Leicester reap early benefit of team spirit

The Premiership's leaders have ground their way to the top but will need flair to stay there
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The Independent Football

In the sober, hard-working East Midlands, they do not have much truck with heady optimism and lest anyone should be tempted into fanciful thoughts by the pecking order in the FA Carling Premiership, last night's headline in the local evening newspaper sagely advised: "Let's enjoy it while we can."

In the sober, hard-working East Midlands, they do not have much truck with heady optimism and lest anyone should be tempted into fanciful thoughts by the pecking order in the FA Carling Premiership, last night's headline in the local evening newspaper sagely advised: "Let's enjoy it while we can."

Leicester City, regarded by some as a runt among pure-breds, living above their station but refusing to be budged, reached the summit of English domestic football by taking a point to Manchester United's none on Sunday and because of the break for international fixtures will stay there for a fortnight.

That they will not quite feel comfortable as top dogs is down to one simple reality: their next opponents, at home on 14 October, are Manchester United, who trail them by a point. The thought that this bubble will not float far before it bursts is hard to escape.

It is a coincidence of fate that has echoes in the past. When Leicester last scaled such heights, knocking Tottenham off the old First Division's apex on Easter Monday in 1963, they did so by beating Manchester United, in the days when teams met their holiday opponents back-to-back, home and away. Leicester had been to Old Trafford and drawn 2-2 before winning 4-3 in front of 42,000 fans at Filbert Street.

Howard Riley, the former winger who is now education and welfare officer at the club's academy, remembers it well. "Denis Law scored a hat-trick for United but Ken Keyworth did the same for us, with me supplying all three crosses," he said.

Unfortunately for Riley and his team-mates, Gordon Banks and Frank McLintock among them, the joy was short-lived. Faced with four away matches in their last five, crammed together after a long, bad winter, Leicester faded to finish fourth, behind Everton, Tottenham and Burnley. Manchester United only just avoided relegation but dealt Leicester the season's second cruel blow, beating them 3-1 in the Cup final.

"I'd say the team had similarities with the one we have now," Riley said. "Gordon Banks was at the start of his England career and Frank McLintock's Arsenal years were still to come. We pulled together. We were a family club without real stars."

The present line-up do not care much to be labelled as such, especially given that six of the first XI - Matt Elliott, Callum Davidson, Gerry Taggart, Neil Lennon, Robbie Savage and Muzzy Izzet - are away on senior international duty this week. There is no argument, however, with the judgment that hard work and fortitude are cornerstones of their success.

Indeed, it is precisely the way Peter Taylor, the former England under-21 coach and Gillingham manager who has managed admirably to preserve the team spirit he inherited from Martin O'Neill, would assess their strengths.

"The players have all played their hearts out this season," Taylor said in the wake of the goalless draw at Sunderland that took his side to the top. "Nobody can doubt the ability of Manchester United and Arsenal and Leeds and Liverpool but we've got ability at Leicester as well and a bunch of players who are working very, very hard for each other. They call themselves the grinders and they're grinding out results."

Therein, perhaps, lies the only reason to carp. The twin pillars of the back four, the adopted Scotsman Elliott and the Ulsterman Taggart, supported by a reborn Tim Flowers in goal, are the proud defenders of the Premiership's last unbeaten record, having conceded only one goal from open play in eight league matches. Against that, however, is a shot-shy tally of seven goals, the same number Riley's 1963 side once put past Arsenal in one match. "I don't think we're over defensive," Taylor said. "We know we have to be more creative and we are trying to be but everything I'm doing is exactly the same as last season at Gillingham when we scored over 100 goals in all competitions. It's just that it's harder to score in the Premiership."

Nor is it going to become easier now that the rift with Stan Collymore appears irreversible, leaving responsibility heaped on the shoulders of Ade Akinbiyi, signed from Wolverhampton Wanderers for £5m of the Emile Heskey windfall but the scorer of only two goals so far.

Taylor met Collymore yesterday to discuss the accusations and counter-charges thrown between them last week but a terse club statement only confirmed that the errant striker's transfer request had been granted.

And there is more trouble on the horizon for Collymore. He has been charged with violent misconduct after his clash with the Everton midfielder Paul Gascoigne on the recommendation of the Football Association's video advisory panel. He appeared to stamp on Gascoigne at the end of the Premiership match eight days ago and faces a minimum three-match ban and a fine of two weeks' wages.

Leicester's remaining back-up consists of Darren Eadie, Richard Cresswell and Trevor Benjamin - good, honest professionals but unproven yet outside the lower divisions, where Tony Cottee, gone to Norwich, now resides just, perhaps, when Leicester need him most. The message from the little fellow, whose 13 goals last season propelled them to eighth, would doubtless concur with the headline: enjoy it while you can.

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