Disbelief hangs in air as Leicester sleepwalk to avoidable relegation

<span>Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA</span>
Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

As the clock ticked past 80 minutes at the King Power Stadium, with Leicester beating West Ham but hostage entirely to events at Goodison Park, it felt fitting that this should be one of those relegations sung to its rest by ghosts of other games, of goals unscored, energy waves, rumours, the Mexican wave of death.

Several times through those final 10 minutes the ground was gripped by sudden contortions of false joy, leaping, roaring sections of crowd lifted by news of fake survival, reality-lag, non-redemption. If Bournemouth score a non-goal and nobody tells the King Power it doesn’t exist: is that non-goal still a goal? And who does Youri Tielemans sign for next season?

Related: Leicester relegated from Premier League despite victory over West Ham

Disbelief was a theme of the day. Even Leicester’s impressively pointless 2-1 final-day victory seemed to fit the pattern. Generally teams go down because of identifiable causes. Lack of playing talent, cyclical downturn, black swan events. Sometimes, as they say in comforting American movies starring Morgan Freeman, it is just your time.

Here is a sporting collapse that seems to be born above all out of carelessness. Leicester have been relegated because they forgot not to be relegated. From Premier League winners and Champions League hopefuls to a sleepy march into relegation. This feels like the definition of a sporting volte-face. Or Wout Faes as we call it around here.

In isolation it should come as no surprise that Leicester have been relegated just seven years after winning the league. The much greater surprise is that they won the league in the first place. It is just the way it has come about. Has there been a more distracted, avoidable slide into Premier League relegation in recent memory? No team with James Maddison, Harvey Barnes and Youri Tielemans should be this bad. Welcome to Leicester: anatomy of an accidental relegation.

The King Power had been a fizzy, anxious, distracted place at kick-off. There was a cajoling half hour from the PA and a ripple of the Leicester clappers around this low blue-fringed bowl. Whatever happened here would be meaningless should Everton beat Bournemouth. A goal either way at Goodison would light the fuse or drench the whole thing in a bucket of mulch.

For 45 minutes that didn’t happen. Leicester got on with the job of beating a neat, half‑speed West Ham. Everton were unable, for now, to get the jump on Bournemouth. Leicester’s goal before half-time came from Barnes, who played a super-slick one-two with Kelechi Iheanacho, shifted his hips at full speed and rolled the ball daintily into the far corner.

Even this felt like another moment of double take. Teams in this much trouble don’t score goals like that. They score from flick-ons and set-piece bundles. They score wild-eyed desperation goals. They don’t create artful, architecturally satisfying bursts of speed and precision passing. Remind me. Why are you down here again?

It is a good question, and one yet to be answered. For now there is no real story here, no grand flaw. Just a lack of resistance, a sense of drift and sallowness. Here we have a team of flaneurs, out there flouncing through the season. But ultimately rot spreads from the top, and there is plenty of evidence of slack practice and missed moments, the kind of sickness that eats through a whole sporting culture.

There is talk of overspend, departing finance directors, player contracts all expiring together; of disproportionally amazing training ground but no summer signings. Players have disappeared for long periods, with dark talk of fallings out and anti-chemistry behind the scenes.

But Leicester still won four league games in a row in the autumn, a third of all the points you need to stay up. From there they collapsed like a sandcastle in a thunderstorm. They lost eight rapid-fire league games and drew one from February into April, which was to be the death sequence.

And while it seems overly simple to blame Brendan Rodgers, we should still blame Brendan Rodgers all the same, as the one person in a position to mask these flaws and make this thing work. Perhaps Rodgers bought a little too readily into the no-quitters mantra. In the event he just seemed to grow cold and damp and mouldy in his seat, shrouded in gloom, weeds flowering around his feet, like some Tolkien-style spirit of earthly gloom. Perhaps money played a part. Whatever the reason, it left a space at the heart of the season, a sense of drift and drag.

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With 57 minutes on the clock the day changed. Abdoulaye Doucouré’s goal at Goodison arrived as a kind of simulcast at the King Power Stadium, out there on the pitch flickering just out of sight, sucking the air right out of the ground.

A few minutes later Leicester broke the hush round the ground by making it 2-0, Faes heading in. There was a cheer, then more silence. Pablo Fornals pulled one back. It looked a little easy. But then there is simply a lack of glue, adhesion, fibre in the heart of this whizzy, lightweight blue substance. Imagine going down because Everton have won a game.

At the end there was a nice moment as Jamie Vardy took a round of gentle applause, out there on the bridge even as the bow dips below the waves. This was applause for happier times, fonder memories, for what had gone before. For now it is goodbye, once and for all, to all that.