As Leicester City lifted the Premier League trophy aloft last season, many presumed it would be the final time that squad of players would be seen together. Their skyrocket-fuelled rise to the top of the English football complete, the natural next step was for the Foxes heroes to go their separate ways and join the biggest best clubs in world football.
Twelve months on, however, and the vast majority of those same players are preparing to see out their season as champions with fixtures against Tottenham and Bournemouth at the King Power Stadium. N’Golo Kante – and Claudio Ranieri – apart, the main protagonists from the greatest fairy tale in modern English football remain in the east Midlands.
Improved contracts certainly helped in the club’s bid to keep hold of their marquee names, with Jamie Vardy’s decision to remain at Leicester despite an offer from Arsenal being on the table a remarkable show of loyalty from one of the Premier League’s newest star names.
Riyad Mahrez, Danny Drinkwater and Kasper Schmeichel followed the striker’s lead in committing themselves to the Foxes as they embarked on a campaign that would ultimately see them underachieve domestically while continuing to enjoy their new status as an almost unknown wildcard in the Champions League.
But with normality set to return to the club, the feeling is now that the exodus that many expected this time last year will now take place. There is no doubt that the stock of some of Leicesters title-winners has gone down during the indifferent defence of their title, but there will still be suitors for the majority of their leading cast members.
Mahrez is set to be the most in demand. Linked with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona while on his way to winning the PFA Player of the Year award in 2016, the likelihood is that any chance of him moving to one of Spain’s big two has gone for now. But at 26, the Algeria international is about to enter the prime years of his career, and his performances in recent weeks – forgetting his penalty blunder against Manchester City – should mean he will attract interest from clubs who are regularly in the conversation when it comes to playing in the Champions League.
Arsenal have already been linked on multiple occasions due to the lack of clarity over Alexis Sanchez’s future while the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco and both Milan clubs are likely to be on the lookout for natural wide players this summer.
Schmeichel, meanwhile, is one of a number of goalkeepers who could find themselves caught in a transfer merry-go-round during the off-season. The likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton are all set to be in the market for a new No.1 while David de Gea’s potential departure from Manchester United could open the door to him following in his father’s footsteps at Old Trafford. His impressive displays – particularly in Europe – earned him both individual prizes at Leicester’s end of season awards earlier this week, and it seems unlikely that he will remain at the King Power.
Drinkwater, Wilfred Ndidi, Demarai Gray and Ben Chilwell could all follow suit in what would bring about a huge midfield rebuilding job for Craig Shakespeare should he continue in the managerial hotseat while fringe strikers Islam Slimani, Ahmed Musa and Leonardo Ulloa have all been linked with summer exits. It seems highly likely that next season’s Leicester could be vastly different from the one that stole the majority of football fans’s hearts in 2016.
But what of Vardy? With 15 goals in all competitions, the England forward has certainly slowed down from last season but by no means come to a complete halt. He remains one of the best finishers in the English top-flight while his pace continues to frighten defences on a weekly basis.
For all his strengths, though, there is no getting away from the fact that time is not on the former Fleetwood Town striker’s side. He turned 30 in January, meaning he is likely to have little sell-on value for any club who takes a punt on him this summer. Factor in his £80,000-a-week wages, and it will be difficult for the very top clubs to justify spending big money despite his obvious attributes.
Turning down Arsenal may yet prove to be Vardy missing his chance to join an elite club, and instead he will be looked upon as the man to ensure Leicester do not fade away into obscurity after their memorable ride.
For now, Leicester can enjoy the final throes of their time as defending English champions. For their fans, this will likely be the opportunity bid farewell to some of the city’s greatest sporting heroes.