LEICESTER, England -- They lived the dream, but now comes the nightmare. Seven years after completing the most improbable sporting fairy tale to win the Premier League, Leicester City were relegated to the second-tier EFL Championship on Sunday despite beating West Ham United 2-1 on the final day of the season.
This trajectory from champions to Championship in such a relatively short time period raises questions about how a club still possessing so much individual talent could fall so far. There are no easy answers, though.
The complicated postmortem that now lies ahead was epitomised in the supporters' reaction to confirmation of their fate. Some tried to start up chants against the owners near the end but few followed. The players embarked upon a brief lap of appreciation to a soundtrack of boos and applause, some keen to recognise their efforts while others voiced frustration at a lack of application across the season.
Nobody could realistically blame Leicester manager Dean Smith, who was parachuted in for eight matches following Brendan Rodgers' departure in early April. Sunday's victory -- secured through goals from Harvey Barnes and Wout Faes with only Pablo Fornals replying for the Hammers -- was only their second win in that period. It was arguably their best performance under Smith, but Everton's accompanying 1-0 win over Bournemouth took survival out of their hands.
"Any club that gets relegated, they have to find a way to bounce back," Smith said afterward. "There are plenty of knocks in football, we all know that, week in, week out. It is how you bounce back from it. From what I've seen, with the infrastructure, I see no reason why it can't bounce back."
Leicester won the league in 2016 by 10 points. Back then, Donald Trump was a candidate running to be U.S. president, the United Kingdom was reassessing its relationship with the European Union, and Jurgen Klopp was Liverpool manager. Some things don't change, but in this part of the Midlands it feels like a lifetime ago. In fact, so does Leicester's 2020 FA Cup win when the primary domestic disappointment was dropping out of the Champions League places in the final few weeks.
Now that the grave risk of dropping out of the Premier League altogether has been confirmed, it feels like a cataclysmic blow to a club that announced a record annual loss in March of £92.5 million. That figure was partly explained by a loss of matchday revenue arising from the pandemic impacting stadium attendance -- but it was also a consequence of Leicester's summer business, where they spent £23m on Patson Daka, £17m on Boubakary Soumare from Lille and around £15m on Jannik Vestergaard from Southampton.
The £92.5m shortfall is a figure that does not include the £75m that Leicester banked by allowing Wesley Fofana to join Chelsea, a deal that weakened Leicester's defence to an extent that may go some way to explaining the relegation scrap they subsequently found themselves in.
But a huge summer of change awaits. Youri Tielemans, Ayoze Perez, Caglar Soyuncu, Nampalys Mendy, Daniel Amartey, Jonny Evans, Ryan Bertrand and Tete are all out of contract at the end of the season. Those eight players cost £101m to bring in.
Smith refused to be drawn on whether he will be part of the rebuild as Leicester being planning for a season in English football's second tier for the first time since 2014.
"We didn't speak about anything beyond eight games," he said. "I will speak to [Leicester chairman Khun] Top [Srivaddhanaprabha], who I have a lot of respect for, over the next couple of days and commiserate with him. The time and effort that he puts into this football club is there for all to see. Ultimately, I'm not even thinking about my future at the moment."
Barnes, James Maddison and Kelechi Iheanacho will be three other players in demand this summer, and that attacking trio ultimately made the difference on Sunday. Barnes and Iheanacho combined superbly for Barnes to fire in a 34th-minute opener before Faes headed in a second on 62 minutes. However, by that stage Everton were winning and the victory Leicester were edging towards felt profoundly hollow.
"You're going down" and "Say hello to Millwall" were among the gleeful chants from West Ham fans who had already begun the party ahead of their Europa Conference League final against Fiorentina on June 7. They were largely indifferent to an underwhelming performance where Leicester looked more potent in attack, except for Fornals' 78th-minute strike steered inside Daniel Iversen's near post.
Barnes, Maddison and the rest have been unable to deliver these performances on a consistent basis, but it was at the back where their problems have arguably been more prominent. Leicester end the season with 51 goals scored, the highest of any team in the bottom half but conceding 68, a figure higher than all but the two teams below them, Leeds (78) and Southampton (73).
The full-time wait was agony for Leicester. As Everton and Bournemouth played out 10 minutes of added time, the players awaited news from Goodison Park. In the crowd, where ghost goals were celebrated more than once, radios were held nervously to ears while others left the stadium resigned to their fate a few minutes before it was confirmed.
Leicester redefined what was possible for a midsize English club in 2016. Now they must reinvent themselves to return to the Premier League.