The Leicester City bandwagon shows no sign of crashing. Quite the opposite in fact. The surprise Premier League leaders looked seriously impressive in beating Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad on Saturday to go five (repeat five) points clear at the top of the Premier League table. For the first time the bookmakers have Claudio Ranieri’s team as title favourites (at odds of 7-4). If results go their way on Sunday when the top four play each other Leicester could go seven points clear (if they win at Arsenal and the Manchester City v Tottenham game is a draw). We would really have to take them seriously as title contenders.
If Leicester do go on to win the title it would be the biggest shock in English football since Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest won Division One (what the top division was called before the formation of the Premier League in 1992) in 1977-78. It is fascinating to compare the two as there are similarities between the two teams – and differences.
The key similarity between Leicester and Forest is that both teams were lucky to be in the top division at all. First Leicester. On March 21st 2015 they lost 4-3 at Tottenham. It left Leicester bottom of the table after 29 games with just 19 points and four wins all season. They were seven points short of safety and were doomed to relegation unless something remarkable happened. Which it did. Leicester won seven out of their last nine games and drew another. Only champions Chelsea beat them. They finished on 41 points six points clear of the bottom three. They won more points (22) in their last nine games than they did in the first twenty nine (19).
If that was remarkable Forest’s story was even more astonishing. On May 7th 1977 they played their last Division Two game of the season, beating Millwall 1-0 – the goal was an own goal another piece of luck. They were in third place in the table (the top three went up without play offs in those days). But Forest were not promoted yet. Nearest rivals Bolton were two points behind with two games to play (it was two points for a win at the time). Three points from those two games and Bolton would go up instead of Forest. But on May 14th 1977 Bolton lost 0-1 at home to Wolves and Forest were promoted while they were in Spain (not the first time this happened to Clough. In 1972 his Derby team needed Arsenal and Leeds not to win in order to win the Division One title. Incredibly neither did and Derby were champions. They clinched the title when they were in Spain just as Forest were in Spain when they clinched promotion. Clough was indisputably a great manager. But he was also lucky).
Understandably neither Leicester or Forest were given much of a chance of doing much. Especially as in the case of Leicester they changed their manager in the summer of 2015 when after a racism scandal in Thailand which saw his son sacked manager Nigel Pearson was also sacked. He was replaced by Ranieri best known for being the first Chelsea manager of the Roman Abramovich era.
But Leicester and Forest both got off to fliers. And here again two similarities. Both Forest and Leicester got off to fliers but were written off. A joke about Leicester were they were like the elephant at the top of a tree. No one knew how they got there but we know they’ll fall down eventually. Both Forest and Leicester’s first defeats were against Arsenal and heavy (0-3 for Forest and 2-5 for Leicester) and when those defeats happened it was thought Forest and Leicester would collapse. Neither did. On October 4th 1977 Forest went to the top of the table and were never headed again. But it was not until they beat Manchester United 4-0 at Old Trafford on December 17th that they became title favourites. Leicester first hit the top of the table on November 21st 2015. Since then they have been never lower than second or more than two points behind the leaders. And (as I mentioned earlier) they became title favourites with a win in Manchester just like Forest.
Whether Leicester emulate Forest remains to be seen. But there are similarities between the two teams namely the managerial skills of Ranieri and Clough and unknown players rising to unexpected heights. For Leicester the attacking success of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy plus the less heralded contributions of Danny Drinkwater, Robert Huth and Kasper Schmeichel. For Forest the emergence of players like Tony Woodcock and John Robertson as First Division quality players.
Also both were shrewd in the transfer market. Mahrez and Vardy were bought for cheap fees. Forest signed Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd for cheap fees because they were considered to be a trouble maker and past his best respectively. Only Clough thought differently and was rewarded.
But if Leicester win the League it will be a far better achievement. First apart from Liverpool the big clubs were not as good as they are now. Arsenal, Chelsea and both Manchester clubs weren’t as highly placed and Tottenham were in Division Two. Secondly Forest were not a poor club. For all Clough’s managerial skills would they have won the League had they not signed Peter Shilton the best keeper in England and a player arguably worth ten points a season for £250000? That was a big fee at the time – the UK transfer record was then £440,000 which Liverpool paid Celtic for Kenny Dalglish. And less than a year after winning the title in February 1979 they became the first British club to pay a million pounds for a player when they signed Trevor Francis. Leicester will not be breaking the British transfer record anytime soon. While Forest’s success was remarkable it was due to a great manager in Clough. Most teams that win the title for the first time in ages or ever win because of a great manager (Clough at Derby and Forest, Alf Ramsey at Ipswich and Don Revie at Leeds to name but three) or a rich benefactor (Blackburn, Chelsea and Manchester City). Leicester have neither. Ranieri has never won a League title in a long career. Leicester’s Thai owners have not thrown money around. The team that beat City cost £22 million which by current standards is peanuts. Liverpool flop Christian Benteke cost £32 million on his own. If Leicester win the title there is a case for saying it would be the best achievement in UK football history.