As part of our Greatest series, we look back at perhaps the greatest achievement in sporting history: Leicester City's 2015/16 Premier League win.
On 20th July 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world watched history made on their TVs.
Eight years later, on 16th August 1977, Elvis Presley suddenly passed away.
Thousands of people visited Graceland to view the open casket.
Yet some bookmakers rated the latter being found alive and well and the former to be confirmed by then-President Barack Obama to have been faked as more likely than Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2015/16.
All three were nigh-on impossible, but one actually happened.
It’s easy to look back at the team containing Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante, Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel and think that European football certainly wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
But hindsight is 20/20, and few seriously thought a Leicester side who miraculously avoided relegation the previous season were in for similar hardship.
They’d lost manager Nigel Pearson, replaced him with Claudio Ranieri, whose last managerial job was an ill-fated four-game spell in charge of Greece, where his record read no wins, one draw, three losses.
Regarding his time with Greece, Ranieri blamed the lack of time spent with the squad for the poor results.
I had to rebuild a national team in just 12 days. I’m not a magician.
Claudio Ranieri on his time with Greece.
Many people would beg to differ, Claudio...
But the appointment didn’t inspire all that much confidence. After all, the spell at Greece was a disaster, culminating in the loss at home to Faroe Islands – a nation with a population around a third of the size of Burnley – whose record in their last 20 games was a draw with Kazakhstan and a solitary win against Gibraltar. The loss to Faroe Islands was almost as shocking as their Euro 2004 win only 10 years prior.
Leicester legend and supporter Gary Lineker tweeted at the time just three words on the appointment, rather summing up the mood at the time: “Claudio Ranieri? Really?”
Not that any Leicester fans was looking at the ‘Big Six’ at the start of the season, but it’s worth considering how each of those shaped up in the summer, to give an idea of the mountain Leicester had to climb.
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea were reigning champions, and with no significant incomings or outgoings, there was little reason to think they wouldn’t be there or thereabouts.
Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City had fallen short of Chelsea the previous season, but had strengthened with Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Nicolas Otamendi. Undoubtedly stronger than the previous season, City had all the tools at their disposal to push Chelsea close.
Arsenal at the time were still regular members of the top four, and like Chelsea, hadn’t significantly weakened or strengthened, though the signing of Petr Cech was a big boost and while a title challenge was likely a step too far, another top-four finish was on the cards.
Manchester United were still in their post-Ferguson malaise, though Louis van Gaal had brought Champions League football back to Old Trafford, and with him shaping the squad more to his demands, further improvement was expected from United.
Tottenham continued to show potential as part of Mauricio Pochettino’s revolution, with Toby Alderweireld completing a solid back four, but a title challenge still looked a long way off.
And finally Liverpool were a long way off the pace after their title challenge of 2014. The departure of Luis Suarez had hit hard, and his goals hadn’t been sufficiently replaced.
The present wasn’t only against Leicester, but the past too. Since its inception in 1992, the Premier League had become a closed shop. Giants Manchester United and Arsenal had won multiple titles, with new-money Blackburn, Chelsea and Manchester City making it five winners in 23 years.
Even in the 11 years prior to the Premier League, Liverpool, Everton and Leeds United were the only other winners.
34 years, eight winners, and there was a correlation between them all: money.
Leicester's net spend in the summer of 2015 was a fairly liberal £20,000,000, but it was unlikely to be enough to propel them out of a relegation battle.
And so to 8th August 2015.
Ranieri complained he only had 12 days to work with the Greek team; well he’d only had little more than double that to get to work on a side who pulled off one of the greatest of great escapes not three months prior.
The Italian couldn’t have hoped for a better start, at home to a Sunderland side perpetually fighting relegation.
The Foxes raced into a 3-0 lead after 25 minutes, with Vardy and Mahrez opening their accounts for the season. Leicester ran out 4-2 winners.
So far so good, right?
A tougher test awaited with a trip to Upton Park to face a West Ham side who’d just put Arsenal to the sword on the opening day, with an inspired performance from 16-year-old Reece Oxford helping them to all three points.
New signing Shinji Okazaki would open his account, with Mahrez scoring his third in two games. Leicester won 2-1, and stayed top of the league.
Maybe Ranieri was the man to keep the Foxes in the Premier League after all?
Consecutive 1-1 draws, relying on late equalisers against Tottenham and Bournemouth followed, with a first defeat of the season against Aston Villa impending.
The Foxes were 2-0 down after 70 minutes, but goals from Ritchie De Laet, Vardy and Nathan Dyer secured all three points.
Two things were notable from Leicester’s opening five games. Firstly, they’d had less of the ball than their opponents in every game. Secondly, they were yet to keep a clean sheet.
The first point wasn’t an issue; over the course of the season, only two sides averaged less possession than Leicester. Ranieri’s side were set up to allow their opponents to have more of the ball, relying on the pace of Vardy to hit sides on the break.
But the second point was. Ranieri had incentivised keeping a clean sheet by treating his side to pizza when they finally kept a side out.
They’d have to wait at least another week after a trip to Stoke, where Ranieri’s side staged another comeback from 2-0 to rescue a point.
Then came the biggest test of the season, a test where Leicester would fall well short.
With Manchester City winning each of their opening five games without even conceding a goal and Chelsea in freefall, the title looked to be heading back up north. Leicester weren’t yet on anyone’s radar, least of all after the back-to-Earth-with-a-bump humbling at home to the Gunners.
Vardy gave Leicester the lead early on – the fourth consecutive Premier League game he’d scored in, by the way – but Theo Walcott equalised soon after and a hat-trick from Alex Sanchez would be enough for Arsenal to expose a porous Leicester defence and win 5-2.
The loss would be a seminal moment in Leicester’s season. The impenetrable Manchester City lost back-to-back games, and from the Arsenal defeat until Christmas Day, Leicester took 26 points from 11 games.
It was the same as Arsenal, six more than Tottenham, nine more than Manchester City and 10 more than United and Liverpool. By Christmas, Chelsea were fighting a relegation battle and Leicester were looking good for European football at the very least.
The Foxes would follow the Arsenal defeat with a win against Norwich and a point (once again, from 2-0 down) on the south coast against Southampton.
Then, at the 10th time of asking, Ranieri finally treated his men to some hard-earned pizza, following their 1-0 win over Crystal Palace. Three more wins over West Brom, Watford and Newcastle had the Foxes top of the league after 13 games. The conversation from ‘Leicester have had a good start’ to ‘Leicester are a good side’ was starting to shift.
There were still defensive issues, however. After 12 games, they’d shipped 20 goals – the most of any side in the top 14, and as many as bottom side Aston Villa. But having reached 25 points much earlier than they’d have hoped to go joint-top, Ranieri had his sights firmly set on another target.
“40 points” – the pre-season goal of any manager hoping for Premier League survival.
At the other end though, Jamie Vardy couldn’t stop scoring. He’d scored in a record-equalling 10 straight games, as many as Manchester United’s Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Leicester’s next game? Manchester United.
United were second at the time, a point behind Leicester and looking to go top. Of course, of all people, Vardy had to score the opener, breaking Van Nistelrooy’s record, sparking delirium in the stands. United would fight back for a 1-1 draw, and such was the belief and confidence with Leicester’s squad come late November, it felt like two points dropped.
A title challenge wasn’t yet on the cards, but Champions League football was becoming a realistic target.
They were now going into games believing they could beat anyone. Their run of four straight wins had been halted, but was followed by three more wins against Swansea, Chelsea (which brought about the sacking of Mourinho) and Everton.
Incredibly, Leicester were top at Christmas. For those who like their omens, 11 teams in the 23 Premier League years had gone on to win the league from that point, and only two had finished outside the top four.
While the notion of the Foxes going all the way still seemed preposterous, the price for them winning the title had collapsed.
The odds suggested it was a two-horse race between Arsenal and Manchester City, who’d just suffered defeat to their title rivals at the Emirates, but Leicester were now becoming well-fancied for a Champions League place. Tottenham were drawing far too many games; Manchester United weren’t firing on all cylinders, and Liverpool and Chelsea had it all to do just to secure a place in the top half.
But Boxing Day would bring Leicester’s toughest spell of the season. A trip to Anfield would be the first time Leicester failed to score in the season, falling to a 1-0 defeat.
The festive period wouldn’t get much easier, with consecutive 0-0 draws with Manchester City and Bournemouth. And while the point against title-chasing City wasn’t a bad result, it was another game in which Leicester had failed to score. Vardy’s goals – and Mahrez’s for that matter – had dried up.
Vardy had now scored one in six (and would blank in his next two games) while Mahrez was in the middle of a seven-game dry run after bagging six in three games in the run-up to Christmas.
But as they did after their mini-blip earlier in the season, Leicester would come back strong. Clean sheets had become the norm after the leaky start to the season. After the first 18 games of the season, Leicester had shipped 25 goals; in the next 20, they conceded just 11.
Ranieri remained wary of the other sides and was reluctant to be drawn on his side even qualifying for Europe, never mind anything else. He admitted that if the big boys turned it on, it was likely Leicester would start to fall down the table.
10 points from four games, with wins against Tottenham, Stoke and Liverpool – keeping clean sheets in all three no less, had set up an unlikely title showdown at the Etihad.
Arsenal had won just one of their four games in January, with City twice dropping points. Even Spurs, who’d done enough to just hang around, were entering the fray. City were favourites, but at the start of February, four teams were in a position to win the Premier League.
It could be argued that this was the day Leicester won the league. It’s certainly the day that the impossible dream became possible.
Leicester were around 11/2 to go to the Etihad and leave with all three points – big enough in itself. City were around 4/6, with a win that would keep their surprising title rivals at arm’s length.
An early goal from Robert Huth gave Leicester a shock lead, and it’s a lead they often threatened to double throughout the first half. The Foxes came out for the second half in the same vein, with Mahrez scoring a second shortly after the break. The delirium had turned to disbelief in the Leicester end when Leicester scored a third through a Huth looping header. All City could muster was a late consolation goal through Sergio Aguero.
Leicester had beaten their nearest rivals. Leicester really weren’t going away. Leicester were favourites to win the Premier League.
On top of that, Pellegrini’s side would go on a shocking run. In the aftermath of the Leicester defeat, they’d lose two more games, picking up four points from the next five games, ejecting themselves from the title race.
The second of City’s defeats came to Tottenham, who’d suddenly found themselves in the title race.
And just as Leicester had established themselves as favourites, came the slip. Leading at half time through a Vardy penalty, Danny Simpson would pick up a second yellow card early in the second half to leave Leicester with around 40 minutes to defend their lead.
And defend they did, until Theo Walcott’s 70th-minute equaliser. And then, a silent Emirates waited with bated breath as Mesut Ozil stood over a free-kick, beyond the allotted four minutes of stoppage time. Danny Welbeck glanced a header home, sparking ecstasy amongst the 56,000+ Arsenal fans.
After 11 years of hurt, 11 years of never really challenging for a title, never mind winning one, Arsenal’s time finally looked to have come again.
If Leicester were to fall short in the title race, this would be where it was lost. Arsenal had overtaken Leicester as favourites for the title.
Of course, they weren’t to fall short. Their trip to Arsenal was the last time Leicester would lose that season.
And having had a whiff of the title, Arsenal would lose their next two matches to Manchester United and Swansea, losing vital ground in the race.
Leicester beat Norwich but drew with West Brom as Tottenham suddenly found themselves favourites for 24 hours, until West Ham stuck a dagger into their title ambitions.
Leicester were favourites again with clear daylight between them and the rest of the chasing pack. We’d only reached the start of March, yet the title was theirs to lose.
In an incredible show of nerve and bottle, the Foxes won their next five games: 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 2-0.
But in mid-April, one final crack would show. Jamie Vardy was sent off and West Ham scored two late goals, with only a 95th-minute equaliser from the spot via Leonardo Ulloa rescuing a point.
Leicester had a five points lead with four games to play – and Tottenham still had a trip to Stamford Bridge looming…
It was an ugly affair, and while it’s all too easy to suggest players and teams ‘choke’ when they lose big games, when in reality they might not have had the quality or simply ran out of luck, but in this case, it’s hard to escape the notion that Tottenham really did collapse under the pressure. Heads went left, right and centre, and nearly 1,000 years on, the Battle of Stamford Bridge had a sporting sequel.
Spurs led 2-0 at the break, but by full time, they’d had nine players booked – four of which came after the 85th minute; there was a melee that even manager Mauricio Pochettino got involved in; they committed 20 fouls that night and hadn’t committed more in a Premier League game that season; but most importantly, they’d drawn 2-2.
Without even kicking a ball, Leicester were champions.
It seems to have slipped somewhat from the collective footballing consciousness just how unlikely this season was.
Imagine if Burnley had one year won the league during their Premier League stint. Imagine if Watford had won the league in any of their recent campaigns in the top flight. Imagine if Sunderland had won the league.
None of them are any less likely than Leicester were. That is just how unlikely this was. It was so unlikely, it was impossible.
It was the impossible dream.