Hubert Lawrence | Living Leicester's Dream
When Leicester City won the English Premier League title last season, fans of big-name clubs groaned. Now the groans are louder. Though Leicester are struggling to defend their league title, the team captained by Jamaican Wes Morgan has safely emerged from the first round of the UEFA Champions League.
Fans would use the 'minnows' label to describe the current champions of England. Morgan's team barely escaped relegation from the Premiership at the end of the 2014-2015 season. Twelve months later, these new Blues were champions.
Now, Morgan and his teammates are writing another brilliant chapter in the club's history. Early in the Champions League campaign, Leicester City became the only English club to win their first three matches in the flagship of European competition. That's staggering given the success other English teams have had in Europe in the past.
With a 2-1 win over Club Brugge early this week, Leicester City have qualified for the knock-out stage with a game to spare.
Discarded by Chelsea in 2004, coach Claudio Ranieri has organised his Leicester City team so well that it has survived a Jamie Vardy scoring drought to advance. Prolific last season with 24 strikes in the league, Vardy returned to the scoresheet with a diving header for England in a 2-2 day against Spain recently. If that breakthrough heralds a new flood of goals for the 29-year-old, Leicester could be headed upward in the Premiership and onward in Europe.
That's an aside. The real story is inspiring for sporting hopefuls everywhere. It's still remarkable that little Leicester City could outplay big-money outfits like Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United in England. It's even more remarkable that now football fans have to include Leicester City in their list of teams already through to the Champions League knockout stage. That list includes the star-studded Real Madrid aggregation.
That's no easy achievement. Ask Tottenham Hotspurs. Hamstrung by the injuries suffered by their own prolific scorer Harry Kane, Spurs' fans have seen their team shuffled out of the Champions League and into the subordinate Europa League. For the record, that's where Manchester United are also playing.
Liverpool, the most successful English club of all time in the Champions League or the European Cup, as it used to be known, didn't qualify for Europe at all.
FANS CAN DREAM
No one is proposing that Leicester City will soon overtake Liverpool's record of five wins in Europe's top club tournament, but fans of the Blues can dream. Critics will say former European champion Porto, Club Brugge and Copenhagen, Leicester's rivals in the first round group G, aren't big teams. They can say that, but no one thought Morgan and company would even be in the same stadium with them at this time last season.
It's a dream come true. Now, little teams and newcomers have Leicester as a model of hope. Success is possible without super deep pockets. It is possible if shrewd management is matched by on-field desire.
It won't happen everyday. After all, there is something to be said for tradition and financial clout, but Leicester nevertheless overcame all of that to win the league last year and have continued with a fine 2016 European campaign. A year ago, no sports fan outside of that English city would recognise Morgan, Vardy or magical midfielder Riyad Mahrez if they met in the street. Should the good times keep coming for Leicester City on the field of play, some of them may even become household names.
- Hubert Lawrence has made notes at trackside since 1980.