Promotion Tales: Leicester City Lose Their Fearlessness
There is a real treat for students of football blogging today as we are pleased to announce a comeback for David Bevan, head honcho of legendary football league website The Seventy Two. Despite stepping back from the scene, David has retained his season ticket to Leicester City and has conjured up this assessment of the Foxes’ progress as they near Christmas on their return to the Premier League, a plan devised over a few pints at Northampton’s superb Malt Shovel pub in the summer. Enjoy.
Leicester City’s official kit launch seems to get later and later every year, to the point where it wouldn’t be a surprise to see us playing in skins during the first half of next season’s opening game.
A new playing strip is a big event, especially when your club has just been promoted to the Premier League for the first time in a decade. Three players are carefully selected to model the attire based on their importance to the club, likelihood to still be at the club in two weeks’ time and ability to stare down the lens of a camera without looking like an axe murderer. You might get a cheeky reveal of the inner lining of the third choice right sock a week or so in advance. These days you also have the social media push.
Leicester’s hashtag of choice this summer was a simple, one-word Fearless.
It seemed a fitting adjective for a team that threw off the shackles last season and went for three points in every game, home or away. Records fell at regular intervals on the way to the title as Leicester racked up 102 points in a notoriously competitive division.
At first, the feelgood factor continued in the big time. Draws with Everton and Arsenal sandwiched a plucky two-goal defeat at Stamford Bridge. There was a win at Stoke to avenge relegation to the third tier on our previous league visit there in 2008. And then, the high point of the season so far, half an hour of woozy, surreal intoxication as a 3-1 deficit against Manchester United quickly became a 5-3 win and one of the most famous afternoons in the club’s history.
There we were: slipping the ball past a world class goalkeeper as though it were a kickabout in the park; piling numbers forward in search of more goals against a side assembled at mammoth cost; nutmegging United defenders three times in the space of six seconds.
Fearless. That was us.
‘Was’ being the operative word. We haven’t won since and we currently sit firmly rooted to the bottom of the league table with a visit from the champions to worry about this weekend.
Now we have fear coming out of our pores. We’re jam-packed with the stuff. Fear of conceding. Fear of defeat. Fear of relegation. Fear of plunging back into the division we waited so long to escape.
It is difficult for supporters to adjust from seeing a team notch up win after win one season to watching them make schoolboy errors over and over again.
Yet, even at the time, beating Manchester United had the feel of a cup game rather than representing the reality of a long, difficult slog against the lesser lights of the Premier League.
West Brom, for instance, who will cunningly do nothing for an hour until your much-vaunted Argentine legend gets bored and scores a comedy own goal just to see a net ripple satisfyingly. 0-1.
Or Newcastle, who will cunningly do nothing for an hour and lure your right-back into such a false sense of security that he ends up on the left wing before cruelly exploiting the space he leaves behind. 0-1.
Or Sunderland, who will cunningly do nothing all game in the knowledge that you won’t either. 0-0.
That’s frustration disguised as bitterness, but it demonstrates the kind of results that can quickly turn a supposedly fearless manager into an overly cautious one. When we started losing — albeit only by the odd goal or two — Nigel Pearson deemed it more important to make Leicester defensively solid than to increase his side’s attacking potential.
You could guess our line-up almost every week in the Championship. We had the best team in the Football League, several of whom were handed beefy contracts in the summer as a sign of belief in their ability to perform at the top level. This season, team selection has been entirely unpredictable and, at times, unfathomable.
To paraphrase Eric Morecambe, Pearson has made the right selections but not necessarily in the right games. After the United match, he picked the same players in the same formation for an entirely different challenge at Crystal Palace. He packed the midfield against West Brom and Newcastle and played four attacking players at Swansea when surely those two approaches make more sense the other way round.
In addition, his post-match interviews appear to attach a disproportionate amount of blame to our few creative, attacking players for goals we concede.
The other clubs don’t help you out either. Southampton lost a zillion pounds’ worth of talent in the summer and were supposed to be rubbish this season. They’re brilliant. Burnley were not supposed to win any games all season. They won two in a row recently. Newcastle were in complete meltdown a few weeks ago. Now they’re just outside the Champions League places.
But aside from results, what else is different following promotion from the Football League?
Well, your stadium is recreated in minute detail on computer games, your players are filmed walking towards the camera for use in the build-up to your live televised games and Paul Merson suddenly has an opinion about your club. Your availability on a Tuesday night goes up dramatically. You have to put up with those irritating electronic advertising boards around the perimeter of your pitch. You can also pick your own team’s players for fantasy league games, however ill-advised that selection might be.
Upgrading from the Football League Show to Match of the Day is meant to be a big plus, but when you’re moving from the first game of the former to the last game of the latter it’s only a few minutes’ difference. The analysis may be more comprehensive. There are only so many times you can see those cardinal defensive errors replayed repeatedly in slow motion though before it just adds to the misery.
On a more positive note, every minute matters in the Premier League. That adds to the tension and excitement in a way you don’t always experience in the Championship. Every minute is important and every point is crucial. Scoring a late equaliser against Everton felt amazing. Conceding a late equaliser to Burnley felt the opposite. And those are just the draws.
In the Championship, you can lose against Sheffield Wednesday and it doesn’t matter that much because you’ll probably be playing Bolton the following week. In the Premier League, you lose to QPR and your next game is against Liverpool. You lose to Aston Villa and your next game is against Manchester City. The pressure in those games against teams around you is stifling, especially for young players.
Sadly, the pressure is also starting to mount on Nigel Pearson. The recent expletive-laden disagreement with a supporter during the 3-1 home defeat to Liverpool was a predictable scenario, as was the manager’s subsequent refusal to apologise. Here is a proud man, who is known to close ranks at the best of times but even more so when he feels his players are in need of protection. Those players strengthened the sense of unity last week by refusing to speak to a local radio reporter with whom Pearson has had frosty relations for long periods.
Increasingly, however, there is a case to answer. Regardless of Pearson’s previous achievements with the club, nobody likes losing on a regular basis and we know all too well how difficult it is to win promotion from the Championship. As enjoyable as it was, we don’t want to have to do it all again quite so soon.
If there is to be a change, now would surely be the time to make it. The January transfer window is looming and seventeenth place is in danger of slipping out of reach. Our Thai owners rightly stuck with Pearson in the summer of 2013 after a similarly poor run of form took us from the automatic promotion places to the verge of failing to make the play-offs. Whether they will do so again remains to be seen. This time the decision to stick or twist is even more crucial and it is one the club can’t afford to get wrong.
With no win in ten and a difficult run of fixtures over the winter period, the fear factor is growing among fans. Pearson must hope it doesn’t extend to the boardroom.