Leicester's NI heroes tip Foxes for glory
Leicester City have been the story of the Premier League season, but can they really win the title? Stuart McKinley asked Northern Ireland greats who have played for and managed the Foxes if they will end up as champions
Leicester City, Premier League champions. Even the most optimistic of Foxes fans wouldn't have suggested that at the start of the season.
It would have taken a fairly hi-tech crystal ball to have foreseen what would happen in the most unpredictable season in Premier League history, with Chelsea putting up a dismal defence of their title and nobody else taking advantage.
After a superb campaign Leicester are now five points clear at the top with eight games to go and are favourites to win the league and they have won support from everywhere - not least in Northern Ireland.
Ulster links with the club are strong, including three former managers - Bryan Hamilton, Martin O'Neill and Nigel Worthington, who had a caretaker spell in 2007 when he managed to save them from relegation out of the Championship - and number of players.
Former Northern Ireland and Leicester defender Gerry Taggart was part of the club's last trophy win, a League Cup success in 2000 and he credits the consistency and attitude of the players in taking them to the brink of the title.
"The door has been wide open all season for a team to take the league by the scruff of the neck and nobody has done it, so Leicester have kept winning and got themselves into a really good position," he said.
"They have benefited from the way the season has panned out and probably thought 'why not have a go at this.'
"No disrespect to them - and I don't mean to devalue what they are doing - but the league isn't great. It's not Leicester's fault it's a poor league. It's exciting, but not as great as it used to be.
"I would say that there are only two world class players in the whole league - Sergio Aguero and Alexis Sanchez.
"There is no reason why Leicester can't win the league - as long as they hold their nerve."
There has, however, been little sign of nerves so far and although Leicester have been called a team without stars striker Jamie Vardy and midfield ace Riyad Mahrez are outshining their higher-profile and more highly rewarded peers in the Premier League.
So much of what Leicester have done, however, is down to manager Claudio Ranieri, but think back to when the the Italian was appointed last summer. The doubts over Leicester's top-flight future only increased and fans of other clubs sniggered.
He was viewed as a gamble when given the job ahead of the club's former midfielder, ex-Northern Ireland international Neil Lennon. Ranieri's most recent role had seen him flop as manager of Greece, getting the sack after defeats to Northern Ireland and the Faroe Islands and failing to win in four matches in charge.
Even former Leicester City and Northern Ireland defender John O'Neill admits to having his doubts
"A lot of people laughed when Claudio Ranieri was appointed - and I was probably one of them - but he has done a great job. And to think that he was a total failure in Greece," said O'Neill.
"I was in Athens for the Greece v Northern Ireland game and I got the impression that the players didn't want him there and that they weren't playing for him - I could see that on the pitch.
"At Leicester thought he has brought the dressing room with him and kept it strong."
Lennon, who left Bolton Wanderers earlier this week, said: "I had a great time at Leicester. It's a great club, they have done superbly and I wish them well."
Hamilton, who managed Leicester back in the 1980s before becoming Northern Ireland boss in 1994, credits Ranieri for creating a mood inside the camp that the players have carried onto the pitch.
"I think what they've done is great for the game and they're doing it with a smile on their face, thanks to the manager," he said.
"It's gone from their own fans waiting to see when the bubble would burst a few months ago, to now, when they are thinking 'we really can do this.'
"It's not Leicester who have fallen, it's Arsenal and Manchester City who are stumbling and now I think that Tottenham are the only team capable of catching Leicester."
A win against Crystal Palace today would put Leicester eight points clear of Spurs - who will have a match in hand - with seven games remaining.
John O'Neill is relieved to see his old team have points on the board, with tests to come in the final lap.
"Every game is a big one for them now and I am glad that they opened up the five-point gap because I think that their run-in is quite tricky, away to Manchester United, home to Chelsea and away to Everton," he said.
"Having said that, Tottenham would have to win two more games than Leicester and Leicester have already beaten all the teams that they have to play in their final eight games."
If - and it's not that big an if any more - Leicester do win the league, they will be the most unlikely champions since Nottingham Forest 38 years ago.
The circumstances are similar too. Forest won the league in their first season back in the top flight - they had only been promoted as the third-placed team in the old Second Division.
Leicester are in their second season after coming up, but were no more fancied than Forest would have been.
Northern Ireland's 1982 World Cup captain Martin O'Neill played in that Forest team and was also the last Leicester manager to win a trophy - that 2000 League Cup success, just a few months before he left for Celtic.
"I can see a lot of parallels between the two," said O'Neill.
"I suppose maybe Leicester have that experience of last year, being in deep relegation trouble and getting through. Forest had none of that experience, but we had a fantastic manager and some very, very good players. It's the same with Leicester - they have a great manager and some very good players."
O'Neill will lead the Republic of Ireland into the Euro 2016 finals in France this summer and he believes Leicester's achievements can act as an inspiration for the smaller nations.
"Do I see now, some side like ourselves, or Northern Ireland or Wales, thinking that because Leicester are doing well, that should give us the impetus to feel we're capable of winning the competition?" he said.
"What I think that Leicester have done is that they've given us all a reason to hope and dream that we can do things and not just go there and make up the numbers."