As likely as Elvis being alive: Leicester City defies odds in EPL title pursuit
This story appeared in the March 14, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
LEICESTER, England – Lee Jobber—Lee to his family, Jobber to everyone else in the British Midlands—is literally the biggest fan of English Premier League-leading Leicester City, arguably the wildest underdog story in the history of professional sports. Weighing in at 350 pounds, Jobber is covered neck to toe with 150 tattoos, from Mary Poppins wearing a Leicester City scarf, near his left shin, to WIDE LOAD above his belly button, to the Foxes’ club badge across the entirety of his back.
At 36, he has been a Leicester season-ticket holder for 31 years. Jobber attends every game, home and away. Since 2003, he has banged a 33-inch drum at home matches, most often shirtless, with the exception of the time two years ago when he finally donned a T-shirt for fear of hypothermia. “If I’m dead, I can’t go to the game,” Jobber says, quite reasonably, “so I have to look after myself a little bit.”
A professional mentor at a special-needs school, Jobber believed he had seen just about everything with his beloved club (which in 132 years has never finished above second place in the top division—and that was in 1929).
He was there in 2008 when hapless Leicester finished in the bottom three of England’s second-tier league and was relegated to the third division, League One. (“Horrible,” he says.)
He was there at Wembley Stadium in 1993 when Leicester, needing a win to be promoted to the Premier League, came back from a 3–0 deficit against Swindon Town only to lose 4–3 on a dubious late penalty. (“My mum said she’d never come to a match again, cuz I’m not watching my son cry.”) And, more positively, he was there last spring when the newly promoted Foxes pulled off the greatest escape in Premier League history, winning seven of their last nine games and rallying from last place on April 18 to finish 14th and stay in the top flight.
But even that couldn’t prepare Jobber and his fellow Leicester fans for the fairy tale that has unfolded this season. Picked by most pundits to finish at the bottom and be relegated to the second tier, the Foxes were leading the league by five points with seven games left to play after Saturday's 1–0 win over Crystal Palace. In an era when the richest teams (Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal) have typically been the only ones even contending for the Premier League title, Leicester’s comparatively economical roster—built with roughly $85 million, or 1/10th the cost of Manchester City’s—has been a romantic revelation week after glorious week.
“I’ve seen everything here at this football club, and you’ll never see anything like this again,” says 70-year-old team ambassador Alan Birchenall, a former Foxes midfielder who remembers playing in the U.S. in the 1970s and helping Americans learn to say Less-ter instead of Lie-chess-ter. “Every Sunday morning I sit there with my papers and, no lie, I spend five to 10 minutes just looking at the league table. I know where we are, but I just think: Look at all the teams underneath. And I sit there smiling at myself.”
“If they were to keep going and win the title, it’s hard to find a bigger surprise in any team sport in history,” says former England national team striker Gary Lineker, 55, the country’s best-known Foxes fan, who grew up supporting them, later played for the club and is now the Bob Costas of U.K. television.
The temptation to cast Leicester’s story in American terms is natural—and yet it’s an impossible exercise. Perhaps the best comparison is the Milan (Ind.) High basketball team immortalized in Hoosiers. More precisely: Imagine that a Double A baseball team earned the right to compete in the majors and was now on the verge of winning the World Series.
There’s no real-life precedent in any sport for a 5,000-to-1 preseason long shot—Leicester’s title odds, per British bookmaker William Hill, entering this season—claiming the title. As ESPN.com noted, previous epic upset championship winners have paled in comparison: In 1987, the Twins were 500 to 1 to win the World Series; the ’99 Rams, 300 to 1 to take the Super Bowl; Greece, a 150 to 1 shot to win the 2004 Euro title; and the Miracle Mets of ’69 a mere 100 to 1.
What other kinds of unlikely scenarios hold 5,000 to 1 odds with William Hill? For one, discovering Elvis Presley alive and well.
“Well then,” says Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, flashing a sly smile, “let’s hope Elvis is found alive.”
How does this happen? For believers in the supernatural, Leicester City’s rise has a ready explanation: King Richard III. Crowned in 1483, the last ruler of the House of York held power for two years before being killed at Bosworth Field, near Leicester, in the decisive battle of the War of the Roses. Missing for more than five centuries, Richard III’s remains were discovered in 2012 under a parking lot in Leicester, and he was interred in Leicester Cathedral last March 26—right when the last-place Foxes began their stunning turnaround to escape relegation last season. In their 40 league games since Richard III’s reburial, the Foxes have a winning percentage of .775. In their 29 top-division games before that, the mark was .259.
Even after that stunning surge last March, Leicester’s chances of avoiding relegation again appeared to dip in June, one month before this season started, when manager Nigel Pearson was fired after his son, James, a Leicester reserve, appeared in a sex tape in which three young Thai women were racially abused. (James and two other reserve players were thrown off the team by the club’s Thai ownership.)
To the shock of many, management turned to 64-year-old Claudio Ranieri, a mild-mannered Italian who had coached top clubs such as Chelsea, Juventus and Inter Milan but who had never won a league title and who had recently been fired four games into his tenure with the Greek national team after a home loss to the lowly Faroe Islands.
Ranieri’s recipe for success has been rather straightforward: Strike on the counterattack through the surgical precision of midfielder Riyad Mahrez and the ruthless finishing of forward Jamie Vardy, win balls in the midfield with the range and tenacity of N’Golo Kanté and Danny Drinkwater, and absorb attacking pressure with a veteran defense anchored by center backs Wes Morgan and Robert Huth in front of Schmeichel. Two modern hallmarks of winning EPL teams—possession and passing precision—are not the Foxes’ forte. Through Sunday they had the third-lowest possession time in the league and the lowest pass-completion percentage.
“This kind of statistic is not important,” argues Ranieri, a kindly grandfather type who, no joke, promised and delivered his team a pizza party when Leicester posted its first clean sheet of the season in October. (Eleven more have followed, ranking them second in the league.) “If you keep possession of the ball, it’s O.K., but I think we are stronger if we get the ball and go. I know we have not a high percentage to the final pass, but if we make two or three right actions, we score a goal.”
No fewer than three Leicester players—Vardy, Mahrez and Kanté—are top candidates for Premier League Player of the Season, and each is a testament to the power of scouting. Kanté, 24, was playing three years ago in the sixth tier of French soccer, for the reserves of Boulogne, but promising performances for Caen in Ligue 1 (the top tier) brought him to the attention of Leicester, which bought him for a reported $8.9 million last summer.
Mahrez, a 25-year-old French-born Algerian international, came from Le Havre in Ligue 2 in January 2014 for a fee of less than $1 million and is now valued in excess of $22 million. And then there’s the 29-year-old Vardy, the Premier League’s second-leading scorer in goals (19), who’s the definition of a late bloomer. Released by then third-division Sheffield Wednesday when he was 16, Vardy worked nine-hour days at a carbon-fiber splint factory and played in semipro leagues, earning $50 a game, until he was 25.
“Once I got released by Sheffield Wednesday, I thought football wasn’t the job for me,” he says. “That’s why I was working full-time.”
But he kept scoring goals, and in May ’12 he signed with Leicester for $1.6 million. This past November, Vardy scored in his 11th straight league game to set a Premier League record.
“Hard work does pay off, even when you’ve had setbacks,” he says, referring, in his case, to a series of angry outbursts, including using a racial slur at a casino last year, for which he apologized, and an ’07 assault conviction that had him playing with an electronic tag for six months.
Whatever their backgrounds, Vardy and his teammates hold tight to the belief that a collective effort can overcome talent that comes at 10 times the price.
That would be merely a quaint belief—if the Premier League table weren’t there to back it up.
“The bigger teams try to get the best players because they want to [stay] the best,” says Morgan, Leicester’s captain. “But [spending’s] not guaranteed to give you success. A lot of it comes down to team spirit and the grit and determination of the individuals. We’ve got a unique set of players where we’re all on the same page.”
“Everywhere we go now—a restaurant, a petrol station—everyone is saying, ‘I hope you win it,’” says Schmeichel. “The football romantics would like us to win it because it’s a great story; 5,000 to 1 is quite a long shot. But it also shows that you can capture the imagination of a [fan] by playing a certain way, with passion and spirit and heart. Every player on this team epitomizes that, and that’s why we’ve endeared ourselves to the footballing world.”
Seven games remain, of course, and plenty can happen. But after acting for months as if they were waiting for the other shoe to drop, some Leicester fans are starting to allow themselves to believe that the most unlikely and memorable Premier League title of all time is actually within their grasp.
“Why can’t we?” asks Jobber. “We’ve only lost three games—that’s champions material.” (If all goes according to plan, Jobber is thinking of replacing his current fingernail tattoos, "vardy" and "kanté," with "#champions," spanning both hands.)
As for Lineker, Leicester’s favorite son made a promise a few months ago.
“I slightly foolishly said I would present the first program next season in my underwear if Leicester won the league,” he says, referring to the Match of the Day highlights show he hosts on the BBC. “Now, when I said this, I categorically knew there was never any chance for Leicester to win the league. That seems to have changed slightly, so I might be in trouble.”
He laughs. “The nation might be in trouble.”