Leicester City go global in Premier pursuit
Nearly eleven years ago, at nearly twelve o’clock midday, a small group of Japanese football fanatics rose to their feet in the middle of a sell-out crowd and excitedly reeled off snap after snap of Premier League players celebrating a goal. It would almost pass without remark these days. But back then, it looked unusual.
Not particularly unusual given the team they appeared to be supporting: the swaggering, international superstars of Arsenal. Not particularly unusual given the players that impressed most that day: a frighteningly quick young Frenchman by the name of Thierry Henry and a seemingly even quicker, if slightly more established, Dutchman called Marc Overmars.
Unusual because, let’s face it, nobody was used to seeing Japanese football fans at Filbert Street.
Japan was the theme of the day. Following Arsenal’s comprehensive 3-0 victory over hosts Leicester, their manager Arsene Wenger brushed off suggestions that he would soon be departing Highbury to take charge of the Japanese national team.
Wenger attributed the rumours to his success in the J-League during an 18-month spell with Nagoya Grampus Eight, a club already on the radar of many Leicester fans after it provided a home for Gary Lineker for two years in the early 1990s.
Indeed, for a short period, Lineker was managed in Japan by his former Filbert Street boss Gordon Milne. Nevertheless, Leicester City have not historically enjoyed a Japanese influence.
Wind of change
On that winter morning in 1999, Arsenal’s array of global superstars gave poor old Robbie Savage the runaround. Leicester manager Martin O’Neill moved Savage from his usual midfield patrol back to his secondary role as an auxiliary right-back, where he was promptly torn to shreds by the rampant Overmars.
Fast forward to this weekend and the main topic of debate at the post-match press conference that day, the possibility of Wenger moving on, seems laughable. The Frenchman was in the dugout as his Arsenal side again travelled north to Goodison Park, another antiquated stadium decked out in royal blue, and oversaw another accomplished performance ending in three more points.
In contrast, the royal blue seats of Filbert Street are now scattered across Leicestershire and beyond: separated but cherished artefacts of a bygone age in the homes of Leicester fans. Matches now take place over the road from Savage’s old stamping ground at the eight-year-old Walkers Stadium. But the times are still changing.
Best of British
To summarise, Leicester are now headed up by a former England manager, the ubiquitous Sven-Goran Eriksson, and included a former England international, the 30-year-old Darius Vassell, in their line-up for the visit of East Midlands rivals Derby County on Saturday.
They also fielded a wealth of British talent in the shape of English loanees Curtis Davies and Kyle Naughton, an Irishman borrowed from Manchester City in Greg Cunningham, the Blackburn-born Scotsman Paul Gallagher and the Maidenhead-born Welsh international Andy King.
But at the heart of it all, on and off the pitch, a Far Eastern influence reigns supreme.
Far East Midlands
Eriksson’s first task was to select a side to face the Thai national team in a friendly in Bangkok, while the Walkers Stadium looks set to be renamed the Singha Stadium within a matter of weeks – not that many Leicester supporters are particularly precious about which sponsor’s name their stadium bears. These are just two results of the recent takeover by a Thai-based consortium and the transformation has been bewildering.
Ahead of the home exit from the Carling Cup at the hands of West Bromwich Albion a few weeks ago, televisions in the concourse showed a looped advert promoting the delights of Thai duty-free outlets. It paused only to show a brief interview with Leicester goalkeeper Chris Weale with a caption erroneously re-christening him Paulo Sousa, the Portuguese manager dismissed in favour of Eriksson.
And if you were not able to attend the clash with Nigel Clough’s Rams side this weekend, you could have watched the action online via an illegal stream of a Thai television channel complete with Thai commentary on the exploits of former Tow Law Town man Steve Howard et al.
Finding his feet
Those watching via the web would have been impressed with Leicester’s display during the 2-0 victory over their rivals. In the hustling and harrying central role vacated halfway through that cold December lunch date eleven years ago by Robbie Savage, a Japanese international flourished.
Although perhaps outshone on the day by his midfield colleagues Richie Wellens and the goalscoring King, Yuki Abe kept Derby danger man Kris Commons quiet and provided extra insurance that allowed Naughton and Cunningham to bomb on from full-back.
Naughton’s late surge from deep drew a frustrated foul from Commons and provided the home side with the spot kick that sealed their win, while their former hero Savage sat on the visitors bench for the full 90 minutes and watched as his team-mates were well beaten.
Abe has been assimilated gradually into the English game, initially as a substitute popping up on the right side of first Sousa and then Eriksson’s line-ups. His early appearances were characterised by a tendency to dwell on the ball, causing alarm among the watching Leicester supporters and provoking comparisons with the club’s previous, and failed, Asian import Hossein Kaebi.
A new culture
But Abe appears far classier than Kaebi ever demonstrated and the former Urawa Reds midfielder is improving all the time now that he has been awarded a more central role. He has given interviews in recent weeks in which he has spoken about getting used to the frenetic pace of English football, even expressing surprise that there was no opportunity for a central midfielder to stand still for any length of time.
In fact, Abe’s energy and movement, now he has realised that he must employ it on a non-stop basis, have been his most impressive qualities. If and when he is permitted to take advantage of his spectacular line in dead-ball deliveries, the sparkle can only increase.
At 29 years old and with World Cup experience, Abe has plenty to draw upon in order to aid his continuing education. In the manner of a toddler’s television programme, Abe and Leicester fans can learn together as the team progress up the table and a Far Eastern influence continues to spread across the club’s activities.
Leicester City’s current exploits offer a rare example of the Football League going global, but the overall aim is to leave it all behind.