The last time Leicester City players were gathered waiting for a result was seven years ago at Jamie Vardy’s house when the greatest Premier League triumph was sealed. This time they stood around the centre circle of the King Power Stadium, counting the minutes until the final whistle at Goodison Park sealed their relegation.
Fans had been warned not to invade the pitch but there was little danger of that happening. In the last minutes of their season there was a resignation of where they were heading. English football’s fairytale of 2016 - the team who took on the heavyweights and won - have gone from champions to the Championship.
Such a flat atmosphere was a world away from those title celebrations when Andrea Bocelli sang on the pitch. There were a few boos, some applause and acknowledgement from the Leicester players when it was confirmed they were down. It was a sad way for this story to end.
On three occasions word got around the stadium that Bournemouth had done them a favour on Merseyside but this proved to be fake football news of the cruellest kind, adding to the bizarre feeling around the stadium.
Leicester chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha was seated in the directors’ box with his personal screen showing him replays. Focus will now shift on what his plan will be. Relegation often brings redundancies within clubs. Leicester also have Youri Tielemans, Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu among those out of contract, with James Maddison expected to be subject to bids.
“Say hello to Millwall” chanted the West Ham fans, delighting in the plight of their opponents. From winning the biggest prize in English football they are now back at Rotherham, Huddersfield and Stoke next season.
Claudio Ranieri, the architect of that incredible title win, summed it up when he spoke in Italy of his former club’s demise. “Football brings dreams and also nightmares,” said the 71-year-old, who credited the title win with doing more than just bringing glory on the pitch. “There is also a big Asian community in Leicester and many of them told me they were grateful that football helped to unite the city more. That goes beyond the Premier League that we won.”
“Foxes Never Quit” read the front of the Leicester matchday programme, which proved correct but not enough to save them from relegation. Harvey Barnes and Wes Faes scored goals to make sure Dean Smith’s team kept up their end of the survival bargain, although Pablo Fornals’ reply hinted at the problems Leicester have had this season.
“We gave a goal away in this match which we should never have given away, which has been the biggest crux we’ve had in our performances,” said Smith. We’ve given away too many soft goals that have cost us points.”
While this performance showed the quality that Smith had at his disposal for his eight games in charge, but winning once in 15 games before Survival Sunday explains why they were in this situation. Smith was effectively saying that the table does not lie over the course of 38 games.
Leicester can point to the penalty miss against Everton as the big moment for their survival bid. Victory that day would have seen them safe eventually, yet there were more near misses through the campaign and Leicester simply did not see out enough victories.
They will be rueing not playing with the intensity of this match over the course of the season. It took a moment of magic from Barnes to break the deadlock and give Leicester hope they could pull off their great escape. Barnes started the move himself, moving infield from the left flank and exchanging passes with Kelechi Iheanacho. Kelechi’s pass split the West Ham defence, taking out Vladimír Coufal. Barnes got on the wrong side of Flynn Downes and finished neatly under Lukasz Fabianski.
Faes added a second goal, nodding in from Youri Tielemans’ free-kick for his first goal at the right end of the pitch since arriving last summer. But by this time Everton had taken the lead against Bournemouth and survival was slipping away from Leicester. Fornals pulled a goal back with 11 minutes remaining, finishing neatly off the near post after Danny Ings had sent him through.
West Ham have been concentrating on their Europa Conference final in Prague next week after sealing their own safety after it looked threatened earlier in the campaign.
“We have got nothing to celebrate but it does tell you when you are playing against a team who is relegated how devastating it can be,” said West Ham manager David Moyes. “We weren’t in a great position so I have to give everyone great credit, especially the players when you look at their form - 2-0 against Arsenal at home and beat Man United in the run-in and win at Fulham and Bournemouth.
“From that point of view we earned the right to be in this position but I never like the thought of another manager or club drop down. It is a devastating feeling.”
While West Ham are looking forward to a shot at European glory, for Leicester it will be a case of what stays or goes in the aftermath of such a bitterly disappointing afternoon. “The players in the dressing room are as you would expect,” Smith said. “The Premier League is where everyone wants to be playing and they’ve played their part in unfortunately taking the team out of it. They will all personally feel they have played some part in that.”
It was all so far removed from the jubilation of 2016, or indeed the FA Cup win of 2021. As cars headed home, The Union pub on the road away from the stadium still has banners celebrating those two triumphs. It will be a very different feeling next season.