For James read Roy. For the opening game of the season, our Leicester City interviewee was one James Bennett, one of Monsieur Salut’s former Abu Dhabi colleagues, and it is fair to say his comments on us – ‘I’ve always admired Sunderland’s fans and their passion but their style of play has always been on a level with the Stokes of this world and not something I would pay to watch… even if they were my team’ – did not go down too well. Roy Bennett*, no relation, offers a somewhat less contentious appraisal of his club and ours. He hopes his Foxes can sprint beyond the chasing pack’s reach, accepts that this season’s act will be hard to follow and realistically reckons fourth bottom safety is between us and Norwich …
Salut! Sunderland: Let us promote this question from its usual downtable position: name this season’s top four in order
Look back at a year or so ago when Leicester seemed doomed, look at you now and explain if you can. Do you have to pinch yourself now and then?
The tide of emotions since being bottom this time last year has been incredible. First escaping relegation, then the drama of losing Nigel Pearson under acrimonious circumstances, to starting the season wondering if Ranieri could prove all the doubters (in the media) wrong, to where we are now. It feels surreal at times, but I’m trying to savour every moment. Never in my lifetime could I imagine Leicester battling for the title, it’s been a fantastic ride and I just hope we can get over the line.
We rightly hear a lot about Vardy, Mahrez Kante, Drinkwater and a few others but who else has really shone or really surprised you?
For me Marc Albrighton’s complete willingness to put the team first and sacrifice his own forward play to help close a game out, has been a shining example of why our team truly stands testimony to the saying “The whole is greater, than the sum of it’s parts”. I’ve never seen a winger put in such hard work defensively, this has really helped our back four when under pressure from opposing attacks.
However you could run through the whole team there are no weak links and every player has been giving 100 per cent and leaving everything on the pitch throughout the season.
Yet only a few of your players seem certain to go to Euro 2016. Do you detect there still a reluctance to accept football’s most impressive achievement in recent years?
I’m the first to admit that Leicester have had a unique opportunity this season, as a number of the “big teams” have either been in transition or fallen foul to poor recruitment. There are still people within the media who aren’t willing to accept our success and have been part of the “excuse” mentality that has been prevalent throughout.
For example a leading football radio show this week, discussed how referees could be biased towards Leicester as they didn’t want to be responsible for “ending our fairy-tale”. Clearly they haven’t watched all 32 games so far, I assure you there have been plenty of decisions haven’t gone our way (Simpson’s red card against Arsenal being just one example).
Is it inevitable that some of your stars will be looking for, or at least open to, big money moves to those “big” clubs?
Our biggest danger is losing Mahrez or Kante, they could walk into most top European sides. Mahrez’s has confessed previously that his dream is to play for Barcelona, however as Ranieri has already said, why would you want to sit on the bench for 20-30 games next season when you are a guaranteed starter for Leicester in the Champions League?
Kante in my opinion has the potential to be the best defensive midfielder in the world. I firmly believe he has prevented at least 15 goals this season – his ability to intercept the ball is unique. Unfortunately all the big clubs are onto him and no doubt will be swarming in the summer.
Come what may, is the Ranieri/Srivaddhanaprabha pairing of manager and chairman one for the long term and how highly do assess their roles in your club’s success?
I’m confident that both Ranieri and Srivaddhanaprabha are here for the long term.
We wouldn’t be in this position without the patience and backing of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Initially he had to endure a rather wasteful Sven-Goran Eriksson in 2010, who overpaid on players and wages. When Nigel Pearson arrived he had to start again, as Sven bought a number of players with bad attitudes.
Ranieri has been a revelation, he knows exactly how to work the media and behind his “favourite uncle” exterior, lies a very sharp and disciplined mind. Ranieri has given Leicester the ability to manage a game. The biggest difference to last season, can be seen through our ability to hold onto leads, this all stems from his acute tactical awareness.
How seriously do you take the cynical view that this season, great as it is, can be seen as a freak and you’ll tumble to earth next season?
I’m under no illusion that next year is going to be a lot more competitive– Liverpool, Chelsea and Man City will certainly be stronger. Realistically with 3/4 good signings this summer, we should be looking at a challenging for a Europa league spot and have a fighting chance of reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League. Potentially winning the Premier League is a one off, I’m under no illusion that this will ever happen again!
Enough of happy Foxes. What about whining Black Cats? Did you see our trouble coming even before our lamentable opening day at the King Power, or were you taken by surprise?
For me, the trouble started with the instability of whether Advocaat actually wanted to stay on at Sunderland in the summer. Clearly Ellis Short talked him back into the job, which made you wonder whether Advocaat’s heart was actually in it, I’m sure this must have had a negative effect on the team.
Is there a single Sunderland player of ours you’d take for your squad?
Duncan Watmore impressed me before he was injured. He has a very good engine, work ethic, mentality and plenty of raw talent.
This must rank as the best season you’ve had as a Foxes supporter. Other highlights?
Without a doubt this is the best season I’ve had from 25 years as a supporter!
Beating Derby in the playoff final at Wembley in 1994 was very special to me, having lost the two previous playoff finals to Blackburn and Swindon, it was such a relief to finally make it to the Premier League!
The Martin O’Neill era was also great, winning two League Cups in 1996 and 200.
And your lowest point?
Two low points, firstly being relegated to the third tier for the first time in our history, under Ian Holloway. Secondly I thought I had put a curse on Leicester, over the course of two seasons (2003/4 and 2004/5), I only saw two victories out of 30 games! That tested my resolve, especially travelling from Bristol to games by myself!
Are you old enough to have seen Leicester stars of the past – Lineker, Shilton, Banks, McLintock, Ferdinand … I was going to say Robbie Savage, too, How does the present squad compare?
My first ever match was Leicester vs West Ham in 1990, so I missed out on some of the old greats. However Martin O’Neill’s team was a joy to watch, especially with the partnership of Neil Lennon and Muzzy Izzet in midfield. Without a doubt the current squad is the best team in our history in my opinion, if we can keep hold of our players in the summer it could get even better!
Who do you least want to remember ever wore Leicester colours?
Denise Wise: over a game of cards during 2002 pre-season in Finland, Wise broke into Callum Davidson’s room while he was sleeping; punched him in the face and fractured his jaw. Wise was sacked. He then had the audacity to sue Leicester City for unfair dismissal, rest assured the case was thrown out.
Any impressions of Sunderland – the club, the fans, the city and region, Big Sam?
Sunderland is club with an excellent fan base, especially having endured some pretty tough times of late. It’s a pity Big Sam wasn’t at the helm at the start of the season, I’ve no doubt Sunderland would be clear of the relegation battle if this was the case.
Will we survive?
It’s really 50/50 between Sunderland and Norwich.
If Norwich lose to Crystal Palace on Saturday, then the game on the 16th against Norwich will be the decider in my opinion. Although if you beat Leicester on Sunday, it will give you a lot of momentum!
Diving and other forms of cheating: so widespread we may as well stop fretting or still worth trying to eradicate?
You can only eradicate diving if they change the rules across Europe, there is no point changing our laws as we’ll be disadvantaged in European competition.
One step the football authorities could take to improve the lot of ordinary fans?
It’s good that the prices of away tickets have been frozen. However better training and development of our referees would make the game more enjoyable and possibly TV replays. If you gave each manager two opportunities per match to contest a decision, it wouldn’t affect the flow of the game in my opinion.
Will you be at our game? What will be the score?
I won’t be at the game unfortunately as I have a young family in Bristol, I tend to watch games at the King Power. It will be a very tight game, I’m going for a 2-1 win to Leicester.
* Roy Bennett on himself: I’m 40, grew up in Leicester and then attended University in London and have lived in Bristol since 2001. The photo, from when we beat Man Utd last year, shows me with Archie & Max, sons of my friend Simon Gillings, also living in Bristol. I’m the father of two lovely girls (aged four months and three) – I’m hoping to take Eva, who’ll be four in September, to her first game next season – and run my own recruitment business (Thrive Recruitment) specialising in IT and engineering. Leicester supporter since 1990, so seen plenty of ups and downs! You can also find me on twitter @ThriveRoy
Interview: Colin Randall