Andrew Mulligan: Foxes close to fairy tale

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Sensational story of redemption after near-relegation and race scandal.
Everybody at Leicester City loves a pizza the action. Picture / AP
Everybody at Leicester City loves a pizza the action. Picture / AP

The fairy tale of Leicester City is the sports story of the year but it could quite easily be the horror story if Tottenham chase them down with four games to go in the English Premier League football title race.

While that might be the worst case scenario for the Foxes, it was a different type of nightmare for the club less than a year ago.

The club is sponsored by rich Thai businessmen; father and son Vichai and Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, who own a billion-dollar duty free chain.

Their investment came after a shirt sponsorship but it could easily have unravelled for the club who are the darlings of the football world.

Last year on an end of season team bonding trip to Thailand to reinforce the partnership between club and sponsor, three seldom used players filmed themselves in a racist orgy that found its way to the Sunday Mirror.

One was manager Nigel Pearson's son, James. Along with Tom Hopper and Adam Smith, the players disgraced themselves and the club.

All three were released by Leicester and Pearson was eventually fired as manager, with his defence of his son the suspected reason.

But the damage was done and the reputations of those involved destroyed and put the club on the precipice of losing a sponsor after insulting their country.

The slogan "Amazing Thailand" of the Tourist Authority of Thailand adorned the back of the shirts and the condemnation of fans, especially in Thailand, was emphatic but since then, the reputation of the club has survived and moved on.

Manager Claudio Ranieri was hired and has been a revelation for Leicester. He has been the motivator of striker Jamie Vardy, whose feats have elevated him to the England team. But it hasn't been just Vardy who has responded to Ranieri's vision, it's been players such as N'Golo Kante, Wes Morgan, Danny Drinkwater and Riyad Mahrez, all of whom, as Ranieri wrote in an essay online for The Players' Tribune "were considered too small or too slow for other big clubs".

"Many of my players were in the lower leagues. Vardy was working in a factory. Kante was in the third tier of the French league. Mahrez was in the French fourth division."

The players' main goal for the season, as expressed by their irrepressible Italian coach and former Chelsea manager who were runners-up to the undefeated 2004 Arsenal team, was to avoid relegation in 2016.

Ranieri's been near the top before but this time, the pack is chasing his team and the defensive motivation to keep a clean sheet in games was simple. Pizza. Ranieri couldn't get his team to keep the opposition out of the back the net, so he tried the incentive of free pies on him if they kept Crystal Palace scoreless. It worked.

"Now, we make a lot of clean sheets. A dozen clean sheets after the pizza, in fact. I think this is no coincidence."

With Vardy suspended and with two away games of the remaining four against Chelsea and Manchester United to go, there is pressure on Leicester.

But to have the chance to be called Premier League champions is a fairy tale a year on from near-relegation and the race scandal.

- NZ Herald

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