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Leicester City’s Foxes are in the hunt

SVEN Goran Eriksson? Gone. Yakubu? Gone. John Paintsil, Matt Mills, Ricardo, Gelson Fernandes? All gone.

These days, megabucks signings and international B-listers get nowhere near the King Power Stadium. The days of milk and honey have been replaced by helpings of bread and water. But this is no tale of hardship and lost glory, of a club fallen on hard times.

This is a club who realised that you cannot buy promotion, at least not outright. A club who realised that slow and steady does win the race.

That international caps and Premier League appearances are no substitute for the burning hunger of youngsters and home-grown kids.

Who after four years of dashed hopes, sit second in the Championship with ten wins from 14 games. “I’ve seen eight managers,” says Andy King, who made his Foxes debut in 2007 and has now made more than 250 appearances.

Turnover

“I don’t know how many players. But this is as settled as it’s been. The management is steady. The squad is tighter. I think that’s what you’re seeing on the pitch.

“Did all the new faces destabilise us? Yeah I think so. At the time, you’re pleased. You see top quality players coming in to improve the team. It’s exciting.

“But looking back, it was probably never going to work. The turnover of players was just too high. We never really gelled.

“This summer we added two or three players and it’s worked. I think that tells the story.”

Manager Nigel Pearson is the architect of this pared down outfit. The gruff, often prickly ex-Middlesbrough centre-back won promotion from League One with such earthy figures as Steve Howard and Richie Wellens in 2009.

By the time he returned – after 18 months at Hull – in 2011, the landscape had changed dramatically. Bought by Thai retail giants King Power, who sacked Paolo Sousa and installed Eriksson as manager, millions had been thrown at a quick-fire bid for promotion.

But the Foxes got nowhere near, finishing 10th in the Swede’s first season and loitering in the bottom half when he was sacked. His reign also brought monumental transfer blunders like the £5m blown on Reading defender Matt Mills.

Of course, Pearson has spent a bit too – £2m on Kiwi striker Chris Wood, £1m on Wes Morgan, the same again on Jamie Vardy. Hard up he ain’t.

Anthony Knockaert v BlackpoolBut even after last year’s play-off failure against Watford, this summer brought just five new faces at a combined cost of £650,000.

“Partly there’s less money available,” admits Pearson. “But personally, I don’t think there’s any mileage in working with a massive squad. You just can’t keep them all happy. Yes, we’ve got a small group, but it’s the size that I like  working with.

“And what’s important is that in every game, I’ve looked at the players on the pitch and thought ‘That’s a strong team’. Then you look at the bench and think ‘That’s a strong bench’. I couldn’t always say that.”

Key to Pearson has been the marked improvement of men like Anthony Knockaert and Jamie Vardy. Vardy, signed  from Fleetwood, had only ever played Non-League football before last season and scored just five goals all season.

French youngster Knockaert, meanwhile, mixed flashes of brilliance with a wastefulness and inconsistency that is  gradually disappearing.

“With Jamie, I always took a longterm view,” says Pearson. “My expectation of how long a player takes to adjust is  probably a lot more realistic than other people’s.

“You could look at Anthony Knockaert in a similar way. He came to a different culture, with a different language. He’s shown great maturity this year. Those are just two players.

“There’s Liam Moore, Matty James. You could go on and on about how much individual players have improved.”

Knockaert, of course, capped last season by winning and then missing a penalty against Watford that cost Leicester a place in the play-off final. Those demons were exorcised with a goal in the 3-0 win at Vicarage Road last week, a   game which King says was hugely important.

Intense

“We were never losing that game,” says the midfielder. “Nobody had really said anything. There were no meetings  about it. But you could sense that we were going to win. From minute one we were so focussed and intense.

“It was a massive win for us, and for Anthony. He is a strong character. He just puts things behind him, whether it’s a run that came to nothing or what happened last season. He’s a free spirit like that.

“Talent and skill wise, he’s as good as anything in this league. He’s added work rate and team ethic to his game. I think his decision-making off the ball is getting a lot better.

“With players like that, they’ll always try to play a killer pass or beat a man. But you can’t beat a man every time. You will lose the ball. Our job is to encourage him and pick him back up because nine times out of ten he will make something special happen.”

So is this Leicester’s year after so many near misses? For the first time in years, the Foxes weren’t heavily tipped in pre-season, with relegated QPR and Reading most pundits’ pick. But according to King, the Foxes can stay the course.

“Last week will have been an eye opener for the rest of the league,” said the 25-year-old.

“Before, I think people outside the dressing room, were maybe looking at other teams a bit more. But inside, that was never the case. We knew we had the quality needed to win this league and I think that’s starting to show now.

“People outside the club will always speculate about who is good enough to win the league, but they don’t know.

Inside, we know we’ve got the ability to do it.

WOOD OUT AS KIWIS PLAY TOUGH

LEICESTER boss Nigel Pearson believes the FA can learn from the tough stance taken by New Zealand – despite his disappointment at losing Kiwi striker Chris Wood.

The 21-year-old scored his first goal of the season against Watford last weekend and would have been in the side to face Forest yesterday.

But, having been called up by the All Whites for next week’s World Cup play-off with Mexico, Wood was ordered to report for training in Los Angeles yesterday. Leicester’s attempts to delay his departure failed, with the New Zealand FA invoking FIFA rules that players must be released four days before an international match.

Yeovil Town v Leicester City - Sky Bet Football League Championship

And Pearson – who spent a spell in charge of the England Under-21 side – says the FA should be just as ruthless.

“It’s unfortunate for us that the New Zealand federation took such a firm stance,” said the Foxes boss.

“But if you’re in their shoes, it’s two important games and they need their best players.

“There are a set of rules laid down by FIFA. If the international federations decide to invoke them, there is nothing
you can do about it.

“I haven’t got a problem with that. From my experience of working for the FA, it can be very frustrating when you can’t get the players you want in your side.

“To be quite honest, I think the only country that doesn’t use them hard enough is England.”

Pearson also insisted he put no pressure on Wood to play against Forest. “Chris is very disappointed,” he added.

“He wants to play for both sides, and I fully understand that.

“I had a conversation with him before he actually signed and during that conversation it became very clear to me that  international football was very important to him.

“There’s no way that I would ever put obstacles in the way of player who want to represent their country. I’ve always been very consistent on that.”

This article was brought to you by The Football League Paper. On-sale every Sunday, the newspaper provides extensive coverage for all 72 Football League clubs with news, features and gossip plus comprehensive match reports.
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