Heart Of Football

Any exodus means Foxes must recharge batteries

The Leicester City Foxes set the template for everyone who aspires in global football.

Winning the English Premier League title at 5,000-1 odds captured the imagination of any have-a-go player on earth. The subsequent runs by Iceland and by Wales during the European Championship - wonderful as they were - were not of those odds.

But, less than two months on, the first fox is slipping Leicester's King Power stronghold. N'Golo Kante, the little Frenchman described by manager Claudio Ranieri as the team's "battery", will conclude his move to Chelsea by the end of this weekend.

Jamie Vardy stayed after turning down a move to Arsenal.

While the manager says Riyad Mahrez is going nowhere, the Algerian is intent on moving and the big clubs sniffing around him are encouraged by reports that he has so far not signed the improved new deal to stay.

All of this was inevitable, and Ranieri had said as much. Even before the EPL title was in the bag, the crafty old Italian coach had prepared the public for what is happening now. The 2015-16 season, he said, was an amazing dream; 2016-17 would not be the same.

What perhaps is a bigger worry to Leicester folk is that someone with deeper pockets is trying to lure away Steve Walsh - the talent spotter who recruited Kante, Vardy and Mahrez and many others, including the defensive rocks Wes Morgan and Robert Huth.

Rob Hughes

Mr Ranieri isn't throwing in the towel. He is busy signing players who might be as unknown among bigger clubs as Kante, Vardy and Mahrez were when Leicester pounced on them.

That, in a sense, is the fox in Leicester. Follow a scent before others are on the trail, pay what you can get away with, and give those unheralded players their chance in the spotlight. And then, no matter how much richer winning has made you, sell when you must.

All of it was foreseeable. And much of it is recoverable.

What perhaps is a bigger worry to Leicester folk is that someone with deeper pockets is trying to lure away Steve Walsh.

Who is he? Walsh is the talent spotter who recruited Kante, Vardy and Mahrez and many others, including the defensive rocks Wes Morgan and Robert Huth.

They were well known, well-tried veterans, but still essential to Leicester's rise from second division football to the top of the first.

Walsh, a former head of physical education in schools, is Leicester's head of recruitment. He was a Chelsea scout whose judgment led to Gianfranco Zola, Didier Drogba and others going there dating back through Ranieri's time at Stamford Bridge, and of course Jose Mourinho's.

Just a backroom man, a functionary? Hardly that. Ranieri pressed for Walsh to be given a new title, as assistant manager, and a new contract just eight weeks ago.

As stated above, Ranieri is a wily fellow. He knows that while players may come and go, the trusted men he works with on the training ground every day, and the talent spotter who knows before anyone else who might fit Leicester's running style, are vital to his own success.

But if Ranieri knows it, others soon will.

Right now Everton, with a new manager in Ronald Koeman and a new billionaire, Farhad Moshiri in the boardroom, are in the hunt for a director of football.

The job description - find new players for Everton to buy, preferably at a price that will appreciate - fits Walsh. And Moshiri, who sold his Arsenal shares to buy into Everton, knows the value of Walsh because Arsenal tried to lure him away from Leicester last season.

Will he go or will he stay? The silence is deafening. Reports say that Walsh has not travelled with the Foxes to their pre-season camp in Austria.

He might, of course, be out there casting his eye over potential players for City to sign. He might be in negotiations for the successor to Kante. Or he just might be listening to an offer he cannot refuse from Everton.

We don't know. We just surmise.

Kante, we do know, was a bargain when Leicester paid £5.6 million (S$10 million) for him a year ago from Caen. He was then 24 (mid-life in a football career) and had had only one season in Ligue 1 in France.

A year later, the football world knows him as a Premier League winner and a member of the French national team, Les Bleus, who were losing Euro 2016 finalists at home.

Kante, and his advisers, are in the best bargaining position of their lives. His running power, his timing in the tackles, his passes remind everyone of Claude Makelele, the Frenchman who became the energiser in Ranieri's Chelsea before Mourinho took over.

Ranieri, if I am not mistaken, spoke of Makelele having batteries in his shorts. He used the same phrase for Kante.

Why would he let him go? Because there is a price for everything, and everyone.

Kante had a buyout clause of £22 million. But the Foxes will get so much more, reportedly as high as £32 million because a Chinese club competed with the Blues for his signature.

And Kante will get more than the £100,000 a week Leicester offered to keep him. Chelsea's deal on the table is said to be £150,000 a week.

It is possible that Walsh and Ranieri have between them identified Kante's successor. Earlier this month, Leicester paid £13 million to sign Nampalys Mendy, a defensive midfielder from Nice.

They also acquired an attacking midfielder/striker, the Nigerian Ahmed Musa, from CSKA Moscow. And last January, perhaps in case Mahrez is tempted away, Leicester bought a fast, exciting winger - Demarai Gray from Birmingham City.

Any newcomer has to fit the dressing room ethos that Ranieri fostered. But it was there under the previous manager Nigel Pearson (now with Derby County), and was built with the help of Walsh.

Spotting talent is half the challenge. Knowing the character of players, assessing how they might fit into Leicester's core value that the team is greater than the egos of individuals, is the real reason why the Foxes outran the big boys last season.

Ranieri said he had never seen such a team spirit as the one he found when he arrived at Leicester - his 16th managerial move across five countries.

Sustaining that spirit, while replacing the batteries, is his intriguing task now.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'Any exodus means Foxes must recharge batteries'. Print Edition | Subscribe