LEICESTER -- By the time the final whistle blew at the King Power, the hosts had had several minutes to consider the abyss they must now journey into. As the chants of "say hello to Millwall" grew ever more boisterous from the West Ham supporters, reality crushed them. Wout Faes grasped that immaculate afro in bafflement. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall covered his face with his shirt, unable to catch the eye of Leicester supporters who didn't know whether to boo or express their undying love for a team that had fallen so far short of their collective standards this season.
Leicester City had done everything they could on the final day and nowhere near enough on the 37 that proceeded it. This 2-1 win over West Ham United was a futile end point to nine years in the Premier League that has brought this city glory it could never have imagined. Given the choice, surely every supporter would accept a day like today if it came along with the wonders of European nights, FA Cup glory and that unforgettable spring of 2016, the greatest tale in English football history.
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But then they never should have had to make that swap. This Leicester team may be a fair few steps down from their best vintages, the champions of 2016 and the side that Brendan Rodgers took to the brink of the Champions League twice. It may have suffered with injuries to foundational players. It might have had the goal difference (expected and actual) of a lower midtable team. But as Harvey Barnes, James Maddison and Youri Tielemans cut ribbons through West Ham in the first half, you found yourself baffled as to how this team had got anywhere near a position where their fate was out of their hands on the final day.
Doubtless, it did not aid their cause that they sacked their manager without a clear upgrade waiting in the wings. Dean Smith acknowledged that in getting nine points rather than his target of 11 in the eight matches he was in charge of he had "failed." That they share with the other two sides who will join them in next season's Championship. Jesse Marsch might not have been Leeds' answer but neither were Javi Gracia and Sam Allardyce. Southampton's flirtations with Nathan Jones, perhaps the worst manager in Premier League history, doomed them to the drop.
"It's a massive disappointment for everybody that it has come to this," said Smith, who offered no hint that he realistically expects his tenure to run into next season. "I can only really look at my seven weeks, eight games here and I always felt coming in it was going to be tough. I said before that I felt the confidence and belief were low.
"In that regard [getting only nine points] I've failed. In terms of confidence and belief we got that but we left a couple of points out there."
This is only the beginning of the pain. The agony would have been so much more profound for Everton, 1-0 victors against Bournemouth to make academic events at the King Power, who have a 53,000-seater stadium to fund for 2024, but these are bound to be trying times for the three who finished below them. Southampton at least have a host of sellable assets, the youngsters they gambled would be good enough to keep them up in the first place, but the other two face profound concerns. What does the ownership structure of Leeds look like in the Championship with 49ers Enterprises having wanted a top flight club?
Leicester, meanwhile, had already felt the financial damage wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic more profoundly than most. The Srivaddhanaprabha family that built its fortune in Thai duty free outlets are beloved here for the financial support they have offered to Leicester supporters. In February Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha paid off £194 million of debt to the King Power parent company. However, this is not a club with the underlying finances to simply weather a season or two in the lower tiers. Their most recent results for the 2021-22 season, one in which fans returned and they reached the semifinals of the Europa Conference League, revealed a £92.5m pre-tax loss, by far the biggest in the club's history. Their wage bill trickled down last summer but it still ranks highly in Premier League terms before seven first team players come off it at the end of next month.
Parachute payments that are expected to be worth in excess of £45m will cushion the financial blow and on today's evidence there are plenty of players who can fetch a tidy price even with Leicester under pressure to sell. In what will surely be their last dance in Leicester shirts, Youri Tielemans and James Maddison glided across the pitch, fizzing the ball into the most dangerous spots with precision and pace. Rushing onwards was Harvey Barnes, whose 13 goals this season ought to have propelled him into the thinking of some of England's wealthiest sides.
His opener today was a mark of top tier quality. Drifting infield off the left, He fizzed a pass to the feet of Kelechi Iheanacho, ever improving as this contest went on, the ball back to him finding Flynn Downes flat footed, only able to throw a despairing arm back in the vague direction of his man. The angle was tight but Barnes was precision personified, opening his body up to roll the ball under Lukasz Fabianski. The bedlam that followed could scarcely have contrasted more vividly with the fashion in which the second, Faes' flicked header off a Tielemans free kick, was toasted. The muscle memory of a cheer went up for a moment before the realisation set in that everything happening here from now onwards was functionally irrelevant unless events changed at Goodison Park, where Abdoulaye Doucoure's bolt from the blue had burst the Leicester bubble.
There may be few worse fanbases to have in the away end for your own personal hell scape than West Ham's, who seemed to celebrate Pablo Fornals' late strike with less vigour than they did the woes of Leicester. "You're going down, we're going Prague". They know as well as anyone the pain of going down with a team that is too good to be anywhere near the bottom three. That team bounced back within two years. Leicester are eminently capable of that, certainly more so than the other relegated sides, as Smith noted.
"The raw materials this club has are of an elite club," said a head coach who now has relegations with Norwich last season and Leicester this on his CV. "It feels raw now, it hurts and everyone will be devastated but with the infrastructure it's got it will bounce back. There have been plenty [of clubs] over time who've had knocks. Your job is to improve on the things that you felt let you down. I have no doubts the club will."
They could sell off Maddison, Barnes and the all too often injured James Justin, allow the likes of Tielemans and Jonny Evans to walk, and still have a rump of players that are good enough to compete in the second tier. Get the manager right and Leicester might even find their sojourn in the second tier to be rather invigorating, as Vincent Kompany and Burnley can attest.
For some a year of sweeping the Championship board might even be preferable to scrapping away for top flight survival. Leicester, though, have spent nine years in a waking dream. Tomorrow morning is going to feel grim indeed.