N’Golo Kanté looked to greener grass at Chelsea, Riyad Mahrez remains the subject of interest from bigger fishes and the club’s head of recruitment, Steve Walsh, who was integral in bringing both players to the club, is close to joining Everton as their director of football. Ranieri is adamant that Mahrez will stay but Walsh’s future at the club is anything but clear.
Walsh works as one of Leicester’s assistant coaches to Ranieri, the others being Craig Shakespeare and Paolo Benetti, but is also the club’s head of recruitment. Walsh, a former PE teacher, worked during Nigel Pearson’s reign after spells at Chelsea and Newcastle. Walsh was key to plucking Mahrez from Le Havre, Kanté from Caen and bringing Vardy to Leicester from Fleetwood Town. He also rediscovered rough diamonds in the shape of the former Manchester United pair Danny Simpson and Danny Drinkwater, as well as Robert Huth and Marc Albrighton.
Asked whether Walsh would join Kanté in heading for the exit at the King Power Stadium, Ranieri gave little away and said he will first hold talks with the club’s directors. “I don’t know because I am focused on this match and first I must speak with the sporting director,” he said. “Only Kanté wanted to go – that’s OK. But I understood him, he came from a little team in France and had a fantastic season. I said to him stay with us and have another year with us but he wanted to go.” Ranieri was unequivocal on the state of play surrounding Mahrez, though.
“Everybody here is happy and, yes, he wants to stay. No other players will go away – we will stay together,” said Ranieri. “The football continues without Riyad or without Kanté but Riyad will stay with us for all of the years. It’s important to maintain the group, with the spirit, with the humility – that’s important for me.”
Walsh’s former understudy and head of technical scouting, Ben Wrigglesworth, joined Arsenal in January while Rob MacKenzie was installed as Tottenham’s head of talent identification in February. Despite his calm, Ranieri must indeed wonder who is next?
Walsh was not in attendance on Tuesday night at Oxford United, where the club began their pre-season preparations. A little over 12 months ago Ranieri’s appointment as Leicester manager was under scrutiny from every angle. On arrival at Oxford, for the champions’ first pre-season match since lifting the Premier League trophy in May, the Italian battled his way past cameramen, signing autographs for a throng of eager supporters and smiling for selfies. And Ranieri, who masterminded Leicester to glory against all odds, started this season’s assignment by naming Mahrez, who was last off the team coach, in the starting XI.
Nampalys Mendy, widely regarded as Kanté’s replacement, was absent along with Albrighton because of minor knocks. Vardy and Andy King were also missing because of extended holiday due to their involvement at Euro 2016 this summer.
Leicester started last pre-season at Sincil Bank, beating Lincoln City on Ranieri’s return to English soil. Six of the side that played that day started here. In many ways Oxford must have felt similar, barring the three stands and car park to the west of the Kassam Stadium. They, too, had a season to remember, winning promotion from League Two. It was, though, a far cry from the jubilant scenes on the final day of the season, which rattled the foundations of Stamford Bridge.
It was Gary Lineker, though, armed with the Premier League trophy, who brought about the loudest applause before a ball had even been kicked. Lineker paraded the silverware around the centre circle before shaking the hand of every Leicester player in the starting XI.
The England Under-21 winger Demarai Gray, who mainly featured from the substitutes’ bench last season, was excellent and on this evidence Leicester can look closer to home should they need to replace Mahrez. Gray, who can operate on either flank, is a defender’s worst nightmare: blessed with raw pace, trickery and movement. Gray, who agreed a £3.75m move last summer from Birmingham City after rejecting Bournemouth, is just another of many players lured to the club by Walsh. And Jeffrey Schlupp, who replaced Mahrez at the break, ensured this season started in winning fashion.
These remain heady days for Leicester, whose remaining pre-season calendar includes trips to Stockholm and California, to play Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain respectively in the International Champions Cup. First, though, it is to Glasgow where they will face Celtic.
“It’s important now to make a very good pre-season and we have some very good international matches where we can get some good experience,” said Ranieri, mindful of the club’s first Champions League foray to come in September.
And so, to the good news? Leicester announced that the club captain, Wes Morgan, has signed a new contract extension until 2019.
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