“Play like that and we’ll be absolutely fine” – a comment that now haunts James Maddison and this Leicester side.
Having been relegated from the Premier League just seven years after winning the title, Leicester have been far from fine and fully deserve the drop.
The ‘we’ll be absolutely fine’ mentality infected all parts of the club. The board – led by Aiyawatt ‘Top’ Srivaddhanaprabha – set the tone with their loyalty to Brendan Rodgers, who’d been under-performing in his role as manager since the back end of 2021.
Rodgers, knowing a refresh was needed, spoke openly about his desire to move out those he didn’t see as part of the future. When that didn’t happen, he was burdened with players that knew their manager didn’t rate them.
Some will point to Leicester’s lack of signings last summer for their struggles. The rug was pulled out from underneath him as transfer plans took hold. Unless a big money player was to be sold, no one would be coming in.
Rodgers said communication between himself, and the board was ‘open’, but something dramatically changed. His transfer record wasn’t particularly great, especially the summer of the FA Cup win. Four players came in for just shy of £60million, but none made a significant impact.
Rodgers was also given significant funds in his first two years as manager. And while Harry Maguire, Wesley Fofana and Ben Chilwell all left for huge fees, the club found it difficult to offload certain fringe players last summer. But they will say the effects of COVID had a detrimental effect on the transfer market.
The board should have seen the writing on the wall back in September. Another heavy defeat, this time at Tottenham. The sixth loss in a row. Nothing happened.
The uplift in form ahead of the World Cup felt like a corner may have been turned but the Boxing Day hammering at home to Newcastle saw the sinking feeling return.
Leicester had to bring in new faces before the end of January. Wout Faes – signed to replace Wesley Fofana in August – was joined by Viktor Kristiansen, Tete and Harry Souttar. None of them made any real impact, despite promising early performances. They had to gamble but left it late in the window. Recruitment hadn’t worked. Again.
Brendan Rodgers failed to reignite the season and paid the price for their position in the table. A last-gasp defeat at Crystal Palace saw the club pull the trigger on a manager that should’ve been shown the door long before. The downward spiral was there in plain sight, but few at the club seemed to realise their direction of travel until it was too late.
There seemed to be no coherent plan in place to find a replacement. Adam Sadler and Mike Stowell – both coaches at the club for several years – were placed in temporary charge but more experience was needed. A flirtation with Jesse Marsch came and went, leaving fans unimpressed with who was being spoken to.
Dean Smith was appointed, albeit with some scepticism. But with John Terry and Craig Shakespeare coming in as part of his backroom team, fans warmed to the trio.
Terry would hopefully help a side that hadn’t kept a clean sheet since before the World Cup. Shakespeare was a popular figure at the club having been assistant to Nigel Pearson and Claudio Ranieri in happier times at the club.
There were some glimmers of hope, but little impact was made as Smith and co. failed to keep Leicester up.
The players’ failure to show enough hunger in the 5-3 shambles at Fulham was there for all to see. It wasn’t much better against Liverpool, despite Smith’s view of how they performed. They never seemed to fully realise they were in the mire. And what was needed to get out of it. There were heartening results against Newcastle and West Ham but it was far too little, too late.
Rodgers’ – and latterly Smith’s – inability to consistently get something out of a group of players that finished fifth and won the FA Cup just two years ago is staggering.
Director of football Jon Rudkin, to give him credit, has overseen a Premier League title win and an FA Cup victory. He’s a true ally of the owners, but he must bear some responsibility for the decline.
How did he allow a situation where Youri Tielemans and Caglar Soyuncu – both valued highly – walk away for nothing this summer? Why were average players given sizeable pay packets and long-term contracts? Why was the transfer window of 2021 such a disaster? What suddenly changed at the club last year for them to not buy players? Why were they without a head of recruitment last summer? Why did it take so long to bring in a set-piece coach?
The last time Rudkin answered questions from the media was in 2016 when Claudio Ranieri was appointed. Rarely do Leicester supporters hear from those running the club. ‘Top’ will offer programme notes each home game and chief executive Susan Whelan is silent. As is Rudkin. Media requests for interviews this season have been rejected, it isn’t how the club chooses to operate.
Leicester have been warned by football finance expert Kieran Maguire that relegation will be ‘very severe’ and could see their income drop by two thirds. They currently spend 85 per cent of their £215m turnover on player wages. The club posted record losses of £92.5m for the 2021-22 season and have lost close to £200m in the last three seasons.
In February, Leicester’s owners wrote off £194m they’d loaned to the club over the last ten years. The club will say this is proof of their long-term commitment.
Leicester could be starting their Championship campaign as early as Friday August 4. They’ll be playing Liverpool in a pre-season friendly in Singapore the previous Sunday, meaning they’ll be back in the UK just days before the season starts. It’ll have been agreed to weeks in advance, but it doesn’t feel like good planning.
Before the inevitable opener at Plymouth, a new manager must be appointed, high-value assets need to be sold, and the job of replacing numerous out of contract players must take place. Any newcomer – manager or player – must be able, but character is just as important.
‘Top’, Whelan and Rudkin need those traits too if Leicester are to get back to the Premier League under their tenure. The culture in any business is set by the leadership team. It filters down to the shop floor, or football pitch in this case. As much as they all patted themselves on the back during the good times, they must take responsibility during the bad. Lessons must be learned, complacency can’t be allowed to set in again.
Leicester aren’t guaranteed an instant return. A massive reset is vital if they’re to mount any kind of challenge for promotion next season.
The club’s golden era is well and truly over.