Leicester aren’t the first club to go from being champions to getting relegated in just a few years, but the club won’t recover unless they look forward.
As the dust settles and a disbelieving fanbase looks back over ten months which turned out more disastrous than most believed was possible, one thing stands out about Leicester City’s relegation from the Premier League: there was no one reason why the club ended up in this position. The club appear to have been struck down by relegation by a thousand cuts, resulting in a drift towards the bottom of the table which all concerned seemed unable to deal with until it was too late to change anything substantial.
The obvious narrative here is that the club went from being the Premier League champions to relegation in seven years, but the reality is far more complicated, because so much has happened at the club in those intervening years that the journey from A to B could never really be a straight line. Their deeply loved chairman Khun Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was killed in a helicopter crash outside their stadium. A training complex was built at a cost of £100m. The tourism-based businesses owned by the club’s owners suffered a severe downturn as a result of the pandemic. They came within touching distance of qualifying for the Champions League in two successive seasons. They won the FA Cup.
But it would be overly simplistic – and fundamentally untrue – to say that Leicester City were relegated for reasons beyond the club’s control. Players were brought in on contracts which were only sustainable if the club could continue to overperform in the Premier League’s top six or seven which they were then unable to move on when they needed to cut the wage bill. Others with a potential re-sale value were allowed to stay and run down their contracts instead. The need to comply with Profit & Sustainability rules forced the club to cut back and this seemed to come as a surprise to some of those concerned, even though these rules are obviously common knowledge.
And then there was Brendan Rodgers. Brought in at a point when the club’s future vistas looked radically different, Rodgers was initially very successful. In 2020 he took the club to fifth. The following year he repeated the trick, this time adding the FA Cup to the club’s 2016 Premier League title win. Even last season, Leicester finished in eighth, just four points shy of a place in the Europa Conference League.
But with a wage bill far outstripping the team’s performance on the pitch this season and an apparent reticence on the part of the owners of the club to replace Rodgers even after it became clear that his relationships with some of the players was disintegrating, the decision to make the change wasn’t made until it was too late to make much appreciable difference to their fortunes.
In the end, by the time Leicester woke up and realised how desperate their plight actually was, it was pretty much impossible to change course. The result of all of this was Dean Smith, Craig Shakespeare and John Terry, but by the time they arrived there were just eight games left to play and the club was in 19th. Salvation was still possible. The bottom of the table was congested enough to allow for this, but even though they only lost three of those games, draws against Leeds United and Everton were crucial points dropped.
By the last day of the season they were dependant on Everton slipping up to have any chance of survival. But in the end, Everton – just – held their own and even a fairly accomplished performance in a 2-1 win against West Ham United wasn’t enough to keep them up.
It remains possible that Smith could end up continuing with the club into next season, although the club’s preferred target for the rebuild is the former Brighton and Chelsea manager Graham Potter, though he has already been connected with Crystal Palace this week and may not wish to drop down to the Championship.
Whoever ends up taking charge of this team is going to have a substantial rebuilding job on their hands. Seven players – including Youri Tielemans, Daniel Amartey, Caglar Soyuncu and Jonny Evans – are out of contract this summer, while few will be expecting James Maddison and Harvey Barnes to hang around, although those two players remain under contract and should command handsome fees.
But wages need to be cut, and to do so will be a challenge. Leicester spent £182million on staff wages in 2021/22, the seventh-highest figure in the Premier League. To get an idea of how important that cost-cutting exercise this, it should be remembered that the club will be expected to lose in excess of £130m in revenue next season for no longer being in the Premier League. What relegation release clauses do they have? Will buyers be prepared to pay the full value of their most valuable assets, or will this be treated more like a fire sale? Can a club which seems so ill-prepared for exactly this scenario rebuild their structure in time for the new season?
Because next season is going to be a challenge. Leicester will have eight more league games, rising to 11 should they need the play-offs to get back. Premier League television and prize money will be replaced by parachute payments at a vastly reduced level. And it might even be argued that the club would be better served by rebuilding with players who know this division than by trying to stick with the collection of malfunctioning parts who got them onto this sticky wicket in the first place.
It’s easy to get sucked into narratives about dreams that died and the like, but those charged with the responsibility of running the club on a day-to-day basis both literally and figuratively cannot afford to get involved in anything beyond looking to the future. It only takes a cursory look at Burnley to see how quickly a club’s fortunes can be turned around following relegation from the Premier League and it should be remembered that, as a club falling into the Championship from the Premier League, they retain a huge financial advantage over the vast majority of clubs against whom they will be pitting their wits.
But the club can only make use of this advantage if they keep their eye on the ball, and that means that something within the club itself needs to change. Which in itself would be a change.