Through 14 matches (out of 38) of the 2015-2016 English Premier League season, there is an honest-to-goodness fairy tale brewing. Leicester City [pronounced “Lester”], the Foxes, are tied with big-money Manchester City at the top of the table, with 29 points apiece (Man City lead on the goal differential tiebreaker, but, at the moment, we won’t let that drag the story down). Right now, there isn’t a better story in sports. This is not just unlikely, it’s almost unthinkable. A season ago, Leicester City was newly promoted to the top division after a decade in the lower tiers. The goal for any newly-promoted team, first and foremost, is survival. It wasn’t looking good for the Foxes, however. They were dead last in the league at Christmas. It was widely suspected that their manager, Nigel Pearson, would lose his job in-season. Historically, if you’re last at Christmas, you are as good as relegated. Leicester bucked those odds, finished on an incredible run, and survived the drop back down to the second division. They would stay with the big boys in the Premier League. It was an accomplishment worthy of celebration. Then things got weird…
On a post-season vacation to Thailand, three Leicester City players, including James Pearson (son of manager Nigel Pearson) decided it would be a good idea to hire Thai prostitutes, have an orgy replete with racially-motivated verbal abuse, and film it. Yep. Surprise, surprise… the film didn’t stay “their little secret.” When the video went public, the players were released from their contracts. Shortly after, Nigel Pearson was relieved of his managerial duties. In his place, Leicester hired Claudio Ranieri. Ranieri is a 64-year-old Italian man with an impressive C.V. He had managed some of Europe’s biggest clubs, including Napoli, Valencia, Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Roma, Juventus, and Inter Milan. Despite his extensive experience at major clubs, the hire was widely panned. The consensus was that the board at Leicester City had been sold a bill of goods by a talented agent. The fans wanted a dynamic hire, someone with vision, a man who could build a club that would become a permanent fixture in the top flight. Ranieri, in the eyes of many pundits and fans, was nothing more than a stop-gap name from the past that would not be invested in building a small club from the ground up. On top of that, Leicester was not notably active in the summer transfer market. Boring, recycled manager; no new signings. I cannot remember seeing a single “expert preview” that DIDN’T predict relegation for Leicester City. Expectations were lower than low, but here we are, in early December, with the mighty Foxes tied for 1st.
Every man on the roster has played his part and contributed to this dream season. Riyad Mahrez is a lightning-quick Algerian playmaker who attacks from the right. Marc Albrighton patrols the left wing. Danny Drinkwater (yes, really) breaks up opponents’ attacks in the midfield like I…um…drink water (sorry). Kasper Schmeichel is one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the league. Ranieri has instilled a never-say-die attitude that is reflected by the team’s absurdly good record of coming back and getting results after they fall a goal (or goals) behind. All have played their role. However, when people think about this team, they’ll think about one unlikely superstar. They will think of Jamie Vardy.
Last weekend, in Leicester’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United, Jamie Vardy scored the opening goal. It was the 11th consecutive game in which Vardy scored, becoming the first player in Premier League history to do so. Jamie Vardy is 28 years old, had only scored 5 Premier League goals prior to this season, and was playing semi-professionally for fifth-division Fleetwood Town as recently as 2012. This is Disney movie stuff. I can’t come up with a good analogy, because Roy Hobbs, Rocky Balboa, Daniel Larusso, and “shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO” are all fictitious. This cat came out of NOWHERE. This is comparable to a guy being a decent junior hockey player that doesn’t get drafted, takes a job in a factory, plays in a beer league on Wednesday nights, somehow gets noticed by an NHL scout when he’s 27, signs a contract, and wins the Art Ross at 28. This just doesn’t happen in English soccer (or anywhere). The best players are plucked up by academies when they’re teenagers. If you’re talented, everyone knows about you. The notion that an Englishman with Vardy’s speed and finishing ability could go unnoticed for so long is absurd. He leads the Premier League with 14 goals in 14 games.
It’s been a fairy tale season for Leicester City, a town roughly the size of Pittsburgh in England’s East Midlands. I fear the clock will soon strike midnight for the Cinderella Foxes. They’ve mostly avoided the “big” teams in the early part of their schedule, but the upcoming fixture list is brutal. In all likelihood, they’ll drop down to mid-table by February. I hope that doesn’t happen. When money rules the league and the results correlate a little too closely to the bank accounts of the owners, it’s easy to cheer for the little guys. Get on board with the Foxes. You can say you were there from the beginning, even if it’s probably a little closer to the end.


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