In any piece of brilliance or moment of magic in football, there is always an also-ran. Almost twelve months ago, Leicester were fulfilling this unwanted role in the enthralling end to the Football League’s race for promotion and play-offs. In the dying moments of their second leg play-off tie against Gianfranco Zola’s Watford, the Foxes had the chance to put the game beyond all doubt after being awarded a penalty. Despite trailing 2-1 on the day, their 1-0 first leg victory at the King Power Stadium meant if Anthony Knockaert converted the spot kick, it would book a place at Wembley for Nigel Pearson’s men.
Regardless of the outcome of the penalty, even the most pessimistic Leicester supporter could not have been prepared for what was about to occur. Knockaert’s penalty was saved by Watford goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, as was his follow-up. The Hornets then counter-attacked, hoping to capitalize on Leicester’s disappointment, and when Jonathon Hogg’s knockdown found Troy Deeney in the box, the striker lashed a shot past Kasper Schmeichel to secure perhaps the most stunning play-off victory in recent history.
Within seconds, the Midlands side had gone from one kick of ball away from the promised land to leaving Vicarage Road empty-handed. It was football at its most brilliant yet most heart-breaking best.
That cruel, final act of the 2012/13 season would surely still have been playing over and over again in Nigel Pearson’s as he rallied his side for another promotion push in the summer. It might have proved too cruel a blow to bounce back from this season. It might have set the tone for a stuttering season and showed them to be a side believing the Premier League promotion ship had already sailed from the King Power Stadium and the Foxes had missed their chance.
However, the complete opposite has happened this season. Leicester’s decade-long exile from the top flight was ended last Saturday when rivals QPR and Derby failed to get a result in their respective games, meaning they had secured their fate with still a month of the season to go.
It marks a fantastic turnaround for Pearson at Leicester and is his second promotion in his two spells at the club. After the Foxes’ catastrophic relegation to League One in 2008, they bounced back to the Championship in style at the first attempt under Pearson’s guidance, after finishing an impressive seven points clear at the top of the table.
They went on to make the play-offs in their first season back in the second tier, only to lose narrowly on penalties to Cardiff before Pearson left the club to manage Hull in June 2010. After his successor Paulo Sousa came and went within months of being appointed and Sven-Goran Eriksson was unable to establish Leicester towards the top of the table, Pearson returned to the club in late 2011.
He had an immediate impact on the club, leading them to a mid-table finish in 2012 after an inconsistent start to the season under Eriksson and they sneaked into the play-offs in his first full season back in charge. This season’s promotion success is a reward for the way Leicester and Pearson have coped with the challenges that have been thrown at them throughout his time in the East Midlands.
While the narrow defeat to Cardiff four years ago would have been hard to take, what unfolded on that fateful day at Vicarage Road a year ago must have left them feeling as if the world was against them, and that they were destined never to make the Premier League.
But the Foxes have simply dominated the Championship this season. Even the likes of Burnley, with the impressive strike partnership of Danny Ings and Sam Vokes, and QPR, with their strong financial backing and impressive portfolio of players, have not been able to pip them to promotion this season.
They have had a particularly imposing record at the King Power Stadium this year, having suffered just two defeats on home turf this season, including Tuesday’s 4-1 defeat at the hands of Brighton.
While the likes of Ings and Vokes have earned praise for their efforts this season, Leicester’s own goal-scoring heroes should not go unnoticed. David Nugent, famed for being England’s ‘one-cap, one-goal wonder’, deservedly gets another chance at the top flight after leading the line for the Foxes, striking 18 league goals. Pearson will also undoubtedly be delighted with Jamie Vardy’s progress this campaign, who Pearson paid £1 million for back in the summer of 2012.
Leicester must look now to wrap up the Championship trophy, which still presents a challenge as tough games again promotion-chasing Reading and QPR are still to follow. Guiding the Foxes in the Premier League will be the toughest challenge of Pearson’s managerial career so far. But as can be seen from his time at the King Power Stadium, he is not one for backing away from a challenge.