Can Leicester City's Irish international rescue his club career?
At around 9.30pm on Tuesday evening this week, two things happened. One of them meant a lot to one set of people. The other meant a lot to another set. There were probably a few hundred or so for whom both events meant a lot. And there was one for whom both were life-changing events. In Dublin, the Republic of Ireland qualified for the 2012 European Championships. In Leicester, Nigel Pearson was announced as the new manager at the King Power Stadium. Both things which changed Sean St Ledger’s life to differing extents.
St Ledger signed for Leicester in the summer from Preston North End, newly-relegated to League One, for a fee believed to be in the region of £1.2million. For most Championship clubs, this would represent a significant outlay. For Leicester, this was just one addition to a squad that needed bolstering after the departure of several high-profile loan signings.
The defence was a particular area of concern. Loanees Miguel Vitor, Ben Mee and Jeffrey Bruma all left the club, meaning that a number of reinforcements were necessary in the centre-back positions. Ivorian man mountain Sol Bamba had experienced a lively first six months at Leicester. It began with a goal inside the first minute of his debut against Manchester City and a further brace against Millwall soon after, but there were also lows of which the most significant came when Reading tore Bamba and Bruma apart to hammer one of the final nails into the coffin of Leicester’s play-off ambitions.
Despite St Ledger’s status as a third-tier player following Preston’s slide, he arrived with a reputation as a defender of Championship quality. Preston fans were sorry to see him go and there were plenty of glowing reports amid the mixed response from supporters of other clubs. He was also an established international, a first-choice pick for Giovanni Trapattoni’s Irish side with a desire to play regularly at the highest level possible in an attempt to keep his green shirt. And then Leicester signed Matt Mills.
If St Ledger came with a reputation as a Championship defender, then the sight of Mills stepping foot inside the King Power Stadium was a far bigger statement of intent. After narrowly missing out on promotion to the top flight with Reading in May, Mills was one of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s main targets in a summer that threw up a huge number of potential signings. The former Manchester City, Southampton and Doncaster man was installed as Leicester’s new captain and started in the heart of the defence alongside Bamba on the opening day at Coventry.
St Ledger had to wait for his opportunity, but it arrived earlier than he may have expected. Mills endured a disastrous home debut against his previous employers and Reading emerged with a 2-0 win that seemed to justify their supporters’ apparent indifference to his exit. Eriksson made the decision to drop his new captain after just two games, so St Ledger would get his chance when Bristol City visited the following Wednesday.
Although the Robins suffered a generally difficult start to the season, this was one game they were destined to win following Leicester’s high-profile pursuit of their star striker Nicky Maynard for the majority of the summer. Maynard scored twice and missed a penalty in a 2-1 win for the visitors. His first goal was a blistering free kick but his second was far more avoidable, coming after St Ledger made a horrendous error and was robbed of possession near the halfway line with no safety net between there and Kasper Schmeichel’s goal. Maynard took his chance. St Ledger had blown his.
From then on, St Ledger was restricted to a pair of League Cup outings, both of which saw two goals conceded, until Mills pressed the self-destruct button again. This time it was an ill-advised two-footed lunge at Birmingham that saw Leicester’s big-money buy consigned to the stands for three games. Again St Ledger deputised and again he failed to impress. Watford failed to make the most of several clear-cut opportunities that came their way in a 2-0 Leicester win but Millwall were to succeed where the Hornets had been wasteful. Kenny Jackett’s side won 3-0 at the King Power Stadium in the second of three games Mills would miss due to suspension. It was Eriksson’s last game in charge and the 3-2 defeat at West Ham seven days later was the last game for which Mills was unavailable. He was immediately restored to the starting lineup for the 3-1 win at Burnley.
All of which brings us to Tuesday night and the Republic of Ireland’s qualification for proceedings in Poland and Ukraine next summer. Ireland manager Trapattoni had personally recommended St Ledger to Eriksson but it is highly doubtful that such a line of communication is so well-established between the Italian and the returning Pearson. During his previous spell in charge between 2008 and 2010, Pearson built a mean defence which formed the bedrock of two impressive seasons and the no-nonsense roles afforded to Leicester’s back four made perfect sense given his playing days as an old-fashioned centre-back.
Pearson should see something of himself in Mills, a head-anything, kick-anything type who will put himself on the line for the shirt, but perhaps less in Bamba who offers the same with a twist of Beckenbauer ambitions. Sean St Ledger may have won over his manager at international level, but he still has plenty to prove in his day job.