In his first interview since his very public fall out with Leicester City, Leonardo Ulloa talked exclusively to Guillem Balagué about life with the Foxes, Claudio Ranieri and the club’s upcoming Champions league quarter final against Atletico Madrid.
GB: Do you believe that at Leicester City you had your best moments?
LU: Yes certainly. Especially in first year when I was playing a lot more and I felt full of confidence. Unquestionably the best thing that has ever occurred in my career. The two most important years of my life and both of them as important as each other.
GB: And when you look back about the season where you avoided relegation and then the title win, how do you see it? As a great achievement or perhaps even a small miracle?
LU: No I consider them to be the two most important years of my footballing life. When you look back at two seasons ago the truth is that just about everyone had us already relegated. We of course knew that it was going to be difficult. [Esteban] Cambiasso must take a lot of the credit for what happened that led to us not going down. He started to analyse what the situation was, who our main rivals were, not just the bottom three but six or seven clubs that could all become involved. He started to work out what we needed in terms of points. It gave us a focus, it created a change of mentality, we knew what we needed to do. We worked out that to survive we would probably need to win about six games and draw one. This was Cambiasso’s plan.
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We knew that if we did what we set out to do then it would depend on the other sides doing what they had to. The coach used Cambiasso’s plan without saying where it can from. From that moment we almost subconsciously realised that actually we didn’t have anything to lose and we just set our sights on our objective. The first game we won and from that moment we believed it was possible. The day we went to West Bromwich Albion and won with a Vardy goal in the last minute was when we got that magic click that told us we could not go down. Had we lost that game I think we could well have gone down. In the end we won eight, drew one and lost just once aganst Chelsea. It was actually that period that created the springboard of what occurred the following season.
GB: Effectively what you got was the feeling that could actually win any game?
LU: You sensed it with our last game of the season where we beat QPR 5-1 even though we weren’t playing for anythng on the day and then during pre-season you sensed there was a chemistry that was building up among the side. Of course, N'Golo Kante came and that added a huge extra.
GB: What players do you think were fundamental to the Leicester success story?
LU: It’s actually a combination of factors. Obviously the three players that set such a hugh standard were in order, Kante, [Jamie] Vardy and [Riyad] Mahrez. Kasper didn’t start particularly well in goal and then became fundamental to the side. Cristian Fuchs and Danny Simpson were amazing in defence. We didn’t concede many goals not even from dead ball movements where I think we gave away 3 or 4 goals all season. Things were going well and with every win there was a build up of even more confidence. From my point of view I think a lot of it had to do with the way we had finished the season before.
GB: And what about for you personally? How were things for you both on and off the pitch?
LU: Whenever someone new comes along you start from square one. Claudio decided he wanted to play a certain way and of course for me it was hard for to accept not playing as many games. But that’s how it is. All I could do is stay, continue working and wait for my opportunity whenever it came. I didn’t react by not training well, or moping around the place, I looked to be positive with my team mates and to help the team as much as I could. I fully understood that if a team is winning and winning all the time you don’t start to change it around but in truth my personal feelings were that I wanted to play. Claudio used my situation to make a point of everybody being valuable. That helped.
GB: When did it actually dawn of you that you were a Premier League champion?
LU: I’m not really sure it has yet. I think with the passing of the years when we realise that this wasn’t easy and it is going to be enormously difficult for a side similar to Leicester to achieve what we did. Or for a side usually near the bottom to beat those sides consistently in the top five of the table. The truth is that I loved it. As I have said I did not play as much as I would have liked but the dynamic, the dressing room, the positivity, the feeling was tremendous.
GB: Do you believe that when a side that is not accustomed to winning does win, they find it harder to cope in the future with the success that this brings and struggle to make the right decisions?
LU: Yes I think so. This is very much a club of the people and with the type of players who identified with the club, who weren’t great superstars and this humble club and everyone in it becomes famous all over the world. Having won the title it became difficult to handle certain situations simply because, in truth, what they set out to do was the very best they could but not ever thinking that they would eventually emerge as champions.
GB: The rumours now of course are twofold: firstly that the players are only interested in the Champions League and nothing else, and that Claudio Ranieri was betrayed by the players. How do you see it?
LU: That the players are merely interested in the Champions League simply isn’t true. Of course we have loved taking part in a competition that many of us have never played in before, but we all know that the Premier League is the most important thing for us. Let’s not forget that if the year before we had been relegated there would be no Premier, no Champions League, no anything. Also when people empathize with the coach and then there are problems that arise, logically fans blame the players. But what I can tell you is that just as I have said that two years ago the dynamic and the atmosphere was good, this season we started with an dynamic that was very bad and it was very hard to change it it.
We did try; we spoke among each other, and with Claudio and said that we couldn’t allow ourselves to be in this situation when we were fighting in the Champions league and also against relegation. We, the players, were the first ones that had most to benefit from moving forward. The truth is that dynamic was bad and in the end the club bosses were forced to take a really painful decision which was to fire the coach that had won the title the previous season in order to change things. It was not that the players did not like Claudio, because if they hadn’t liked him then the previous year they would not have been champions.
GB: There is another school of thought that if anyone had betrayed anyone it was Claudio, as maybe some of his players who had won the tile felt that with the signing of new players they were being told that, despite having won the title, they were not good enough. This, they say, hurt some of the footballers and affected the dynamic of the group. Do you agree?
LU: There were new players and when you bring new, expensive players into a side that have just finished as champions and put them in places filled by some of the previous players it will create the occasional conflict. But that didn’t determine that any one group of players should decide that a coach should not continue. That’s how I see it. What is clear is that many think, Claudio has gone and now they have started winning. That is not the logic I see in the side. The situation became complicated, the coach left, people’s heads and minds were cleared and refreshed, we went back to the old system and the dynamic changed.
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GB: Isn’t the line between harmony and conflict a fine one?
LU: Absolutely, because if you think about it very little changed under Claudio this season. Small little details changed when we went back a bit to the way we played the previous year and things began to flow again. We change a few things and beat Liverpool and suddenly you see things differently; players with more confidence, morale goes up in the dressing room, players start to train differently, you beat Hull and then things begin to change.
GB: And then you had the Sevilla game, with one dynamic in the away leg and a different one for the home match?
LU: Exactly. But if you were to ask me who I think, hand on heart, deserved to go through in to the next round I would tell you Sevilla. But then football isn’t logical and it’s all about the dynamics of the situation.
GB: I assume that the analysis is that you have going to have to play much better if you are to beat Atletico Madrid?
LU: Of course and even a good dynamic isn’t enough to go through. We know that Atletico Madrid are a great side with a lot of very fine, quality players and it is going to be a very difficult match. We know we are not favourites but we also know what we can do and what we are capable of. The last few games have been refreshing for us with a few wins and there is a greater confidence about playing. But just imagine if we had been coming into this game with the dynamic that we had previous to the Liverpool game it would have been more difficult for everyone. Now we are more relaxed, confident, calm.
GB: And finally. How are you because you went through a complicated time?
LU: In truth I feel frustrated. We have gone back to the old system but the personnel hasn’t changed. I get on the bench but I don’t get minutes of the pitch, and is frustrating. I will still continue training so when my chance comes I can make the most of it. I want to play, feel part of the team and I am always ready to play and I never lose hope that I will play. Then at the end of next season we will see how things are and see what we will do.