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How Leicester City's rise could be the greatest sporting story told

The city's most famous son has his verdict ready. "It could be quite possibly the greatest sporting upset of all time if Leicester won the Premier League from where they were a year ago," Gary Lineker says. "It's a quite staggering story."

Anyone following Lineker's public thoughts on the club that gave him his first break on the road to 48 England goals will have noticed a certain incredulity at Leicester's relentlessly impressive form, which has lifted them five points clear in the Premier League heading into Sunday's (11pm AEDT) super-showdown with Arsenal.

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But Lineker says his feelings changed after the Foxes scattered Manchester City 3-1 at Etihad Stadium last weekend.

"After Saturday's result, I thought, 'Actually, this is possibly going to happen'," he says. "Before that I thought, 'No, this won't happen, it can't happen'."

Vardy party: Jamie Vardy celebrates a goal against Chelsea in December.
Vardy party: Jamie Vardy celebrates a goal against Chelsea in December. Photo: Getty Images

That shift has been felt across the country, where Leicester are the beacon team: a perfect romance in a league shaped by mega-wealth. Their owners are in the billionaire club, too, but Leicester's rise is framed as an anti-money tale of shrewd scouting, good players becoming excellent ones and the fierce togetherness that has helped them win seven of their past nine games to escape apparently inevitable relegation.

No wonder Lineker says: "I can't recall anything quite like it, certainly not in team sport. We see athletes suddenly improve from nowhere or golfers find a bit of form but, in team sports, something quite as drastic as this? And the fact that it's the team I support makes it doubly enjoyable.

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"The sense I get is that the whole nation is enjoying it. I'm getting hundreds of requests from right around the world just to talk about Leicester. So it's captured the imaginations not just of football fans here but globally."

Last weekend Manchester City fans applauded Leicester off the pitch, despite seeing their own team lose heavily to the upstarts. A £22 million ($45 million) side had outshone City's £223 million constellation.

Foxes in the hunt: Leicester City's Marc Albrighton (centre) celebrates after Robert Huth scores his side's third goal ...
Foxes in the hunt: Leicester City's Marc Albrighton (centre) celebrates after Robert Huth scores his side's third goal against Manchester City. Photo: PA

But the Arsenal game changes the dynamic. Leicester have been thrusting all season towards a high-placed finish. Now they are clear league leaders, looking down. A new kind of tension builds. With so many new friends, and such an unimaginable opportunity to upset the old order, Leicester suddenly have a melodrama to maintain rather than a fantasy to flirt with.

Even Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal side can close the gap to two points, has joined the chorus.

"I think it's great to see Leicester doing so well," he says. "You always ask me, 'Why do you not buy a big name?' But Leicester is a fantastic example that football is not only about just spending the money, it's the quality of work, and it's important to think that the quality of the work can get you there."

So this is not some plucky cup run by transfer-market bargains and journeymen with points to prove. Jamie Vardy (£1 million) and Riyad Mahrez (£450,000) have laid on many of the season's thrills, backed up by the phenomenally effective N'Golo Kante in midfield, as well as Danny Drinkwater and Robert Huth. To leave out any player is an insult to the collective nature of their efforts.

Lineker says: "If you'd said at this time last year that Leicester will be five points clear at the top of the Premier League now, I'd quite gladly have offered my house to anyone for that.

"This is not just a bunch of average players over-performing. Half the team would get into a lot of sides. Vardy has been exceptional, Mahrez is a wonderfully gifted footballer, Kante is as good a midfield player as there is in the country in his position. [Christian] Fuchs, although they got him on a free, is the Austria captain and has had a really good career. I think he's lost one game in something like 14 months when he's been in the starting line-up, an incredible stat.

"Add to that confidence, team spirit, good tactical astuteness from [manager Claudio] Ranieri and it's all culminated in this crazy story."

Crazy, not least, because Leicester moved off the bottom of the Premier League table, where they had festered since November, only 10 months ago, with a 2-0 win over Swansea City. Even then, Lineker's hometown club was still in the relegation zone, on goal difference, after three consecutive victories. In their next six fixtures they beat Burnley, Newcastle United, Southampton and Queens Park Rangers, after Vardy had been called up by England.

So the club exhaled, fell out with Nigel Pearson, appointed Ranieri (hardly a popular choice) and approached the new season as 5000-1 shots: odds that were nibbled at by a few intrepid punters who are now sitting on a jackpot.

Leicester, the 10th largest city in Britain with a population of 330,000, has no greater profile in the country generally than its football team, and is perhaps best known for its rugby union club and the re-internment last year of Richard III at the cathedral. Leicester Tigers have won rugby union's club championship 10 times and provided seven of England's 2003 World Cup-winning squad, including captain Martin Johnson.

Leicester City FC, on the other hand, have never won the league or FA Cup, in which they have lost four finals. They were Division One runners-up in 1928-29, and won the League Cup in 1964, 1997 and 2000.

The takeover by Thai "duty-free king" Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha bore the imprints at the time of a low-grade punt, a routine buying into the English football boom by a foreign billionaire. But Leicester's new owner displayed serious intent. An avid polo player, Kenny G fan and owner of two gulfstream jets, Vichai's surname was Raksriaksorn until the Thai monarchy blessed him with the honorary "Srivaddhanaprabha", which means "light of progressive glory", a neat heading also for Leicester's rise.

They are now on Deloitte's list of the world's 30 richest football clubs. Yet the cost comparison at Manchester City told another story. Stat of the week was that you could buy 122 Mahrezes for the cost of one Raheem Sterling.

Lineker says: "There's a sense that the money now is spread out reasonably in terms of the gigantic television rights money. Clubs like Leicester can have a dabble in the transfer market. They can splash out decent sums of money for pretty decent players and, if you do that wisely, you can do reasonably well, as not just Leicester have shown but the likes of West Ham or Southampton. It gives the Premier League an advantage in some ways over other [European] leagues in terms of its competitive nature."

The loss of Ben Wrigglesworth, a senior analyst/scout, to Arsenal was the second recent raid on Leicester's recruitment staff, but the club believes its scouting and evaluation system is so strong it can withstand individual losses.

Thus the outsider starts to wonder whether Leicester can retain their stars on the pitch and achieve long-term top-four status. Lineker withdraws a bit from that kind of speculation.

"I don't think there's many Leicester fans who are bothered about that," he says. "They're just enjoying this.

"Just one magical moment in the history of the club? You could live your lifetime and never get that as a Leicester fan. I don't think anyone's really that bothered about whether this continues. The thought of Leicester possibly winning the Premier League and playing in the Champions League is incredible."

He does, though, acknowledge Leicester have left the underdog role behind.

"When the pressure comes when you believe you might win something, that's a different component," he says. "A couple of injuries to stars would massively diminish their chances. But, at the same time, they're not in any cup competitions, and they're not in Europe, which decreases the chances of fatigue and players getting injured."

For Lineker, whose family were greengrocers in the city, there is a deeply personal element to Leicester's surge.

"I used to go to games with my dad and granddad," he says. "When I got a bit older I travelled away, then played for them for eight years.

"Leicester was a large part of my life. As a footballer it's weird, really. You transfer to another club and your allegiances move with you. You still follow your club's results but it doesn't mean as much. When I finished playing my allegiance and support gradually went back to Leicester.

"Obviously I was involved in putting in a group of people to save the club when it was in turmoil a few years back. The support has grown stronger and returned to how it was in my childhood. This season has been so exciting. I'm watching matches now genuinely nervous because of the situation we're in. The historic nature of it is that we're in touching distance.

"Everywhere I go people want to talk about it. They say: I so hope they do it. Part of that is the underdog thing with such a small club, and everyone thinking there is no way this could happen nowadays. And secondly it's the way they play, with this exciting counter-attacking, with a very likeable manager who has handled it so beautifully.

"The warmth towards the club is quite remarkable. I even had a couple of Forest fans telling me yesterday they really hope they do it, which is really weird."

Telegraph, London