouane. When Kante first arrived, club ambassador Alan Birchenall thought he was a ball boy.

When Kante first arrived, club ambassador Alan Birchenall thought he was a ball boy

When Kante first arrived, club ambassador Alan Birchenall thought he was a ball boy

When Ranieri first played him, it was on the wing. But once he found his place in central midfield, it was clear Leicester had an immense talent, even if Kante has since rebuffed the urban legend that he used to run to training.

‘We were like “wow, who is this guy”,’ says Simpson. ‘He was just ridiculous.’

Simpson had another one right in front of him in Mahrez. Spindly-legged and nine stone wet through, the Algerian remains the most talented and skilful player to pull on a Leicester shirt. Not that Simpson ever saw him much.

‘We used to joke about how much he tracked back. The odd time I’d say “Please, Riyad, can you come and stand here for just five minutes!” He was just so good going forward and I love defending. It was the right balance.’

Mahrez set up 11 goals that season, and scored 17 more. One of his finest was against Man City in February. Leicester won 3-1 and ripped apart the title favourites on their own turf. Mahrez skipped past two defenders, put Nicolas Otamendi on his backside, before drilling past a cardboard cut-out of Joe Hart at his near post.

That was the day everyone began to take them seriously. ‘That’s when we started to believe,’ says Birchenall, who has been involved with the club since 1971. ‘No one ever spoke about it, but there was just a feeling around the place. I wanted to burst but kept it under wraps. I thought: “this is on”.’

Vardy’s rags-to-riches story, meanwhile, encapsulated the Leicester underdog spirit. Twenty-four goals in the season, a missed penalty away from a share of the Golden Boot and a new record for scoring in 11 consecutive games.

There was talk of a Hollywood movie about Vardy's rags-to-riches story and Leicester's title

There was talk of a Hollywood movie about Vardy’s rags-to-riches story and Leicester’s title

No wonder there was talk of a Hollywood film. The screenwriter even brought his Oscar to one of the games. Not that Vardy was bothered.

‘It was good that it surrounded him instead of anyone else,’ says King. ‘He is very good at shutting things out. People can say what they want about him and he doesn’t care. Someone comes to watch him with an Oscar, great, if they come with a bin bag, great. There was no danger of him thinking he had cracked it or it cracking him.’

He’s still doing it now, even if the biopic has been put on hold. This season’s leading goalscorer at the age of 33. ‘People won’t realise it until he retires that he is Leicester’s greatest ever player,’ says King. ‘By a long, long way.’

There were times that season that they had to rely on others. Simpson points to the home game against West Ham as the key moment in the season. There were five matches left. Leicester were seven points clear of Spurs.

Vardy was sent off for diving and Leicester looked on course for defeat until referee Jon Moss awarded a stoppage-time penalty. Leonardo Ulloa stepped up. No one else could watch. And scored.

‘I know we won it by 10 points but I think the pressure and Tottenham’s belief if we’d lost that game, with Vardy sent off,’ says Simpson. ‘It made us feel like we won and it was meant to be.’

Ranieri (L) was seen as a risk after he was sacked by Greece following a loss to Faroe Islands

Ranieri (L) was seen as a risk after he was sacked by Greece following a loss to Faroe Islands

King is not having it. ‘I hated that game. Hated it. I was fuming. People were buzzing that we’d got a draw I was like, “nah, we’ve blown that”. I know it was a big point but it should have been three. We were 1-0 up and cruising but it got taken away from us because of refereeing decisions. Suddenly we were down to 10 men and scrambling for a point. Hated it.’

Still the vultures circled. How would Leicester fare without their talisman? Very well indeed, was the answer.

Ulloa scored twice in a 4-0 win against Swansea in their next game. ‘People might forget parts that were played by lads coming off the bench,’ adds Simpson.

While the majority of the title-winning squad – and its culture – was built by former manager Nigel Pearson, it was the gentle, quirky touch of Ranieri that provided the perfect front man to steer the club through the increasingly intense spotlight. Not that people thought it at the start.

The players had no idea who was coming in to replace Pearson. They expected it to be Sam Allardyce. But it was the Italian who stepped off the helicopter at the team’s pre-season training camp in Austria.

Ranieri brought a gentle, quirky touch to Leicester which helped them ignore the pressure

Ranieri brought a gentle, quirky touch to Leicester which helped them ignore the pressure

The same Ranieri who had been sacked by Greece for losing to the Faroe Islands. The same Ranieri who kept calling for the ball to be played ‘on the desk’ during an early training session because he had mis-heard one of the coaches shout ‘on the deck’. The same Ranieri who made youngster Tom Lawrence captain for a pre-season friendly after mistaking him for veteran midfielder Dean Hammond.

Yet the appointment, for that season especially, proved inspired. His ability to relieve pressure both behind the scenes and with his eccentric press conferences, ringing his imaginary bell — ‘Dilly-Ding, Dilly-Dong, come on!’ — proved masterful.

‘When I look back, I can see what he was doing,’ says Simpson. ‘He was turning it into a bit of fun and keeping us away from that side of it. Claudio, for me, especially as a defender, was really good.’

Ranieri’s defining act came after Leicester lost 2-1 to Arsenal at the Emirates in February. Down to 10 men for over half an hour — ‘I would remember it because I got sent off,’ says Simpson — Leicester succumbed to a 95th-minute winner from Danny Welbeck.

Arsenal’s players went wild and even posed for a post-win dressing-room selfie. The title race, in the eyes of many, was suddenly wide open. In the face of such disappointment, Ranieri gave them the week off.

‘We were like, “eh?”,’ says Simpson. ‘He told us to go away, clear our minds and do whatever we needed to do.’

After being in a relegation battle the year before, Leicester rose up to be champions in 2016

After being in a relegation battle the year before, Leicester rose up to be champions in 2016

‘I will always remember the way Arsenal celebrated too. A top team at home had just beat us in the last minute and we had 10 men. We are Leicester and look what Arsenal are doing, taking selfies at home… We must be good!’

King continues: ‘When we came back the next week, the lads were saying “did you see Arsenal put that picture up, they think they’ve won something already?”

Arsenal weren’t the only ones. Tottenham, who chased Leicester for most of the season only to finish third, also made their intentions clear.

Spurs fans would chant ‘Leicester City, we’re coming for you’ while striker Harry Kane posted a picture of three lions on Instagram to represent the hungry chasing pack.

‘That just made us more motivated,’ says King. ‘Them winning and especially when they kept singing that. Some of the stuff on social media, like Arsenal’s picture and the same with the lion one. Looking back now, it’s nice to laugh about it. It looks a bit silly now.’

On the night Leicester won the title, Vardy posted his own lion picture, of Mufasa falling to his death. ‘Yeah, he had that lined up for a while,’ says King.

Leicester had been top at Christmas. They returned to the summit again on January 23 with a 3-0 win over Stoke. And that’s where they would stay.

When Tottenham failed to beat West Brom on a Monday night in April, it left Leicester knowing they only needed one more win for glory.

Wes Morgan's favourite game was when he scored against Manchester United for a vital point

Wes Morgan’s favourite game was when he scored against Manchester United for a vital point

‘That was the only time I thought it was ours to lose,’ says King. ‘I knew it was in our hands then.’

He was too nervous to watch the match. ‘I had watched a couple of their games before and they had just made me fuming. They beat Stoke 4-0 and I couldn’t sleep. I thought: “Nah, I’m not doing this again”.

He checked his phone at half-time and saw Spurs winning 1-0. He looked again at 75 minutes and it was 1-1. ‘I thought “s***, this is it!”. It was the longest 15 minutes ever. I checked again and it kept saying 1-1 after 89 minutes so I went outside for a walk. 

‘When I got back I knew the result before I even checked because I had so many messages. The group chat was going off saying, “we’ve got this, lads, it’s our time”. It would have been the biggest slip-up ever and we weren’t going to let that happen.’

So, Leicester headed to Old Trafford on May 1 knowing a win would clinch the title. Nerves, finally, had set in.

‘Patrice Evra phoned me the night before to wish me good luck,’ says Simpson. ‘Little things like that start to hit you. The first half was really bad. I remember looking at Wes thinking we could have been four down.’

Tottenham blew their chance at chasing down Leicester with a loss to Chelsea in May

Tottenham blew their chance at chasing down Leicester with a loss to Chelsea in May 

Anthony Martial gave United the lead after eight minutes but Morgan equalised to earn what would prove a vital point. No wonder it is Morgan’s favourite game.

‘The goal I scored ended up being the decisive goal that took us over the line,’ Morgan told the Positive Vibes podcast. ‘That made it extra special as it proved to be the goal that won us the league.’

They only had to wait another day. Tottenham blew it at Chelsea and the new champions partied at Vardy’s house.

But they still had a trophy to lift.

That weekend, at home to Everton, they did it. ‘That’s my favourite day in football,’ says King. ‘And it will never be beaten.’ You’ll struggle to find a Leicester fan who argues.

Football was a sideshow that day. Thousands congregated outside the ground hours before kick-off, just to share in the moment, many without a ticket. Andrea Bocelli serenaded all those who did. Fathers hugged their children, strangers embraced, and grown men wept. Then the heavens opened and Leicester won. King scored. Then, with the sun out, Morgan lifted the trophy above his head.

‘It all just went too quick,’ says Simpson. ‘I always think to this day I didn’t get enough pictures! You just think, “I shouldn’t have let go of that trophy”!’

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