How Sven-Goran Eriksson has revolutionised Leicester City
Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Leicester City are one of the Championship’s form teams, but new investment is not the sole reason for their recent climb. While there has been substantial backing from the club’s new owners, the canny Swede has still called on all his experience to drag his new charges towards the top of the table.
A friend of mine once told me a story about how his uncle and cousin went on a walk through the woods one day and his cousin got something in his shoe. Naturally, he removed the shoe, held onto a wire fence with one hand and tried to shake the offending item out.
My friend’s uncle, upon seeing his son shaking violently, became convinced that he was being electrocuted. He reacted instantaneously, picking up a huge plank of wood from the nearby undergrowth and swiping it through the air in an attempt to break his son away from the “electric” fence. All that he broke, unfortunately, was his son’s arm.
This is one of the best anecdotes I have ever heard. I have no real reason to question its veracity, but I am nevertheless absolutely determined to believe that this actually happened. For one thing, I have told it to too many people to suddenly hear that it is a fictional account of events. For another, it is a useful, if extreme, measure by which to judge the mistakes people make.
Milan Mandaric has made plenty of mistakes during periods as chairman of various different football clubs. The revolving door leading in and swiftly out of the Walkers Stadium dugout became synonymous with his spell at Leicester City. His real error, however, was not firing managers too soon but making some dreadful decisions when appointing some of them in the first place. And the two biggest mistakes of all were managerial appointments which caused deep-rooted problems at the club. Mandaric failed to do enough homework on both Martin Allen, appointed in the summer of 2007, and Paulo Sousa, who arrived in the East Midlands before the current season started.
The recriminations over Allen’s time as manager still rumble on in the background to this day. Leicester fans are still unsure of the amount of blame to place on each party for the disastrous raft of summer signings three and a half years ago. Trumpeted Iranian international Hossein Kaebi, Sergio “former Ajax academy player” Hellings and Danish goalkeeper “Casino” Jimmy Nielsen didn’t exactly make themselves household names.
Allen also gave star striker Matty Fryatt a B&Q barbecue set as the best player during a pre-season tournament on the training ground, where he installed an array of blue flowers to a fanfare on Leicester’s official website. This feels like ancient history now, but Mandaric was derided from some quarters for not giving Allen enough time. The real mistake was his appointment in the first place, which has been proven by his subsequent failure at Cheltenham Town.
Sousa was a more forgivable mistake in many ways. You may spot a common theme here, but mystery surrounded Mandaric’s motives. The then Swansea City manager was Mandaric’s guest at Leicester’s play-off semi final first leg at home to Cardiff City. Little was made of this at the time, but it was soon brought to the fore when the high-achieving Nigel Pearson was allowed to leave with little obstruction from his chairman. Despite widespread indifference from Swans fans at the prospect of his departure, Sousa was Mandaric’s choice to replace League One title-winning Pearson.
The brief Sousa era arguably trumped the shambolic Allen equivalent. A top six side disintegrated in front of Leicester fans’ eyes, with key loan signings replaced by cheap foreign imports who struggled to adapt to the physical nature of the Championship. In the midst of a takeover by a Far East consortium, a largely young side lost confidence as Sousa tried to instil a continental culture into what was essentially a very British team at the worst possible time. A 6-1 humiliation at crisis club Portsmouth, broadcast live on Sky television, looked the final straw and a further four goals shipped at Norwich soon afterwards signalled the departure of the double European Cup winner.
In his place, of course, came Sven-Goran Eriksson. After taking just five points from their first nine games of the current campaign, Leicester have since accumulated 40 from 21 and lie four points outside the play-offs ahead of the short trip to Pride Park this weekend.
Major support from the club’s new owners has transformed the side, with only one outfield player – top goalscorer Andy King – starting both the opening-day defeat at Crystal Palace and last Saturday’s 4-1 win over Barnsley. That financial backing has enabled quality to flood into the squad, primarily through loan signings from the Premier League, but the money has been spent shrewdly. The biggest fee shelled out during the January window on a permanent transfer? Around £250,000 on the monolithic Ivorian centre-back Sol Bamba, already a cult hero. The biggest fee received? Over £1million for Fryatt.
Promising youngsters such as Fryatt have, for the most part, been discarded in favour of loanees and experience. A side which last year contained a number of players with enormous potential – the likes of Jack Hobbs, Michael Morrison and Martyn Waghorn – is now made up of Darius Vassell, Yakubu and young loan defenders whose permanent contracts are held by other clubs. The back four that faced Barnsley contained players from Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. Another Stamford Bridge youngster, Jeffrey Bruma, is set to join on loan today.
The thing is – it has worked. Eriksson has, in recent weeks, finally managed to improve Leicester’s relatively abject away form and his team have won five and drawn one of their six league games this calendar year. Fitness has been central to this success, with far more positive noises coming from the training ground as a result.
Where Sousa had asked the whole-hearted but pedestrian full-backs Robbie Neilson and Bruno Berner to contribute to his overly ambitious plan of attack, Eriksson has drafted in the boundlessly energetic Kyle Naughton from White Hart Lane. Right-back Naughton has scored three goals from open play, while the blueprint has a symmetrical look in terms of pace with first Greg Cunningham and then Patrick van Aanholt taking up the left-back berth.
Eriksson has not changed things for the sake of it, though. The midfield trio of Yuki Abe, Richie Wellens and Andy King have remained throughout his tenure so far. With good reason. The talented trio have formed the basis of Leicester’s rise through the division, Wellens yesterday named as the Championship’s Player of the Month for January while King is a Premier League player in all but status.
In attack, Yakubu has unquestionably added an extra dimension to the side’s play but not yet to the extent which many neutrals and opposition supporters were expecting. Two goals in his first two games have been followed by two without scoring, but a clever assist for King’s winner against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane still proved the difference between Eriksson’s men and the struggling Blades who otherwise dominated completely.
It is this sudden ability to win when not playing well which caused Eriksson much joy. It was only one game but, as the Swede correctly stated, it was not one from which Leicester would have taken even a single point before the New Year. In that sense, this weekend’s clash with Derby County will speak volumes about the chances of Eriksson managing in the top flight next season. Both he and the club’s new chairman, Vichai Raksriaksorn, seem entirely committed to the long-term goal of establishing Leicester City as a Premier League club.
The next few months will be far from easy, with trips to each of the Championship’s formidable top three teams on the horizon, but the mere possibility of promotion seems like a bonus to most Leicester fans after the club’s dreadful start to the season. To provide a balanced view, the new approach taken by Eriksson and the club’s owners does seem slightly short-termist and a few pessimists are concerned by Fryatt’s goals for Hull and, more understandably, the concept of out-of-favour youngsters like Hobbs and Martyn Waghorn leaving on loan to flourish elsewhere.
Nevertheless, there is a real feeling of optimism among Leicester City fans at the present time and the thrilling football that Eriksson has encouraged his side to produce has been a breath of fresh air at the Walkers Stadium, where the home side has struck 19 times in their last six outings.
There is still a long way to go this season, but Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Leicester City have come a very long way already.
This weekend, Derby County take on Leicester City at Pride Park. Read about the Derby perspective here: