LEICESTER, England (AP) — In scenes that would have seemed absurd a year ago, Leicester captain Wes Morgan collected the English Premier League trophy on Saturday after one of the most improbable turnarounds by a sports team.
“It’s the best time of my life,” Morgan, who joined Leicester as a second-tier club four years ago, said on the field. “You just want to enjoy every minute.”
Fireworks erupted on the King Power Stadium pitch before yellow and blue streamers cascaded from the roof after the preseason 5,000-1 title longshots got their hands on the biggest prize in English football.
Before the biggest party in the club’s 132-year history, the Foxes completed their first game since securing their first-ever top flight title without playing on Monday, with a swaggering 3-1 victory over Everton.
Jamie Vardy, the striker signed from non-league Fleetwood Town four years ago, returned from suspension with a double to take the club top-scorer’s tally to 24, with a penalty miss denying him a hat trick.
But it was apt that midfielder Andy King was also on the score sheet. The lifelong Leicester player has been on the journey as the club climbed back from the third tier in 2009 to the top flight only two years ago.
Just a year ago, King and his teammates feared they were going to make an instant return to the second tier, and were relegation candidates at the start of this season.
But powered by Vardy’s goals, Riyad Mahrez’s trickery, and Kasper Schmeichel’s saves, Leicester confounded the odds to surge to the summit.
Leicester has embarrassed big-spending clubs from Manchester rivals United and City to Chelsea by winning the world’s richest soccer league without lavish spending.
Although Leicester has been owned for six years by Thai retail group King Power, the squad is largely a collection of bargain buys and players cast off by bigger clubs.
At times, club chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha seemed to hold onto the trophy longer than his players on the field as he was followed by a picture of the Thai king.
“I always believed in the power of our spirit,” he wrote in Saturday’s matchday magazine. “It drove us to reach the Premier League, it gave us the strength to stay in the Premier League, and now it has inspired us to win the Premier League.
“It is a spirit that has spread beyond Leicester, taking our story to the hearts of the world.”
Hundreds of Italians traveled by bus and plane to Leicester without tickets just to be part of a story that has enthralled the world beyond football fans. They have been captivated by how compatriot Claudio Ranieri turned the team into England’s first first-time champions since promoted Nottingham Forest’s 1978 success — an era before the financial disparities were so vast.
The most famous Italian at the celebrations was tenor Andrea Bocelli, who joined Ranieri on the field before the game to sing “Nessun Dorma,” the aria popularized in England during the 1990 World Cup.
Giancarlo Lissabdrini, from Verona, managed to secure the hottest ticket in town through family connections to Ranieri.
“Leicester achieved something epic in history,” Lissabdrini said. “(Ranieri) deserved much more in his coaching career … this was a big achievement for him and Italy.”
Leicester’s ownership was ridiculed for hiring the 64-year-old Ranieri last July. He was out of work since the previous year after being fired by Greece. And his only job in the Premier League at Chelsea ended 11 years earlier.
Ranieri’s prospects of avoiding relegation were written off. How he has proved his critics wrong and beguiled even non-Leicester fans with his command of the team and entertaining asides.
Above the Cank Street Gallery in central Leicester was written one such sound-bite. “Dilly ding, dilly dong” was uttered by a giddy Ranieri last month as he conveyed his excitement that a first career title was looming.
Above the hot grills at a burger van close to the stadium, a “Hail Claudio. Emperor of champions” flag was flying proudly as fans in champions T-shirts bought pre-match snacks.
Inside the stadium, Ranieri addressed the 32,000 fans before kickoff.
“I want to say to you we are champions because you pushed us,” Ranieri said.
Leicester has lost only three times in 37 games in the title bid. Not bad for a season when survival was the objective.
“We are staying up,” Leicester fans sang before bellowing out the words they will never tire of chanting: “Champions of England we know what we are.”
Fans are already thinking about next season and the team’s first foray into the Champions League, where Leicester will be top seed in the group stage as a domestic title winner.
Domestically, they expect faded powers from deposed champion Chelsea to record 20-time Premier League winner Manchester United to be far stronger.
“We know that other sides have struggled and they haven’t had the consistency they wanted,” fan Alan Sewell said. “Once they get stronger, with the management changes we know all the big clubs have got, it’s being able to compete in matches against them and hold our own. We’ll show this wasn’t a fluke.
“I don’t think it was a fluke but the rest of the world does.”
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports
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