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Leicester City didn’t see their relegation coming until it was too late

Leicester City didn’t see their relegation coming until it was too late

How on earth did this happen? How did Leicester City, who won the Premier League title just seven years ago, lifted the FA Cup at Wembley two years ago, and were in a European semi-final only 12 months ago, end up back in the Championship?

Perhaps it is the stunning speed of that decline that meant there was a numbness when the final whistle went at the King Power Stadium on Sunday, a 2-1 win over West Ham United proving too little, too late to stave off a relegation that the club did not see coming until there was not enough time left to avert it. There was a smattering of boos and some applause for the players, many of whom will certainly not be at the club next season when they kick off in the Championship.

Even by Leicester’s standards, this has been an astonishing development and it is a cautionary tale for similar-sized clubs who chase the dream while ignoring reality until it is too late.

Usually, when a club is relegated, its fans can point to a lack of ambition or interest from their owners and management. The opposite is true at Leicester.

They have aspired to challenge the “Big Six”, disrupt the established elite of English football, and eventually close the gap and claim a seat alongside them at the top table. By and large, they have done that. They have claimed two top-five finishes and became one of only seven clubs to actually lift the Premier League trophy.

Leicester City, Premier League

Leicester lift the Premier League trophy in 2016 (Photo: Matthew Ashton/AMA via Getty Images)

Now they are the second former champions to be relegated after Blackburn Rovers in 1998-99 and one of the most expensively assembled squads ever to drop through the trap door. Leicester aimed to be the best of the rest and they soared over the past seven years, but ultimately flew too close to the sun and have come crashing down.

The club have been so obsessed with regular European qualification — where the big money is truly made, so they can continue their astonishing investment in the squad — that complacency has gripped Leicester. A sense that relegation wasn’t a real prospect.

There was a general feeling the club was now too big to go down, with an array of international players too good to be dragged into a relegation scrap, led by an elite manager who was the highest paid in the club’s history, and facilities the envy of even some of the biggest clubs in Europe.

Even in the dying throes of their struggle, there didn’t seem to be that genuine realisation that this was truly happening, that relegation was looming. They thought they would be safe. They were wrong.

Leicester have always been an ambitious club under the ownership of King Power and the Srivaddhanaprabha family. They have invested heavily in the club, and continue to do so, but in recent years, that has accelerated.

The overreach is shown by the increased expenditure on contracts for new and existing players, taking the wage bill up to the seventh-highest in the league. That expenditure includes Brendan Rodgers, who they made the highest-paid manager in the club’s history.

There has been huge expenditure on the new training ground at Seagrave and the King Power Stadium project, with loans secured against future Premier League television money to pay for them. That money will no longer arrive in the same volume but the bills still have to be paid.

Leicester wanted the best facilities they could and have stretched themselves to do so, but it is a catch-22 situation. To obtain regular European football and the extra revenue that offers, you have to increase expenditure, but without guaranteed extra revenue, how can you afford the extra expenditure? There is no wriggle room for failure.

In short, it is a gamble. Had Rodgers and his team been able to hold on to the Champions League qualification spots in both 2019-20 and 2020-21, and had COVID-19 not hit so hard, the gamble would have paid off.

However, Leicester became overstretched and had to pump the breaks on their expenditure, mainly with one eye on UEFA’s new financial sustainability regulations, which their 85 per cent expenditure-to-revenue ratio wouldn’t meet. They were already on UEFA’s Watch List. Even then, that decision was taken with lofty aspirations in mind, with no real consideration for a Premier League survival battle. There has been no contingency plan for relegation. The club have repeatedly stated their European aims in their annual accounts.

The training ground is a huge facility to run and finance, and will continue to be so in the Championship. As well as the rising costs of running it and spiralling budgets, the move to Seagrave may have contributed to the apathy and culture change. Standing in impressive surrounds, it would be easy to get the feeling this is a club too big to go down with such a facility. There aren’t any £100million ($123.5m) complexes in the Championship.

“A legacy of the club’s incredible recent successes and a beacon of ambition for the future, the state-of-the-art new complex marks the next stage in Leicester City’s development,” the club said when the facility was opened at Christmas in 2020.

Take a closer look inside #lcfc’s new Seagrave training complex 🤩

— Leicester City (@LCFC) December 22, 2020

In time, it will hopefully prove to be the asset it is designed to be, but in the Championship it could be a millstone around the club’s neck.

One option could be to move the women’s team, who retained their Women’s Super League status on the final day of the season, to Seagrave and sell off the old Belvoir Drive training ground. The club could even explore an arrangement similar to the one Burton Albion have at St George’s Park so that another team could also use Seagrave. It is big enough to accommodate more people and to justify the costs.

When the men’s first team moved there, they lost more than just cash: they lost part of the family atmosphere that has been so special about Leicester for so long. In the old building, there was one canteen where everyone — the senior players, development squad and staff — would eat together at various times. Even the club’s long-serving head chef, Gary Payne, would sit down with whoever was around after service.

That environment fostered camaraderie and it will take time to replicate it at Seagrave, where the first team eat alone, separate from development-squad players and the academy, and they are certainly separate from many of the other staff, who have found themselves remote at times across the 185-acre site

It is also a departure from the old environment where club ambassador Alan Birchenall would share an office near the reception area and greet the players as they arrived with his infectious banter. He would also conduct “Birchy’s Tours” for visitors. It was light-hearted, informal and less pressurised compared to Seagrave, where all the top-of-the-range facilities leave players without any excuses for poor performance.

Clubs like Leicester can’t afford to make many mistakes as they seek to remain on the heels of the “Big Six”, who continue to be a moving target, and there have been other contributing and more tangible factors than their new training ground.

Recruitment has always been at the heart of Leicester’s recent story but that has gone awry in recent years, culminating in their problems this season.

The inability to move on surplus players, like Jannik Vestergaard, who has rejected two moves away, or cash in on players entering the last year of their contracts and refusing to sign new deals — like Youri Tielemans, Ayoze Perez and Caglar Soyuncu — affected the club’s ability to recruit and strengthen a squad that was clearly in need of refreshing last season has been a huge factor.

The delay to bring in a new head of recruitment, Martyn Glover, may have been unavoidable, as was the fact that so many players were entering the last year of their contracts, with some rejecting offers, leading to an inability to move them on. You can’t sell if there are no buyers, unless you are practically giving away assets.

However, some factors were self-inflicted.

The die was cast from the summer when Rodgers said he had been talking to new potential signings only to return for pre-season to be told there would be no incomings without outgoings.

What had changed? Not a lot. Leicester must have known before then how profit and sustainability rules would affect them.

From that moment onwards, Rodgers adopted a negative tone, talking about a challenging season ahead before a ball was kicked and about the target being 40 points. People around the club were genuinely shocked when he placed the bar so low. That message didn’t match Leicester’s ambition or the surrounds of the media suite at Seagrave where he said it.

Brendan Rodgers left Leicester in April (Photo: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)

Ultimately, Rodgers has been proven right, but that negativity had already seeped into the psyche at the club, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rodgers was pessimistic because he must have known he had gone as far as he could with this group of players, many of whom knew he no longer rated them or wanted to move them on.

Papy Mendy, Dennis Praet and Boubakary Soumare had expected to leave, but were drawn back into the fold. Soyuncu was frozen out — a decision that seems even more strange considering his performances under Dean Smith — while Rodgers grew frustrated at Harvey Barnes’s development, which was slower than he wanted. Rodgers, and subsequently Smith, have wanted Barnes to make more intelligent runs to turn him into an even greater threat.

Rodgers had signed and personally pushed for many of the players he now no longer wanted, such as Perez, Vestergaard and Ryan Bertrand. For an elite manager who prided himself on being able to develop players, he was failing to do so, or at least felt it was impossible to improve the troops he had at his disposal.

There was a brief spell before the World Cup where these unfancied squad members looked something like their old selves but impressive wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa in February demonstrate just how far they have subsequently underperformed.

The decision to move on goalkeeper and captain Kasper Schmeichel has proven to be a disaster. Schmeichel wanted to stay but desired a longer contract than Leicester were prepared to offer. His high wages were a factor in that decision.

Then, there was the decision to stick with Danny Ward as his replacement for so long when the Wales international was unconvincing.

With Schmeichel gone, vice-captain Jonny Evans injured and Jamie Vardy increasingly marginalised by Rodgers — he felt the striker’s powers were waning — Leicester were left with little leadership on the pitch. That was compounded when Marc Albrighton, the club’s vice-captain, was allowed to join West Bromwich Albion on loan.

There has been little consistency in selection and constant destabilising changes as Rodgers and Smith have searched for solutions, without any real joy.

There was clearly a huge rebuilding job ahead, to be done with fewer resources than before. When Rodgers said in September, after defeat to Manchester United, “This isn’t the club that it was a couple of years ago,” it gave many at Leicester the impression that he was looking for a way out; that he didn’t have the stomach for what lay ahead. His stock was still high after previous achievements and he could leave with a nice pay-off too if Leicester sacked him, although he wasn’t prepared to walk away.

After a shocking start to the season, with just one point coming in the first seven games to leave Leicester at the foot of the table, the axe could have fallen in the first international break. But it didn’t.

The reason was that while Rodgers had seemingly stopped believing in the club, Leicester’s hierarchy still very much believed in him, especially director of football Jon Rudkin.

Rudkin had worked hard to recruit Rodgers from Celtic — where he had led the Scottish giants to an undefeated domestic season and back-to-back trebles — in February 2019. They had paid good compensation for Rodgers and his staff, then rewarded him with another lucrative contract nine months later.

Rudkin and Rodgers were close. Their offices at Seagrave were next door to each other. They would communicate daily and Rodgers knew that chairman Aiyawatt “Khun Top” Srivaddhanaprabha relied on Rudkin for guidance on football matters. Rudkin was also the conduit to Khun Top, Leicester’s ultimate decision-maker.

Their relationship was the reason Rodgers was afforded more influence around the club than any manager previously, particularly on other appointments. Rudkin had an unwavering commitment to Rodgers’ training methods, message and playing philosophy, which were no longer effective with the same group of players. The alternative, to bring in fresh players, was not feasible.

It was the reason Rodgers was given so much time. Even when the fans began to turn on the former Liverpool boss in growing numbers, and when Leicester’s form dipped dramatically after the World Cup, Rudkin and others still believed he could turn it around — although when they did call tim`e on Rodgers following a last-minute defeat at Crystal Palace in April, the situation was becoming critical.

Brendan Rodgers, Leicester City

Leicester fans hold a banner in March (Photo: Michael Regan via Getty Images)

Even then there was the feeling internally that the club would never be able to get as good a manager as Rodgers again. Their faith in him was shaken by results but not in his abilities generally, yet it was felt a change was the only way to stop the rot at that moment. There was a realisation that things were going in one direction and Leicester’s slide has proven to be irreversible. The damage was done.

As was the case when Claudio Ranieri, the last trophy-winning manager to be sacked, departed in 2017, Leicester hoped that the bounce would come from a caretaker boss — or two of them in Adam Sadler and Mike Stowell — but it was clear from the performance against Bournemouth on April 8 that more experience was required.

After a protracted and confused search, in came Smith, assistant Craig Shakespeare, who had stepped in for Ranieri previously, and John Terry — but they have been unable to reverse Leicester’s fortunes.

Terry, in particular, has worked closely with Leicester’s defenders, concentrating on their shape on the training ground and assessing their performances in the video-analysis suite next to the first-team dressing room, but Leicester still conceded goals at an alarming rate, negating their attacking strengths. There have been constant changes to the back four and they didn’t keep a clean sheet between November and this month’s goalless draw at Newcastle.

With just eight games remaining, Smith and co haven’t had the time to imprint their playing structure or a new mentality on a group of players lacking confidence and leadership — a group no longer unified as they once were, with many knowing their time at the club is up.

Mistakes have been made and there will have to be a period of humbling self-reflection on what has gone so terribly wrong.

There has already been one change at boardroom level as financial director Simon Capper has left after 12 years. Matt Phillips, the club’s general counsel, has inherited the company secretary duties.

There are unlikely to be many more changes as largely the same leadership that has brought seven years of success to the club previously remain in charge, but Leicester have to make the right choices now so that they can regroup and return from the Championship at the first time of asking —  starting with who the manager tasked with an almost total rebuild of the squad will be.

It remains to be seen if the club believe Dean Smith is the right man and they will be assessing all their options, with the next appointment one of the most crucial in the club’s modern history. They will be unlikely to tempt their preferred choice, Graham Potter, into the Championship.

Dean Smith, Craig Shakespeare, John Terry, Leicester City

Dean Smith, John Terry and Craig Shakespeare take training at Seagrave in April (Photo: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)

It is a huge job — one that requires experience and vision, and the first task will be to bring the club together once again.

The Rudkin-led recruitment strategy to replace seven out-of-contract players and those who will inevitably be sold off to help finance the project, almost certainly including James Maddison, has to be spot on after two poor summers in the market.

It has been a terrible, sobering season for Leicester on so many levels. The under-23s have been relegated from Premier League 2 Division 1 as well. Their women’s side narrowly avoided making it a hat-trick of misery. The annual end-of-season awards dinner has already been cancelled, as was the traditional end-of-season lap of appreciation. There hasn’t been a lot for the fans to appreciate this season.

But the club’s ambition won’t change. The owners are committed to preserving the late-chairman Khun Vichai’s vision for Leicester, despite this huge setback.

They plan to push on with the development of the East Stand and the surrounding area to boost the club’s matchday revenue. King Power will also continue to provide financial support, covering the club’s operations through a loan facility the club can draw upon if required. It will be the footballing side of the operation that will see the biggest changes.

The budget for Leicester’s playing squad will have to be dramatically cut down as profit and sustainability rules in the Championship allow only £39m losses over three years rather than the £105m in the Premier League, although top-flight losses will be factored into the calculations if Leicester remain in the Championship over the next three years.

Relegation clauses in players’ contracts will help reduce the expenditure as some will have to take pay cuts, while others could leave if release clauses are triggered by other clubs, ensuring Leicester don’t carry too many big wage earners in the Championship.

However, Leicester are still likely to have the biggest budget in the division next season. Their expenditure will be dictated by the amount raised through sales but there will be money made available to spend to get back into the Premier League.

They will push to make an instant return to English football’s top table and ensure relegation is just a temporary setback, but the pressure will build if the recovery mission isn’t immediately successful.

Leicester have reached for the stars and fallen hard. They cannot be allowed to fall any further.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)

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