This interview first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Leicester City matchday programme – 15th April 2017.
Last season saw Jeffrey Schlupp get a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of one of football’s – possibly sport’s – greatest against-all-odds fairytales. Here, the Eagles’ new signing gives us an insight into how the Foxes went from relegation certainties to runaway Premier League champions in just 12 months.
It was the moment when the impossible dream became reality for Jeffrey Schlupp. As the smoke settled from freshly lit fireworks and tickertape fluttered around, Danny Simpson handed the defender the glistening Premier League trophy adorned with blue and gold ribbons. There was no denying it – Leicester City were champions of England.
A capacity crowd awash with a sea of blue roared every one of their history makers as they thrust the silverware high into a joy-filled sky, and Schlupp was no exception. With his winner’s medal hung proudly around his neck, he gripped the silverware and hoisted it above his head, living out his wildest fantasies and changing his life forever.
Nearly a year has passed now. The pyrotechnics have long dissipated into the atmosphere and the streamers swept from theKing Power Stadium turf, but Schlupp’s recollections of that day, and indeed the entire season, will never fade, probably because he is likely be reminded of what transpired every day of his life.
The Foxes had mauled away at the logic of the modern game, upsetting the natural order of the established elite and proving that miracles are still possible. Their almost-audacious achievement transcends sports and continents, handing hope to every fan of every team in all of the lands that one day, they too could have a taste of glory. Therefore, while his recollections of that beautiful day are secure, it is understandable that Schlupp has still yet to fully come to terms with the sheer magnitude of Leicester’s unlikeliest of triumphs.
“I always say it’ll take a few more years for it to really kick in how big an achievement it was, but it was a great honour and I am buzzing to have been a part of that,” he assessed. “The moment I touched the trophy was when I realised what I was actually holding. It was always a dream of mine as a kid to win the Premier League, and when you actually have the trophy in your hands and take a moment to think, it’s crazy. Even now when I look at all the pictures, I still get that feeling – we actually did that.”
Claudio Ranieri, Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and Wes Morgan’s exploits may have claimed most of the limelight during the campaign and its subsequent retellings, however Schlupp more than contributed to the cause. He featured in 24 of their 38 league games, 14 of which were starts with the majority of those coming during the Foxes’ ascension to the league’s summit by the end of November, before a hamstring injury sidelined the Ghana international until February.
In those early months, Schlupp and his fellow group of academy products, journeyman pros and unknown imports were rightly only focussed on one aim: Premier League safety. Every win gained, including a 2-1 success at Norwich City which saw the left-back pop up with the crucial goal, got them ever-closer to their survival target which was remarkably achieved by mid-January.
Pundits, supporters and even Ranieri himself smirked at the sight of the cunning Foxes sneaking their way into pole position, with the Italian’s catchphrases and promises of pizza for clean sheets adding to the silliness of it all. Behind-the-scenes, Schlupp admits the players doubted they could maintain their level of success, and simply savoured what seemed to be a brief moment in the spotlight.
Speaking about the first half of the campaign, he said: “We started the season with the 40-point mark in mind, but we began really well and kept the momentum going. We were just having a good time; we were winning games but kept conceding and that’s when the manager began putting the reward of the pizzas out there if we got a clean sheet, and once we got one we were on fire.
“We knew we just wanted to get to that 40-point mark as soon as possible, and then when we got past that it was focussing on the next thing such as a top-half finish, European football and then the reality of winning the league became very possible.”
Fantasy football became the real deal when second-placed Manchester City were the next to underestimate the Foxes in February, and ended up bitten. A 3-1 away win would force the world to sit up and take the title talk seriously, and the scoffs at seeing Leicester on top of the Premier League in February turned to excitement as the world sensed that something magical might be brewing. It was a feeling that was also quickly becoming evident in the table toppers’ changing room.
“We took each game as it came and while we enjoyed each one, we played to win,” Schlupp continued. “The talk of the title never got too serious but when it got to touching distance we knew how real it was. Around February we really believed that we could go on and do it, and for me the moment it became real was when we played Manchester City away and the boys were unstoppable. From that point, everyone in the league took us seriously and believed we could do it.”
With games running out and Ranieri’s men racking up victories by revealing a champions-elect knack of grinding out vital 1-0 wins, such as the one at Selhurst Park last March, their rivals crumbled. A 12-game unbeaten streak not just saw Leicester win the title, but do so at a canter, forced forward by the will of every other football fan in the country hoping they could be the one in 5,000-1.
That would come without Schlupp even needing to pull on his boots, with their closest challengers Tottenham Hotspur the last to fall on their sword at Chelsea, mathematically confirming sport’s biggest upset. That night, alongside all his teammates, Jamie Vardy was having a party, and it seemed that the whole of the city was invited to celebrate the club’s first ever top-flight triumph.
Schlupp laughs as he recalls that night: “It was crazy! We got there in high spirits but then Tottenham went 2-0 up and we were all there thinking ‘oh no’, but the minute that Chelsea got one we just knew and when Hazard scored the equaliser it just went off; there were probably thousands of fans in the streets outside Vard’s house going absolutely mental! Then everyone got a bit emotional and were on their phones to their families and it was surreal. When we ended up leaving, the streets were full everywhere you went. It was quite unbelievable.”
It was an unbelievable night that befitted an unbelievable season, but Schlupp could probably scarcely believe what would befall the team he had been a part of since 13 this term. The stardust from last year has mainly been sprinkled on the European scene, with Leicester remaining as England’s only representatives in the last eight of the Champions League, but while not expected to challenge for their crown, their league form nosedived.
While today will see Schlupp reunited with now-lifelong friends in his new home of SE25, bonded together by previous triumphs, one man will be conspicuous by his absence but to whom the Ghanaian will be eternity thankful towards.
“Ranieri’s departure was a shock to me,” he admitted. “I hadn’t really spoken to anyone involved there about that situation so I was at home and saw it on the news that Claudio had been sacked. I played in the Champions League for Leicester City which was another dream for me, and I’m forever grateful for the club and Ranieri for allowing me to do that.”
Having crashed against the glass ceiling at his boyhood club, by January Schlupp felt that the time was right to also search for new employment. In a bold move, the German-born man traded in grasping the Premier League trophy firmly in his hands with the Foxes for a club clinging on by their fingertips to stay in it. But as a member of Nigel Pearson’s side who upset the odds to remain in the division by winning seven of their last nine matches – subsequently paving the way for the following season’s success – Schlupp is hoping that history can indeed repeat itself.
Evaluating his move, he said: “Personally it felt like it was time to move on. It was very difficult because it was the only team I’d been at. It’s a very tight-knit group and most people are still there, including the staff that have been there for some years now, so it’s a great group.
“I’ve been in this situation before, but it was worse than this when we pulled off the great escape at Leicester. It’s looking good, but hopefully we can get out of it as soon as possible.”
So does he think that Palace can follow in the Foxes’ footsteps and swap the drop for a title challenge in 12 months’ time? “Of course! Every team will go into the season hoping to challenge for the title now; I think it inspired everyone. Since I’ve come here everyone has asked me about it and it reminds me again of how unbelievable it all was; for a team that’s virtually the favourite to go down and do the complete opposite and win the league gives everyone the hope and belief that they can do it.”
Apparently lightning doesn’t strike twice, but having been a part of one of the world’s greatest sporting stories, you can guarantee that Schlupp is hoping for more moments he will never forget with the Eagles.