The first two months of 2011 were Salad Days for Sven Goran Eriksson’s Leicester side, winning 7 of their first 8 league games of the year. January’s loan signings had settled into the team well; particularly Manchester City academy graduate Ben Mee and Yakubu, who racked up 11 goals in his 20 games for the club.
The pinnacle came during a first half at Pride Park where the Foxes absolutely outclassed their hosts with a scintillating display of counter-attacking football in a late Saturday evening televised fixture. City’s second goal, in first half injury time, was magnificent. Goalkeeper Ricardo rolled the ball out to Ben Mee. He played it forward to Yakubu, who had dropped deep to almost the centre half, dragging his marker with him in the process. Yakubu knocked a short, first-time ball to Patrick Van Aanholt, who pushed it forward to Gallagher. The Scot then played a perfectly weighted ball into the 18-yard box, where Andy King had emerged behind the Derby defence and proceeded to poke the ball past the onrushing Rams goalkeeper. From Mee to goal, the move took 8 seconds.
Leicester were bottom when Mr Eriksson arrived and now found themselves just four points away from the play-off places. It had been a long time since City fans had seen football this positive, performances this fluid, players this…good. Unfortunately many of those players weren’t actually employed by Leicester City and are no longer playing for the club. The form of early 2011 was like the financial bubble of the mid 00s – not at all sustainable, but bloody good fun at the time.
Fast forward two and a bit months from that wonderful night at Pride Park and Leicester’s play-off hopes were on the ropes. In a topsy-turvy Good Friday game at the City Ground, of all places, they were finally KO’d. Forest were 3 points ahead of the Foxes coming into the game and City knew that only a win would keep them within touching distance of the top 6.
After coming from behind twice, first through a Matt Oakley strike and later through Darius Vassell’s goal just a minute later than Forest’s second, City threw the game away, as was far too common in 2011, with a heartbreaking individual error. Paul McKenna’s shot on the volley was well-struck but moving at anything but breakneck speed as it bobbled innocuously toward the diving Chris Weale. Weale was clearly hypnotised by McKenna, as he inexplicably dived over the ball, otherwise known as ‘throwing a Taibi’ . This error completed a miserable season for the City keeper, who had seen himself replaced as first choice by a series of loan signings, returning only to the starting line-up only when they had proven themselves to be even more incompetent than he.
More importantly, Leicester had lost a crucial game at the home of their hated neighbours and play-off rivals and a promotion which had seemed utterly implausible in October had indeed proven to be just beyond the Foxes.
No.3, 31st August, Transfer deadline day: Beckford signs
Leicester’s search for a striker to complement David Nugent, who had arrived on a free at the start of the summer transfer window, had gone from exciting, through intriguing and, by deadline day, to just plain frustrating. Eriksson’s two premier targets had slipped through the net; Craig Maikail-Smith making a somewhat surprising move to newly-promoted Brighton and Nicky Maynard staying put, or being forced to stay put, at Bristol City.
City’s start to the 2011-12 season had done nothing to assuage fears that the side lacked the firepower required to mount a serious promotion challenge, home defeats to Reading and Bristol City following a tight 1-0 win away at Coventry on the opening day. A new striker was seen by many City fans as the golden bullet – if only we had someone to convert all those chances the team had been creating, we’d clearly be taking up our rightful place at the top of the table.
On Transfer deadline day, Wednesday 31 August, Sven Goran Eriksson finally signed his second frontman. Everton’s David Moyes, struggling with crippling financial restrictions placed on him by the club, took the £2.5m bait for Jermaine Beckford, a player who had performed solidly if not spectacularly in his first season at the club after his contract ended at Leeds United. The move smacked of desperation for both clubs; Everton needed the money, Leicester needed a ‘proven’ striker who could jumpstart a stuttering season.
Like most deadline day panic buys (take a bow, messrs Torres and Carrol), the transfer was not properly thought through. Beckford is a pouncer, a decent finisher who specialises in running off the last man. He thrives on decent service, from wide or from a No.10 who can weight through balls accurately. He is not, however, a particularly creative player – not someone who, like Adel Taarabt for QPR last season, or Adam Lallana for Southampton this term, can create something out of nothing, provide a spark to a team otherwise toiling. Beckford was never going to provide the quick fix so desired by Mr Eriksson and has been unfairly scapegoated by some City fans who see him as lazy and arrogant. Frankly, Beckford was the wrong man at the very wrong time and redemption under Nigel Pearson seems unlikely – it will be no surprise to see Beckford if leaves the club in January.
Despite the aforementioned mediocre start to the 2011-12 season, Leicester had actually managed to establish some consistency prior to their televised Sunday afternoon visit to St Andrews in mid-October. Unbeaten in seven and with a defence not breached since 10th September, the Foxes went into the game in confident mood. Two weeks prior, before the international break, City had walloped Derby for the second time this year, this time doubling their money with a convincing 4-0 victory.
A key factor in Leicester’s mini-revival had been the improving form of Matt Mills, signed for a club record-equalling £5m in the summer. City fans were left wondering exactly how that figure had been calculated after some early season performances which left Mills looking like a shadow of the player who had almost captained Reading to the Premier League. Four clean sheets in a row prior to the Birmingham game had seen Mills establish a pleasing partnership with Sol Bamba however, Bamba’s maverick, roaming style complementing Mills’ more no-nonsense, body-on-the-line approach.
Mills’ wild, two footed lunge on Morgaro Gomis, though not particularly malicious, was deserving of the red card which followed. City were already 1-0 down and the sending off effectively killed the game and went some way towards ending Sven Goran Eriksson’s year-long occupation of the manager’s chair. A dull 2-0 win over Watford followed, with a dire 3-0 home defeat to Millwall sealing the Swede’s fate.
As I argued at the time, Mills’s sending off at St Andrews set the wheels in motion for the somewhat hasty sacking of our cuban-heeled European friend. Despite Mills’ obvious shortcomings, Leicester have looked significantly more secure with him at the heart of the defence and the two biggest wobble periods of the season have coincided with his absence through suspension. One wonders how the season so far may have panned out had City finished the game against Birmingham with 11 men.
No.5, 15th November: Pearson returns
Most Leicester fans were pretty upset when Nigel Pearson was seemingly forced out of the club in June 2010. Following two years of consistent improvement and considerable over-achievement in reaching the play-offs in City’s first season back in the Championship, Pearson suffered the indignity of seeing his successor Paolo Sousa manoeuvred into position via an invitation to the semi-final second leg against Cardiff. Pearson’s face apparently didn’t fit for the club’s new Thai owners. They wanted a bigger name, and the Champions League-winning Sousa fitted the bill.
Almost 18 months later, that commonly rehearsed narrative turned out not to be the case at all. Milan Mandaric’s strained relationship with Pearson had come to a head at the end of the 2009-10 season and he took the arrival of new investors as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean; the Raksriaksorn family were left to rue this decision as first Sousa and then Eriksson failed to deliver the consistency required for a sustained promotion challenge.
Pearson’s return makes sense in hindsight – despite the mediocre start to his second spell at the club, he clearly should never have been allowed to leave and most City fans back the opportunity he has been given to carry on his good work. At the time his name was first associated with a return however (almost two weeks before his eventual confirmed appointment), it came as a real shock. From the sublime (Martin O’Neill) to the ridiculous (Steve McLaren), at times it seemed every unemployed manager in Europe was having his hat thrown into the ring. At one point, Huddersfield’s Lee Clark looked nailed on as betting was suspended. Pearson appeared happy at Hull City and looked to be turning his young team into decent play-off contenders, but the temptation of a return to the club where he made his managerial name was too much to resist.
Fellow Leicester fan David Bevan of The Seventy Two accurately described the emotions of many City fans in this article . Pearson’s performance so far has been disappointing, but he will get more patience from fans than most managers due to his achievements in his first spell at the club.
The current league position suggests this may be a lofty hope rather than a realistic aim, but can we dream that the most significant date of 2012 will be 19th May, the date of the Championship play-off final?