2011 Review: What’s Eating Leicester City?

This article appeared originally on the Slide Rule Pass site.

On 30th July 2011, Leicester City faced Real Madrid in a pre-season friendly which served as a statement of intent for the Foxes’ Thai owners. The Raksriaksorn family, who made their millions from the King Power duty free company, took over the club before the 2010-11 season and had already overseen huge investment in an increasingly bloated squad under the management of Sven Goran Eriksson. Leicester were among pundits’ favourites for promotion to the Premier League; attracting Mourinho, Ronaldo and co to Leicestershire was supposed to be the first step in a casual waltz to the Premier League under the sexy football and charismatic leadership of the former England manager.

Fast forward six months and Leicester are languishing in mid-table, Eriksson is unemployed and City fans, so optimistic on that balmy day one week before the start of the league season, are frustrated. Nigel Pearson, forced out of the club he had taken to the play-off semi-finals in 2010, has returned to the newly-renamed King Power 18 months after his controversial departure.

The replacement of Eriksson, the charming, cuban-heeled, multi-linguist globetrotter, with the tough, dour, classic English centre-half Pearson signalled a policy shift from the Leicester board. Last season under the Swede was a whirlwind of high-scoring victories and calamitous defeats, the Foxes falling just short of the play-offs. Premier League loan after Premier League loan arrived, the likes of Yakubu, Curtis Davies and Diomansy Kamara adding glamour to a ragtag bunch of old Pearson favourites and remnants of the short-lived reign of Paolo Sousa. The football flowed and the champagne was expected to follow. After a mediocre start to this season, however, the Raksriaksorn’s acted quickly, ending the Sven experiment and opting for a comparitively experienced Championship campaigner who was quietly moulding his Hull City side into a useful outfit with hopes of a play-off place.

So far, however, Pearson’s return has failed to have the required effect. After an impressive start, securing seven points from a possible nine, City have stalled, losing away at Hull and lowly Doncaster and only drawing at home against Peterborough. Inconsistency reigns – Leicester have failed to win two league games in a row this season.

Pearson should, and will, be given time to turn things around. He retains great affection from fans for his considerable achievements in his previous period at the club and is widely respected for the way in which he handled his enforced departure under Milan Mandaric’s chairmanship. Significant funds will be at the manager’s disposal in the January transfer window; another reason for Leicester fans, with relegation to the third tier still fresh in the memory, to remain thankful. There does though remain the look of a club that is overburdened by expectation – desperate to get to the promised land of the Premier League, it weighs heavy on the shoulders of fans and players. The likes of Richie Wellens and last season’s top scorer Andy King look shadows of their former selves, terrified of failure and unwilling to take risks. The swelling club coffers were supposed to bring excitement and success; the result has instead been bickering on the forums and the terraces, and mediocre football on the pitch. Lloyd Dyer’s punt past Iker Casillas seems a lifetime ago.

Despite this apparent misery, Leicester could still mount a decent challenge for promotion. While the automatic places look out of reach, City are only five points off the play-offs and, with the aforementioned riches, will surely end January with a stronger squad than at present. In the Championship, any club putting a mini run together can hurl themselves into a decent position, as Hull City have recently shown.

Whatever the circumstances, promotion to the Premier League would feel sweet after almost ten years in the wilderness. But, for me, the happiness would be a little hollow. This is not 2002-03, when Micky Adams’ led a threadbare squad through administration and into automatic promotion. This is not the Blue Army renaissance of the early nineties, when Brian Little won promotion through the play-offs at the third attempt. This is not Middlesbrough, performing miracles with a young team of hometown boys, or Southampton, making the seamless transition from League One champions to Championship leaders at Christmas with limited investment. This is pound after cynical pound thrown at a club where enjoyment has been replaced by massive expectation.

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