(CNN)It’s the fairytale that has gripped the imagination of millions around the world — and like all good fairytales this one had a happy ending.
Unheralded English soccer team Leicester City, dismissed as non-starters to win the league this season — indeed the club was tipped for relegation — was crowned champion after nearest rival Tottenham failed to beat Chelsea Monday.
As recently as seven years ago, Leicester — pronounced “Lester” — was relegated to English football’s third tier and the idea of even playing in the Premier League was a distant dream.
In August, just weeks after Leicester had escaped demotion from the Premier League where it had spent most of the year 20th out of 20, you would have got better odds on Kim Kardashian becoming president of the U.S. by 2020.
Or to put it in a sporting context, the Cleveland Browns — 200-1 to win the 2017 Super Bowl — have the worst odds going in the NFL. Although, unlike Leicester, it had previously won an NFL title in 1964.
So just what was the secret to the Foxes’ remarkable success?
Leicester’s preferred starting XI cost just $32 million, which must make accountants of the Premier League’s biggest clubs who have spent millions on star players green with envy.
The much-heralded signings of Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante and Jamie Vardy, all of who made the PFA Team of the Year, for relatively small transfer fees have been key to the team’s relentlessly consistent performances on the pitch.
Head of scouting Steve Walsh, also one of manager Claudio Ranieri’s three assistants, deserves much of the praise for those signings.
So the story goes, Walsh went to France to watch Ryan Mendes — now at Nottingham Forest in England’s second tier — and, instead, came back with Mahrez for the paltry fee of $520,000.
The Algerian could be reportedly worth around $51 million — almost 100 times more than Leicester paid for his services.
Ranieri also took some convincing to sign talisman Kante, before persistent pressure from Walsh eventually persuaded the club to part with $8.2 million for the Frenchman.
In contrast, Louis van Gaal has spent $416 million in his two years as Manchester United manager with very little success.
Dubbed “The Tinkerman” for the way he would frequently alter his starting team, manager Claudio Ranieri has overseen a drastic transformation in his side’s fortunes over the course of the season.
While the likes of Vardy and Mahrez had no issues scoring, it was the defense that most concerned Ranieri as his team failed to keep a clean sheet until late October.
“Before every game, I said, ‘Come on boys, come on. Clean sheet today.’ No clean sheet,” Ranieri said at the time.
“I tried every motivation. So finally, before the game against Crystal Palace, I said: ‘Come on boys, come on. I offer you a pizza if you get a clean sheet.’
“Of course, my players made a clean sheet against Crystal Palace (October 24). One-nil.”
Ranieri kept his word, taking his players to a local restaurant where they made and ate their own pizzas.
The Italian’s “Tinkerman” nickname has also become redundant — the 64-year-old has used the fewest players of any manager in the Premier League.
There is often a moment on which a team’s season hinges; for Leicester there were several.
Defender Robert Huth’s late header in a 1-0 win against Tottenham, which would go on to be Leicester’s closest rival, at White Hart Lane in January now looks pivotal.
Then, in February, came Leicester’s swashbuckling disposal of Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, with Mahrez displaying all his trademark stepovers, feints and flicks in a 3-1 victory.
A 2-1 defeat against Arsenal just days later was meant to spell the end of Leicester’s dominance but they refused to crack under the mounting pressure, most notably in April’s home game against West Ham.
Having surrendered a one-goal lead, Leicester was 2-1 down and down to 10 men going into the final minute. The Foxes were awarded a penalty in the dying seconds, which Leonardo Ulloa dispatched with confidence to send Leicester’s King Power Stadium into raptures.
It was a draw that felt like a win.
Big teams’ inconsistency
This was meant to be Arsenal’s year.
Manchester City and United had both fallen short until, at the turn of the year, it appeared as though the Premier League title race would be between Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and Ranieri.
Surely, after snatching a last-gasp winner against Leicester at the Emirates, the momentum was with Arsenal and it would go on to win a first Premier League trophy since 2004.
The subsequent run of results from each team epitomized the difference between Arsenal’s fragile mentality and Leicester’s never-say-die tenacity.
In the next seven matches, the Foxes would go on to record 19 points out of a possible 21, while Arsenal picked up only nine.
Smells like team spirit
“Of all the factors, the most imperative has been the team spirit,” former Leicester defender Matt Elliott told CNN.
“The players don’t talk about themselves. It’s a collective effort — ‘we’ve got the spirit and the will to win.'”
The crux of this team is formed of players who were previously deemed not good enough for the Premier League.
Marc Albrighton, released by recently relegated Aston Villa at the end of last season, has gone on to make the joint-highest appearances of any Leicester player this season.
Mahrez alludes to this togetherness, potentially born out of rejection, as “the revenge of the barefooted men.”
“I like that image,” the 25-year-old told French newspaper L’Equipe. “We were not programmed to become professional footballers.
“I think we live our lives with a certain form of indifference. With N’Golo, I laugh about it. Our story is impossible, even if nothing is yet done.”
Then there are the Thai monks who, some believe, have given Leicester a spiritual edge over its opponents.
In Thailand, the home of Leicester’s billionaire owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, regular blessings of the Leicester pitch, the spreading of good karma and an “unbeatable fabric” have all been touted as reasons behind the club’s success.