Think back to last summer at Leicester City. Optimism was high around the King Power Stadium, the club had a former England manager in charge and for that matter, signed three players with England caps to their names. Sven-Goran Eriksson appeared to be marshalling a side capable of mounting a serious assault on the Premier League; indeed many pundits had the Foxes down as hot favourites for promotion alongside Sam Allardyce’s West Ham.
As for the new signings, well they came in their droves. Paul Konchesky, Michael Ball and David Nugent arrived with international experience for the Three Lions, but they were just three names out of a host of players available to Sven that turned other Championship managers green with envy. Evidently, the board had decided throwing money at the squad was the recipe for success, ignoring the likes of Blackpool or Swansea before them, who combined team spirit and work ethic to reach the Promised Land. Other high profile names like Jermaine Beckford, Matt Mills, Michael Johnson and Gelsen Fernandes ensured the club spent a total of around £15 million on 11 new players.
It’s fair to say Leicester have now provided the blueprint for how not to get out of this division. Owner Vichai Raksriaksorn may be the 35th richest man in Thailand, but his efforts last summer shows just how difficult it is to bankroll a team out of the Championship. With expectation levels demanding nothing less than promotion, it was hardly surprising to see Sven get the boot with just 13 games of the season gone. The club lay 13th in the table, but a miserable 3-0 defeat to Millwall at home in October ensured the Swede’s Premier League dream was no more in the Midlands. Ultimately, the new signings had failed to gel. The Foxes were disappointing up front despite the amount of firepower available to them and Sven no longer seemed able to get the best out of his underperforming stars.
The board then turned to old favourite Nigel Pearson. After weeks of negotiating his release from Hull City, Pearson was reappointed to the dugout on the 15th November. Expectations were immediately raised again, after all Pearson masterminded their escape from League One in 2008/09 before leading the side into the playoffs the following season, losing only on a penalty shootout to Cardiff in the semi-final. He only left the club after a series of disputes with Milan Mandaric so Pearson’s return seemed like a good move all round.
Inconsistency still proved the order of the day though. The new boss never managed to turn round Leicester’s fortunes and his side languished in mid-table all season, never putting together a string of results that might have seen them threaten the playoff contenders. Some of Sven’s signings flattered to deceive, indeed defender Matt Mills was stripped of the captaincy in February following a run of poor form while loan signings Michael Johnson and Gelsen Fernandes never hit their straps in midfield. A ninth place finish followed, ending what can only be described as a season of serious disappointment. Pearson though, will relish the opportunity to revamp his squad.
He has already released six players, including former England striker Darius Vassell and appears to have invested wisely. Fleetwood Town forward Jamie Vardy has arrived for an undisclosed fee after notching 34 goals in the Blue Square Premier, while Manchester United youngsters Ritchie De Laet and Matty James should add some youthful vigour to the squad. Given the sizeable funds available to Pearson, the club will be linked with big name signings all summer, indeed rumours are rife that Emile Heskey has been offered a return to the club where he made his name. The manager will want to be careful about throwing the chequebook around again though and his transfer activity so far points to an effort to introduce a more balanced feel to his side.
The Foxes should have a good mix of youth and experience going into next season; players like Wes Morgan, Kasper Schmeichel and Sol Bamba all have the ability to perform consistently in the Championship. Pearson has thrown a few academy products into the mix as well, take teenage forward Harry Panayiotou who scored on his debut on the last day of the season away at Leeds. Although supporters should bear the dangers of last summer’s optimism in mind, it is a safe bet that Nigel Pearson and his charges will be top of the punters’ lists when the topic turns to Championship promotion.