Leicester have lost their way since death of Khun Vichai and now stare relegation in the face
The plaque on the bronze statue in front of the King Power Stadium reads: “Khun Vichai led Leicester City’s improbable ascent to the summit of English football giving supporters of every club the right to dream.”
On Sunday, though, it is the descent, from the ascent of so remarkably becoming Premier League champions in 2016, that may be complete with Leicester returning to the Championship from where their late Thai owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who died in a helicopter crash two years after that title triumph, first found them.
The statue also declares Khun Vichai as the ‘The Possible Man’ but that title must be adopted, if Leicester are to survive, by their caretaker manager Dean Smith who was brought in seven weeks and seven games ago with one task only: Keep the club up.
If winning the Premier League was the “dream”, and gave every other club the chance to dream, then relegation will not quite be the nightmare. But it would confirm that Leicester have been negligently managed on and off the pitch and have eventually lost their way since the tragedy.
Relegation will be sealed if Everton beat Bournemouth. There is nothing Leicester, at home to West Ham United, can then do. So it is not in their hands. But, even so, their task is simple: Only a victory will give them a chance of survival.
“It doesn’t get any clearer for me: They [the players] have to win. That’s all they need to know and that’s all they do know,” said Smith who was sitting 11 miles away from the stadium at Leicester’s vast media room in its state-of-the-art, £100 million training ground in Seagrave, north Leicestershire, with 14 pitches and encircled by nine-hole golf course.
It is a magnificent, grand facility which, as with the fact that it is only seven years since Leicester won the Premier League, and just two since they lifted the FA Cup and Community Shield, makes their current plight all the more shocking.
Since winning the league Leicester have finished 12th – but 10 points clear of relegation – ninth, ninth, fifth, fifth and eighth. Only once have they, therefore, even be outside the top 10 and then they acted swiftly under Khun Vichai to remove manager Claudio Ranieri mid-season, despite winning the title, to preserve their status.
It begs one obvious, glaring, puzzling question: Just what has gone wrong?
“I don’t think that’s for me to answer,” Smith said. “My remit was to come in for seven weeks, eight games and try to help us out of the position we were in. We are not in a better position now but we are not in a worse one.
"We’ve got an opportunity on Sunday but there will be a review come the end of the season. That’s the only way it can be done by the people who have been here throughout it.”
Would he like to be part of the review? “After the game if someone asks me my opinion I will readily give it,” said Smith who also, understandably, side-stepped the issue of own future. “My future is exactly the same,” he said. “That is a question to have after the game and not before it.”
While that is reasonable enough, it is hard to see Smith and his coaching team of Craig Shakespeare – who succeeded Ranieri of course but did not last – and John Terry surviving should Leicester be demoted, even if he has experience of winning promotion with Aston Villa. If they do stay up there will be, with that review, widespread changes where collectively Leicester have taken their eye off the ball.
The responsibility does not just rest with Vichai’s son Aiyawatt ‘Top’ Srivaddhanaprabha even if he does not appear to have his father’s instincts in running the club, but also with chief executive Susan Whelan, director of football Jon Rudkin and, of course, former manager Brendan Rodgers who left too late in early April and was initially replaced, in a poor decision, by coaches Adam Sadler and Mike Stowell.
Smith was parachuted in a week later but there were two more damaging losses before he arrived and he openly admits that Leicester have collected fewer points – six in seven games – than he expected.
“Unfortunately it has gone down to the last game…We are probably a couple of points behind where I thought we would be and we have to put that right on Sunday,” he said.
There is some hope. When Leicester lost 3-0 to Liverpool in their last home game there was an air of resignation around the stadium. There was even an expectation that they would be relegated when they played last Monday, if Everton and Leeds United’s results went against them. But instead there was an unexpected goalless draw, a first clean sheet in 22 games and “defiance”, according to Smith, at St James’ Park and with it a slim lifeline.
Whatever happens, as Smith hinted, there will be big changes with seven players out-of-contract and James Maddison and Harvey Barnes expected to be sold.
“They’ll know, the ones who have been here a long time and whose contracts are running out, that they want to leave on a high, if they are to leave,” Smith argued. “Leave a good legacy, which has been an FA Cup win and Community Shield win over the last couple of years. They know how important it is to them so they don’t need me to keep going on to them.”
While Leicester are adamant they are financially in a better space since when, at the end of last year, they were put on Uefa’s Financial Fair Play compliance watchlist, it does look precarious if they go down and not least because they appear to have taken out a loan against future revenues.
That might eat up parachute payments even if the players who stay have up to 50 per cent pay cuts built into their contracts.
Back at the King Power it was quiet in Leicester’s huge club shop where framed photographs of the league-winning side are selling for £65. It felt like a very long time ago and may feel even longer after this weekend. Until then Leicester fans will hold on to the dream.