The English heart of Leicester City
When Leicester City take to the Walkers Stadium pitch to face Manchester City, the audience will be worldwide. Not just because of their wealthy visitors, either. For a multicultural city such as Leicester, it seems fitting that the interest in its football club is now on a global scale. But the English influence remains strong.
Although he is currently recovering from the latest in a succession of minor injuries, Benfica supporters have been keeping a close eye on the progress of their highly-rated loan defender Miguel Vitor. Thai eyes are watching too, following the recent takeover by Aiyawatt Raksriaksorn, King Power et al. Throw in a Japanese international midfielder, a world-famous Swedish former England coach and the apparently imminent signing of South African World Cup star Bernard Parker and you can see why Leicester City are no longer just a run-of-the-mill Championship club outside of Great Britain.
Top goalscorer Andy King plays international football for Wales, Blackburn-born Paul Gallagher has turned out for the Scottish national team and new signing Sol Bamba – whose time spent north of the border with Dunfermline and Hibernian shone through rather charmingly when he admitted that he knew Leicester “a wee bit” after joining last week – is an Ivory Coast cap.
But arguably the three most important players to represent royal blue against light blue this weekend are all English.
In a time of great upheaval for Leicester’s defence, which has shipped goals at an alarming rate all season after being so miserly in the previous campaign, various relatively high-profile Englishmen have been drafted in on loan. Chris Kirkland and Curtis Davies have come and gone, while Tottenham right-back Kyle Naughton has just extended his stay at the Walkers Stadium until the end of the season. But the three undoubted star performers of Nigel Pearson’s solid backline last season have come to the fore as Sven-Goran Eriksson goes back to basics in pursuit of promotion.
Signed 18 months ago from Bristol City, where he had struggled to displace first-choice keeper Adriano Basso before impressing on loan at Yeovil Town, Weale was a revelation as Leicester reached the Championship play-offs in his first year with the club. He is an excellent close-range shot stopper, makes very few mistakes and is very popular with the Leicester support.
Weale’s primary weakness is his poor communication, which was masked by the organisation of Wayne Brown last season but which has been brought to the fore as various loanees have been drafted in to make up the back four. He also has a strange tendency to concede a disproportionately large number of long-range goals, something for which goalkeepers are often absolved of blame but still merits comment in Weale’s case.
Nevertheless, Kirkland no signs of being any improvement on Weale during his brief spell between the Leicester sticks and the first choice number one is now very clear following the Wigan Athletic keeper’s return to the north west.
When Nigel Pearson took over at Leicester in the summer of 2008, he and his backroom staff quickly identified Jack Hobbs as a player they wanted to sign. Hobbs had joined Liverpool at a young age from Lincoln City, but was struggling to make the step up from the reserve side to the first team at Anfield.
The signing of Martin Skrtel was, according to Hobbs, the signal he needed to leave Merseyside to seek first-team football elsewhere. Initially signed on a season-long loan and a key figure as Leicester became League One champions under Pearson, Hobbs signed a four-year contract with the club just hours before the trophy presentation.
Hobbs was superb last season, growing in confidence throughout. Starting the campaign very much as Wayne Brown’s young, inexperienced partner, he ended it as an inspirational leader.
Although Hobbs has generally struggled for form so far this time out, he has been instrumental in recent good results and will relish the task of tackling the likes of Carlos Tevez. There has been a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Leicester rearguard over the last six months but the hope is that Hobbs has returned to his reliable best and will be an important player for the club for years to come.
Three of the four midfield berths were safely accounted for when Leicester had to turn their League One-winning side into one capable of competing in the Championship. Lloyd Dyer had enjoyed an excellent first year with the club on the left wing, while Andy King and Matt Oakley were both hugely popular with Pearson. Yet the manager felt an accomplished second-tier performer was needed to bolster the middle of the park. For just over £1million, Pearson identified Doncaster Rovers man Richie Wellens as the man to add much-needed steel.
Wellens is one of the best all-round midfielders outside of the Premier League, equally happy breaking up play and barking orders at his team-mates as when charging upfield in possession or attempting to play a killer final pass.
In a side that Eriksson has publicly criticised as being too quiet, the demanding Wellens takes on an even greater importance. If a Leicester player makes a mistake, he often appears accountable firstly to the former Oldham and Blackpool midfielder. This is because Wellens is desperate to play in the Premier League and woe betide anyone who threatens to derail this dream.
A lifelong Manchester United fan who began his career at Old Trafford, there will be one man buzzing busily around midfield when Manchester City come to town with a real purpose to support his busy nature.
Last but certainly not least, the former Manchester City man himself. Darius Vassell was plucked from the ignominy of free agency some weeks into the season as Eriksson coveted pace. Although it took Vassell some time to get match-fit, Leicester are now benefiting from a vibrant former England international who has retained his Premier League quality.
Leicester fans largely saw Vassell as an unknown quantity upon his arrival at the club. The signing could go one of two ways, and so far it looks to be heading towards a positive outcome. Where loan capture Roman Bednar failed miserably, Vassell has been brilliant – namely in the lone centre-forward role at the tip of Eriksson’s 4-3-3 formation.
Vassell had operated first as a wide player, playing off a targetman in the central position. When Bednar was injured in the first half of a home game against Doncaster a month ago, though, Vassell was moved into the middle and responded with a remarkable display of pace and movement. Previously having looked lethargic, Leicester struck five as Doncaster were torn apart.
Two winning goals in important games against Pearson’s Hull and title contenders Swansea have confirmed Vassell as a vital cog in Leicester’s framework and his form has made the signing of a high-profile striker, which the club’s new owners are desperate to attract, seem less crucial as the January transfer window ticks on.
Vassell, like his almost constant companion Eriksson, will be looking forward to facing his former club in a sell-out at the Walkers Stadium.
They may not win. They may not even play well. But Leicester City, unbeaten at home under Eriksson thus far, are definitely worth ninety minutes of your time.