I remember my first meeting with the chairman when I arrived at Leicester City this summer. He sat down with me and said, “Claudio, this is a very important year for the club. It is very important for us to stay in the Premier League. We have to stay safe.”
My reply was, “Okay, sure. We’ll work hard on the training ground and try to achieve this.”
Forty points. That was the goal. That was the total we needed to stay in the first division, to give our fans another season of Premier League football.
Back then, I did not dream that I would open the paper on April 4 and see Leicester City at the top of the table with 69 points. Last year on this same day, the club was at the bottom of the table.
I am 64 years old, so I do not go out much. My wife has been with me for 40 years, so on my off days, I try to stay close to her. We go out to the lake by our house or maybe if we are feeling adventurous we watch a movie. But lately, I have indeed been hearing the noise from all over the world. It is impossible to ignore. I have heard we even have some new supporters in America following us.
To you, I say: Welcome to the club. We are happy to have you. I want you to love the way we play football, and I want you to love my players, because their journey is unbelievable.
Perhaps you have heard their names now. Players who were considered too small or too slow for other big clubs. N’Golo Kanté. Jamie Vardy. Wes Morgan. Danny Drink water. Riyad Mahrez. When I arrived my first day of training and I saw the quality of these players, I knew how good they could be.
Well, I knew we had a chance to survive in the Premier League.
This player Kanté, he was running so hard that I thought he must have a pack full of batteries hidden in his shorts. He never stopped running in training.
I had to tell him, “Hey, N’Golo, slow down. Slow down. Don’t run after the ball every time, okay?”
He says to me, “Yes, boss. Yes. Okay.”
Ten seconds later, I look over and he’s running again.
I tell him, “One day, I’m going to see you cross the ball, and then finish the cross with a header yourself.”
He’s unbelievable, but he is not the only key. There are too many keys to name in this incredible season.
Jamie Vardy, for example. This is not a footballer. This is a fantastic horse. He has a need to be free out there on the pitch. I say to him, “You are free to move however you want, but you must help us when we lose the ball. That’s all I ask of you. If you start to press the opposition, all of your teammates will follow you.”
Before we played our first match of the season, I told the players, “I want you to play for your teammates. We are a little team, so we have to fight with all our heart, with all our soul. I don’t care the name of the opponent. All I want is for you to fight. If they are better than us, Okay, congratulations. But they have to show us they are better.”
There was a fantastic electricity in Leicester from the very first day. It starts from the chairman and goes to the players, the staff, the fans. It was unbelievable what I felt. In the King Power Stadium, there was a terrific energy.
Do the fans sing only when we have the ball? Oh, no, no, no. When we are under pressure, the fans understand our pain and they sing their hearts out. They understand the complexity of the game, and when the players are suffering. They are very, very close to us.
We started the season very well. But our goal, I repeat, was to save the club from relegation. The first nine games, we were winning, but we were giving up many goals. We had to score two or three goals to win every game. It concerned me very much.
Before every game, I said, “Come on boys, come on. Clean sheet today.”
No clean sheet. I tried every motivation.
So finally, before the game against Crystal Palace, I said, “Come on boys, come on. I offer you a pizza if you get a clean sheet.”
Of course, my players made a clean sheet against Crystal Palace. One-nil.
So I stood by our deal and took my players to Peter Pizzeria in Leicester City Square. But I had a surprise for them when we got there. I said, “You have to work for everything. You work for your pizza, too. We will make our own.”
So we went into the kitchen with the dough and the cheese and the sauce. We tossed our own pies. It was very good, too. I enjoyed many slices. What can I say? I’m an Italian man. I love my pizza and my pasta.
Now, we make a lot of clean sheets. A dozen clean sheets after the pizza, in fact. I think this is no coincidence.
We have six games remaining, and we must continue fighting with our heart and our soul. This is a small club that is showing the world what can be achieved through spirit and determination. Twenty-six players. Twenty-six different brains. But one heart.
Just a few years ago, many of my players were in the lower leagues. Vardy was working in a factory. Kanté was in the third tier of the French league. Mahrez was in the French fourth division.
Now, we are fighting for a title. The Leicester fans I meet in the street tell me they are dreaming. But I say to them, “Okay, you dream for us. We do not dream. We simply work hard.”
No matter what happens to end this season, I think our story is important for all football fans around the world. It gives hope to all the young players out there who have been told they are not good enough.
They can say to themselves, “How do I arrive at the top level? If Vardy can do this, if Kanté can do this, maybe I can too.”
What do you need to arrive?
A big name? No.
A big contract? No.
You just need to keep an open mind, an open heart, a full battery, and run free.
Who knows, maybe at the end of the season, we will have two pizza parties.