When Bellarmine Prep soccer coach Joe Waters talks about Leicester City, he uses the word “we.”
Before joining Bellarmine, before playing for the old Tacoma Stars, Waters played at Leicester City. And in 1974 he made quite a first impression, scoring two goals in his senior-team debut in an FA Cup quarterfinal win against Queens Park Rangers.
“I managed to be lucky enough and be in the right place twice to help the team,” Waters said.
He played for the club until 1976, but the bond has lasted a lifetime. And he is clearly enjoying the Foxes’ ongoing run, one that has them shockingly atop the English Premier League.
“This is the most exciting time for Leicester since my days in the ’70s, and just before that in the ’60s,” he said. “It’s just totally unexpected. What a fantastic ride this has been.”
Since its founding in 1884 as Leicester Fosse, the club has never finished atop the country’s top league. Now Leicester City is five points up on second-place Tottenham with four games to go.
The Foxes opened this season facing 5,000-to-1 odds against winning the league title, and even the most rabid fans were more focused on the bottom of the standings than the top.
“They have a great sense of humor about it,” Waters said. “When we were at the top just over Christmas, they started chanting, ‘We’re not going to get relegated, we’re not going to get relegated.’ We were favorites for (relegation) last year, and from that time to this they have put on a fantastic run.”
The city is located about 100 miles north of London. In 1485, King Richard III was killed in battle nearby. His remains were discovered in 2012 and reburied last year, and since then the Foxes have become a juggernaut. Some have linked the two events, perhaps feeling such a magical season deserves a magical explanation. But Waters is more practical.
“When they brought (coach) Claudio Ranieri in, I wasn’t convinced that he was the guy for the job,” Waters said. “But … I think what’s really resurrected everybody, is just the exciting way that they play. … Steve Walsh is a great talent scout and he has got in some terrific players like (Riyad) Mahrez and (N’Golo) Kante and Jamie Vardy. They’ve got great experience in Wes Morgan and Robert Huth in the back. Danny Drinkwater was a fine player at Manchester United, he just didn’t get an opportunity and now he’s taking it with both hands here. They’ve invested in the club and in players.”
It isn’t the first time. Waters recalls that when he was brought to Leicester on trial, he walked into the chief scout’s office and saw a display on the wall. It was a framed check for 165,000 pounds, payable to Allan Clarke, who in 1968 became both a Fox and the best-paid player in English soccer.
Waters stresses that the club directors have regularly spent on players and facilities. And they have sometimes been rewarded — although more often in cup play or in lower leagues. The Foxes represent a city with a population of about 330,000, and play in a stadium seating 32,000. There have always been limits to their success. Until now.
“The problem we have with the Premiership is that there are three different tiers,” Waters said. “… If you want to break into that top six, you have to be very, very fortunate in your signings or very good at what you do and be prepared to spend. …. It is kind of a strange thing because a club like Arsenal are not doing well, Man United are not doing well, Man City are not doing well in the league. Liverpool have not made the charge that people have expected. So for Leicester and Tottenham to come forward and do this is absolutely great. It’s kind of a perfect storm, really, for Leicester City.”
Next up is Swansea City on Sunday (8 a.m., NBCSN). Then comes Man United and Everton leading to the finale vs. Chelsea on May 15.
“Believe me, I cannot wait for the results,” Waters said. “My kids at school are all the time talking about what’s happening. It’s been a great thing all the way around, and fingers crossed that we’re going to pull it off and take nothing for granted.”