Nigeria duo of Wilfred Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho’s efforts in the English Premier League couldn’t save Leicester City from being relegated at the end of 2022/23 of the most watched league in Europe.
The news of Everton’s goal was imparted brutally from a gleeful West Ham contingent taking huge delight in another team’s misfortune. ‘Going down,’ their supporters sang of Leicester. ‘Going to Prague,’ they sang of themselves. ‘Say hello to Millwall.’
And then, after only a second win since the back-to-back wins which had created brief optimism in early February, came the indignity for Leicester’s players of milling around on the pitch, clustered around a phone at one stage, awaiting the delayed final whistle at Everton and a spectacular reprieve that never came. There were precious few words between them – nothing to say – before the relegation which many had felt inevitable.
A lap of honour was as risky as it was inappropriate, given the performances which preceded all this, so the players walked in a circular motion, just beyond the centre circle. Half-hearted boos rang out. And then they were gone.
A few hours earlier, the same supporters had gathered in numbers at the statue of Vichai Srivaddhanacpraba, ‘The Possible Man’ who built Leicester City into a Premier League club, while a singer a few yards away blasted out a rendition of ‘walking on sunshine’ and searched in vain for a little local enthusiasm
The tension was everywhere and everyone was feeling it. The stadium announcer’s request that ‘if you are not a flag waver please pass yours on to someone who is,’ said a lot – because not everyone was in the mood for flags. ‘Leave them behind after the match,’ the announcer also asked. For what? To wave the one-time Premier League champions on against Huddersfield and Rotherham?
And though the match programme cover stated, in block capitals, that: ‘Foxes never quit’, it certainly didn’t look like that in the first 15 minutes, when Leicester couldn’t put three passes together.
But somehow, and from somewhere, that the talk about them being a team of players too good to go down started to seem a bit less like hubris. Kelechi Iheancho, a figurehead of all that was about to follow in this match, seemed to start it. Harvey Barnes started to find some zip. And James Maddison, whose last Leicester season will always taint what he had hitherto achieved, began to drive into the spaces in front of West Ham’s defence which Declan Rice occupied. It was a glimpse of what might have been.
The quartet of Maddison, Barnes, Iheanacho and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall was the creative nexus. And though there were miscues – Iheanacho screwing a shot wide, Dewsbury-Hall overhitting a cross after Maddison had arced a ball into his path with his outstep – Leicester did begin to threaten.
Iheanacho rescued a Barnes cross from the dead-ball, traded passes with Maddison and fired against the bar. Dewsbury-Hall lifted a ball onto the roof of the net. And then, just beyond the half-hour mark, the goal which sent the roof off this stadium and shudders through Goodison Park. A one-two traded between Barnes and Dewsbury-Hall which took two West Ham defenders out of the picture and sent Barnes in, shrugging off Flynn Downes despairing challenge and easing the ball past Lukasz Fabianski.
Rumour stalked this place. Five minutes after that first goal went in, word took hold among the West Ham contingent that Everton were a goal up and a momentary cheer took hold.
But there was no urban myth about the visiting contingent’s jubilation at Everton’s goal just before the hour mark. Leicester put the game beyond much doubt five minutes later – Wout Faes getting ahead of Nayef Aguerd and heading home a free-kick – but Abdoulaye Doucouré sucked the life out of the stadium. Leicester had been out of the relegation zone for just 23 minutes.
There were reminders of an incapacity to defend which has played a major part in sending Leicester down. A lofted ball over Luke Thomas – who was frankly a liability – allowed substitute Jarrod Bowen to force a save from Daniel Iversen and then lay off for Danny Ings who blasted over. It was Thomas’ misplaced pass which allowed a count-attack from which Pablo Fornals ran at a back-pedalling Leicester defence to score for West Ham. John Terry, Dean Smith’s defensive coach, hurled out directions to Jonny Evans which he made it quite clear that he couldn’t hear.
For a local fanbase which had been resigned to this for weeks, there was one last moment to savour. The arrival from the bench of Jamie Vardy – one of the three of the title-winning squad still on the books – was a chance to acknowledge one of the few of this squad who could hold their heads high. It has been an extraordinary decade with him but it had all evaporated. There was nothing else to cheer.