Would you rather be Leicester or Everton? Is it better to win the league and then sink a few seasons later into relegation, or to keep clinging on by your fingernails to an inglorious yet lucrative existence at the bottom end of the top level? One day as a lion or 100 years as a mouse?
If your name is Demarai Gray, congratulations: you got to do both. If you are Jamie Vardy or Daniel Amartey, the ageing veterans of Leicester’s title-winning squad of 2016, you’d probably take it the way it’s worked out. A lot of Leicester supporters would presumably feel the same, especially now that relegation has been confirmed and the time of rationalisation is at hand.
But for the other Leicester players, some of whom have relegation pay-cut clauses of 60 per cent, and for hundreds of non-playing staff who now nervously await cost-cutting measures, the answer is different. Winning the Premier League must have been great but playing in the Premier League is the bigger prize.
Getting away with it when you really don’t deserve to – is there a sweeter feeling in football – indeed, in life? If so these are the days of heaven at Everton, whose supporters finished the season rejoicing on the Goodison pitch for the second May in a row.
“Doucs has been a shining light,” Sean Dyche said of Abdoulaye Doucoure, scorer of the goal that had beaten Bournemouth and sent Leicester and Leeds to the Championship. Doucoure had been sidelined by Frank Lampard in the last weeks of his time as Everton manager. Dyche put him straight back into the team for his first match back in February – a stunning victory over Arsenal that was to prove decisive at both ends of the table. Was his reinstatement the coaching masterstroke that ultimately kept Everton up?
Football management is not a job for those who are reluctant to blow their own trumpets, but even Dyche might hesitate to make that claim. The reality is that Everton’s survival owes more to the incompetence of Leicester and Leeds than to the impact made by Dyche, who took Frank Lampard’s Everton win ratio of 27.3 per cent and pushed it up to 27.8 per cent.
It’s only two years since Leicester, under Brendan Rodgers, beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final and stood on the brink of Champions League qualification. All they needed was one point from their last two league matches. They lost both to finish fifth for a second successive season.
The following February their run as FA Cup holders ended with a 4-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest, which was to prove fateful for Brendan Rodgers’ relationship with the squad. That was the night when Rodgers announced that some of his players had become too comfortable with the level of respectability Leicester then enjoyed.
“That’s why a lot of these players are not top players – because they can’t sustain it,” Rodgers said, sounding like Roy Keane talking about why Ireland had missed out on qualification for another tournament, rather than the manager of the players concerned. “There are a lot of these players, between now and the end of the season, who need to prove they are still worthy of being here, because we’ve seen it now for a little while.”
By the sound of it Rodgers was ready to clean house – except when the next season started 13 of the 14 players involved in the Forest debacle were still at the club. (The exception was Ademola Lookman, who had only been at Leicester on loan). The only senior players to leave last summer were the goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, after Leicester refused to match the contractual terms he had been offered to join Nice, and the centre-back Wesley Fofana, who joined Chelsea for £70 million.
In Rodgers’ judgment Danny Ward was a competent replacement for Schmeichel in goal. As it turned out dropping Ward from the first team would be his last big decision as Leicester manager. Ward’s save percentage of 63 per cent was worse than any of Schmeichel’s Premier League seasons with Leicester – while even at 35 Schmeichel saved 77 per cent of shots this season with Lille.
The decision to drop Ward – like the decision to sack Rodgers – came too late to save Leicester. The fact is that the club never took the threat of relegation seriously until it was already too late. In March, when they lost 1-0 to Southampton, a journalist with The Athletic, Rob Tanner, tweeted a piece headlined: “This Leicester side buckle under the slightest pressure – and it could spell doom.”
James Maddison replied on Twitter: “Rubbish. Watch and analyse the game properly and stop writing headlines like that which you know makes fans pile on with negativity. Play like that and we’ll be absolutely fine. Created numerous brilliant chances and win comfortably on another day.”
Leicester would not, in fact, be absolutely fine. Tanner had watched and analysed the game properly, it was Maddison who was deluded. Leicester had 13 games left to play after that Southampton defeat and won just two of them. Maddison’s most memorable contribution to that run was a missed penalty in the 2-2 draw against Everton. It all adds up.
Leeds’ relegation is the culmination of a sequence in which they abandoned first their manager, then their principles, and finally their marbles. The problem with Marcelo Bielsa’s relentless full-throttle approach is the players eventually run their legs down to stumps, and Bielsa’s once-glorious time in charge ended in February 2022, when Leeds set a new Premier League record of 22 goals conceded in a month.
When Leeds replaced Bielsa with Jesse Marsch, who had failed in his previous job at RB Leipzig, there was at least a superficial logic to the choice. Bielsa was all about running and pressing, Marsch was all about running and pressing, so Leeds should in theory have the right kind of squad to play Jesse Marsch football. The problem was Marsch couldn’t convince anybody about Jesse Marsch football and he was sacked after less than a year in the job.
Leeds then appointed Javi Gracia, a conservative coach who plays a defensive counter-attacking style. This was an admission that they were abandoning the approach that had got them to the Premier League. The hope was evidently that they would grind their way towards an inglorious 38 points then regroup over the summer, but instead whatever was left of the exhausted Marsch/Bielsa team dissolved into nothingness.
They broke their own record by conceding 23 goals in April – the most any top-division team had conceded in a month since 1965. The appointment of Sam Allardyce was a kind of rain dance that showed Leeds had not only abandoned their principles, they had cast aside reason altogether and embraced magical thinking, hoping to be saved by some combination of Sam’s record of almost-never-having-been-relegated and the new manager bounce. “I can’t really say I’ve enjoyed it,” Allardyce said after yesterday’s relegation.
In this sense at least he and the Leeds fans were marching on together.