Match 64
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Match 63
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Football Whispers

What Leicester City can learn from a pair of 1980s one-hit wonders

Somewhere tucked away in a private nook at his home in Como, Italy, Silvano Fontolan keeps a memento of one of the most unlikely stories in Italian soccer history. In 1984-85, he helped Hellas Verona -- a team representing a town of just 250,000 people -- win the country's top domestic league, Serie A, for the first and only time in their history.

The story is not so different from the one that unfolded at Leicester City in England last season: An unfashionable underdog shattered the sport's established order. Indeed, it was while watching the Foxes romp to the Premier League title that Fontolan's mind turned back to his beloved souvenir.

"At my house, I have a little card with a phrase on it from [Domenico] Volpati, one of my former teammates at Verona," Fontolan said. "Back in 1985, he said, 'We will only understand what we achieved in 30 years' time.'"

Volpati was off by a single year.

"What happened with Leicester this May helped us to fully appreciate our successes at last," Fontolan said. "Perhaps it will be another 30 years before Leicester can understand what they have achieved."

Right now, the English club has more pressing concerns as it prepares to kick off its title defence away to Hull City. Are there any lessons to be learned from Verona, who slid to 10th the season after winning Serie A? Or perhaps from another of football's one-hit wonders?

Leicester City's championship was quite surprising, but it wasn't without precedent.

How 1984-85 Verona was like Leicester City

Verona's success in 1984-85 did not arrive completely out of the blue. They finished sixth in Serie A the preceding season and fourth the year before that -- the best results in their history. Although they lagged behind Italy's richest clubs in spending power, they had a wealthy benefactor in majority shareholder Ferdinando Chiampan, who had obtained exclusive rights to import Canon-brand electronics from Japan.

There is a comparison to be drawn with Leicester, whose fortunes have improved sharply since they were taken over by the Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in 2010. But in the opinion of former Verona defender Roberto Tricella, more compelling parallels could be found on the pitch.

"I see great similarities between our team and theirs," he said. "Leicester know how to move from one end of the pitch to the other in three passes. They are not a team that has a lot of possession, but they turn defence into attack in three seconds. That's a characteristic our team had too.

"We had a very fast winger in [Pietro] Fanna and a striker in [Preben] Elkjaer who was excellent at finding the space behind the defence. So we didn't have much possession, but we were very dangerous on the counterattack. If you allowed us space, then we would always score. This is the characteristic I see in both teams."

Leicester's effectiveness on the counter was much remarked upon last season, with statistics showing that only two other Premier League teams spent less time on the ball. The most important thing the champions can do now, in Tricella's mind, is make sure success does not change them.

Verona sold both Fanna and fellow winger Luciano Marangon in the summer after their title win, then finished in 10th place the following season. Tricella resists the conclusion that these departures explain his team's diminished form and instead argues that Verona allowed themselves to be drawn into a philosophical shift.

"The new players we signed, guys like [Vinicio] Verza and [Beniamino] Vignola, liked to play the ball to feet," he said. "They didn't play the way we did, always looking to get in behind the defence. Teams started doing to us what we had done to them, letting us have possession and then hitting on the counterattack. We inverted the tendencies, and it hurt us."

Perhaps, to some extent, that was unavoidable. As Leicester had already begun to discover toward the end of last season, prolonged success has a way of putting a target on your back. Fontolan chuckles as he recalls the shifting attitudes of opponents toward Verona.

"At the start, our team was this happy story," he said. "Everyone who came across us kept saying, 'Oh, you're so lovely, you're so lovely, you're so lovely.' And then, all of a sudden they said, 'Oh s---, these guys are winning.' At that point, they started trying to stop us."

All of this is to be expected. Leicester know they will need to adapt as opponents become more cautious. The secret to prolonged success will lie in understanding how to do this without abandoning the identity that brought them this far.

Members of Hellas Verona's 1984-85 team were honored last year, the 30th anniversary of the club's only championship.

Keeping hold of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy -- Leicester's equivalent of Fanna and Elkjaer -- will make life easier in that regard. Conversely, losing N'Golo Kanté in midfield hurts, even more for the fact that he has joined a potential title rival in Chelsea. The level of competition overall in the Premier League has also risen after a summer of lavish spending from the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City.

Tricella, though, is adamant that Leicester need not be discouraged.

"They might not be first, but in my opinion, they still have all the right characteristics to play at a similar level," he said. "Even Verona, after losing our way in 1985-86, bounced back up to fourth when we remembered our characteristics and got back to attacking those open spaces. It's not always a question of spending money."

Lessons from Scotland

Dundee United did not experience the same challenges as Verona after their solitary Scottish title in 1982-83. In a country whose soccer scene has been utterly dominated by Celtic and Rangers -- with only an occasional interruption from Aberdeen -- the Tangerines are the only new team to have been champions in the past 51 years.

Unlike Verona or Leicester, they avoided having any key players stripped away in the wake of their success.

"The contract system was totally different back then," former Dundee United midfielder Eamonn Bannon said. "The club held all the power. As a player, you never even got asked. There might have been a £500,000 bid for you, and if the club didn't want to sell, you wouldn't ever know."

That system allowed smaller clubs to build long-term plans in a manner not possible today. By the time Dundee United won their title, they boasted a tight-knit group of players who had been together for many years and a manager, Jim McLean, who had been finessing his tactical approach at the club for more than a decade.

Consistency in team selection was perhaps the trait Dundee United's championship team shared most with last season's Leicester squad. Only 12 players started more than nine games for either side during their respective title-winning campaigns.

In the short term, it is easy to see the benefits of such an approach: allowing players to build an intense familiarity with teammates' habits and movements. But the lack of rotation might have cost Dundee United the potential for further success down the line.

Eamonn Bannon
Dundee United's Eamonn Bannon, right, controls the ball against Roma during the semifinals of the 1984 European Cup.

McLean stuck with the same core of players for his team's title defence in 1983-84, and for a long time, that formula seemed to be working. Dundee United were right in the thick of the title race and reached the semifinal of the European Cup.

But when they finally exited the latter competition after a contentious, two-legged defeat against Roma, it seemed the wind had dropped from their sails. Many Dundee United starters had been playing upward of 50 games per season for several years running. They faded badly down the stretch, failed to win any of their last five league games and finished third.

"It's a crazy number of games to play, and I was the type of player who was very rarely injured," Bannon said. "In itself, that's great, but what happens is you get a bit jaded. You don't think you're jaded, but the grind of Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday catches up with you."

Leicester have added depth to their squad this summer, perhaps most crucially signing Nigerian Ahmed Musa as an alternative to Vardy up front. But if Bannon had any one piece of advice, it might be to stop worrying about everything that could go wrong and enjoy the moment while it lasts.

"I could go back ... I could kick myself up the backside," he said, reflecting on the deeply subdued celebrations that followed Dundee United's historic success. "If you ever see a video of the last game of that season, when we beat [bitter local rivals] Dundee to seal the title, I'm not even celebrating. I'm just wandering about."

Bannon had committed to playing in a testimonial game for his friend Jim McArthur 24 hours later and consequently skipped Dundee United's open-top bus tour. "I came back the day after," he said, "and seemed to have missed the whole party."

It probably did not take him 30 years, on that front, to realise the mistake he had made.

Paolo Bandini is a writer and broadcaster who contributes to ESPN FC, The Guardian and The Score, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Paolo_Bandini.


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