L for Leicester

SAMUEL L. Jackson is a man of many talents. But one thing he can’t do, it seems, is cure tension in a football team hovering over a relegation precipice.

If you hadn’t already guessed, I’m referring, of course, to Leicester City. Whenever Leicester boss Ian Holloway needs some inspiration, he turns to the co-star of Pulp Fiction.

Holloway has cited Jackson’s 2005 basketball movie Coach Carter as a major influence on him. He played it to his players at Plymouth when he felt they needed a gee-up.

And so when Holloway told the Leicester Mercury this week that he had shown his current team a motivational film to give them a bit of inspiration ahead of today’s Championship match against Colchester, the paper put two and two together.

“It might seem strange that Ollie would see parallels with actor Samuel L Jackson’s performance in the title role – they are not easily mistaken for twins,” wrote reporter Bill Anderson, “but it was the message that impressed him the most.”

(I did wonder if the L in Samuel L. Jackson might stand for Leicester. Apparently, it stands for Leroy.)

It’s one thing dragging a basketball team from the wrong side of California’s tracks up by their laces, though. It’s quite another dragging to safety a team who could win an award for being the most jittery in the Championship.

If the Premier League is where the money and the glamour are, the Championship is where the dreams live. As Stoke are proving – to everyone’s surprise – you are only one good season away from the Premier League, which is where the money, etc, etc.

The Championship is full of teams who were relatively recent top-flight regulars, and who dream of going back there: Charlton, Coventry, Norwich, Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday. It is also full of teams with big ambitions: Wolves, West Brom, Sheffield United, Crystal Palace, QPR. But they can’t all go up, and some of them are in danger of going down.

And that’s where Leicester come in.

When Milan Mandaric took over as the club’s chairman in February last year, he talked of taking them to the Premier League in three seasons. Doable if you’re in the Championship. Not so easy if you’re in League One. Just ask Nottingham Forest and Leeds.

Soon, you may be able to ask Leicester too. Barnsley’s surprise 3-0 win at Watford on Wednesday had left the Foxes in the bottom three. Mandaric has used five managers in his 14 months in charge: Rob Kelly, Nigel Worthington, Martin Allen, Gary Megson and now Holloway. Only Mandaric knows if relegation will create a need for a sixth.

Only one team had anything to play for at the Walkers Stadium today; bottom club Colchester’s relegation was confirmed in midweek. But Leicester managed to create enough tension for both sides.

Foxes legend Alan Birchenall – now a matchday host at the club – made a stirring speech on the pitch before kick-off, insisting: “We are staying in this division!”

And yet Leicester could not have played more nervously if Holloway had prepared his players by showing them the Alien trilogy back-to-back in a darkened room. Passes were overhit, chances were fluffed. DJ Campbell was put clean through, and hit his shot straight against the goalkeeper’s chest. Lee Hendrie and Steve Howard had shots blocked. The first half finished in a hailstorm and the home crowd booed their team off at the break.

Barry Hayles thought he had given Leicester the lead eight minutes into the second half when he headed in David Bell’s left-wing cross, but the flag had gone up for offside. Frustration. Tension. Agony.

The tension got too much for one fan, who was able to run across the pitch unchecked by Leicester’s stewards midway through the second half and wave his season ticket angrily in the general direction of the dug-outs – or was it the directors’ box? Either way, the stewards then sprang into action and ejected him from the ground.

And then Colchester scored.

Johnnie Jackson crossed from the left, Kevin Lisbie – who once scored a hat-trick against Liverpool in his Charlton days – headed in at the far post. Home defeats against Colchester were not part of the Mandaric plan.

Leicester began to fumble and stumble with more urgency, and substitute Matt Fryatt had two chances to equalise; the first a driven shot from a tight angle parried by Dean Gerken, the second a one-on-one he will have nightmares about.

It came five minutes from the end. Fryatt was sent clear with only Gerken to beat. The Walkers Stadium prepared to acclaim the goal… but the shot rolled wide, via a touch from the keeper.

In desperation, Holloway sent centre-back Gareth McAuley on as an emergency striker. And in a mad, mad, mad finish, Iain Hume touched in Hendrie’s flick to score a 90th-minute equaliser, with Colchester appealing in vain for offside.

Even then, Lisbie had a chance to win it for Colchester, but headed over. And so Leicester versus Colchester ended all-square, as it always does. These sides have met four times, and they’ve all been draws. Even though the point was enough to lift Leicester out of the bottom three, they may yet meet again in League One next season.

Afterwards, Holloway played up the disallowed goal and his team’s survival chances, and played down – as much as he could – the one-man pitch invasion.

“All I noticed was the rest of the crowd giving him some stick,” Holloway said. “I understand that people care. If my players didn’t try as hard as they can, I’d be very, very upset.

“He pays his money. If he wants to demonstrate in that way, I’d suggest he walks around the pitch after the game and we’ll have a chat and a coffee.

“But stay off the pitch. Because normally, that leads to a ban, doesn’t it? And I don’t want anybody who cares about Leicester City to be treated like that. But let us just get on with it.”

Leicester get on with it at Barnsley next Saturday. In Coach Carter, the drama goes right to the last game of the season. The same could well happen to Leicester.

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