In scenes that would have seemed absurd a year ago, Leicester captain Wes Morgan collected theEnglish Premier League trophy after one of the most improbable turnarounds by a sports team.
“It’s the best time of my life,” Morgan, who joined Leicester as a second-tier club four years ago, said on the field last night. “You just want to enjoy every minute.”
After the preseason 5,000-1 title longshots got their hands on the biggest prize in English football, fireworks erupted on the King Power Stadium pitch before yellow and blue streamers cascaded from the roof. Ticker-tape emblazoned with the lyric to fans’ song “Jamie Vardy’s having a party” also covered the seats.
The top-scoring striker has powered the 132-year-old Foxes to their first top flight title by contributing 24 goals, with two of them coming in a swaggering 3-1 victory over Everton before the trophy presentation. The striker, who signed from non-league Fleetwood Town four years ago, only missed out on a hat-trick on his return from a two-game suspension when he missed a second penalty.
It was apt that midfielder Andy King was also on the score sheet. The lifelong Leicester player has been on the journey as the club climbed back from the third tier in 2009 to the top flight only two years ago.
Just a year ago, King and his teammates feared they were going to make an instant return to the second tier, and were relegation candidates at the start of this season. But powered by Vardy’s goals, Riyad Mahrez’s trickery, and Kasper Schmeichel’s saves, Leicester confounded the odds to surge to the summit.
Leicester has embarrassed big-spending clubs from Manchester rivals United and City to Chelsea by winning the world’s richest soccer league without lavish spending.
Although Leicester has been owned for six years by Thai duty free group King Power, the squad is largely a collection of bargain buys and players cast off by bigger clubs.
Thousands of fans gathered outside the stadium more than four hours before kickoff, before a deluge washed out the sunshine. Hundreds of Italians also traveled by bus and plane to Leicester without tickets just to be part of a story that has enthralled the world beyond football fans. They have been captivated by how compatriot Claudio Ranieri turned the team into England’s first first-time champions since promoted Nottingham Forest’s 1978 success -- an era before the financial disparities were so vast.
Ranieri’s managerial career has taken in some of Europe’s biggest clubs from Juventus to Chelsea but only at Leicester with its modest budget has he become a title winner.
For the crowning moment of his career, Ranieri was joined by family, friends, and former players.
Above the Cank Street Gallery in central Leicester was written one such sound-bite. “Dilly ding, dilly dong” was uttered by a giddy Ranieri last month as he conveyed his excitement that a first career title was looming.
“I want to say to you we are champions because you pushed us,” Ranieri told 32,000 fans in the stadium.
“We are staying up,” Leicester fans sang before bellowing out the words they will never tire of chanting: “Champions of England we know what we are.”