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Youri Tielemans picks up the baton as Leicester’s legends near the finish line

·4 min read

Pick a Leicester player, any Leicester player. Or the manager. Or the owner. Each has a story to tell that could lift the heart, even bring a tear to the eye. The same is true, no doubt, of the 6,250 supporters who travelled in a convoy of 160 coaches to watch their club make history at Wembley on Saturday. And for thousands of others not able to make that trip but who, wherever they were, whooped as joyously as the giddy players did as they lifted a trophy that had been eluding the club for 137 years. The FA Cup does not mean much any more? Leicester say that ain’t so.

“I know how much this means to fans, I’ve been a Leicester fan since I was born,” said Luke Thomas. The 19-year-old defender made his debut in July and scored his first Premier League goal in Tuesday’s win at Manchester United but had never played a senior match in front of spectators until helping Leicester beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final. “If you had asked me a year ago, I’d have said, ‘What are you on about, mate?’”

Related: Leicester’s stirring Cup win reminds English football what matters | Jonathan Wilson

Even Wes Morgan, at 37, found the latest twist in an extraordinary career difficult to credit. The man who captained Leicester to their preposterous title triumph in 2016 spent most of this season in the background, encouraging younger teammates while trying to hold his body together. He had not played since December and did not imagine being included in the squad for the final. But Brendan Rodgers, who has improvised smartly all season in the face of injuries, knew the gnarled centre-back might be needed. Jonny Evans was forced to depart the game early with the injury he had been battling all week and, after Chelsea sent on Olivier Giroud with eight minutes to go, Rodgers turned to Morgan to help his team over the line.

“Did it really happen? I’m just in shock,” said Morgan. “Forty-eight hours before the final I didn’t think this would happen. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make the squad. The gaffer asked me if I could make it on the bench and I said if I’m needed for the last 10 minutes, I’ll be available. The last thing I expected a week ago was to be playing again but I came on and now I’ve won an FA Cup.”

A glorious last hurrah for a stalwart whose contract expires in the summer? “I need to discuss it with the club but I don’t think I’ve got too many more miles on the clock,” said Morgan.

Leicester’s winning goal came courtesy of a player entering his prime, Youri Tielemans, and it ranked immediately as an all-time classic. “We knew what Youri was capable of,” said Morgan. “Sitting on the bench I was thinking, ‘Please just shoot’.”

Related: Bravura Leicester make Wembley erupt in a huge, hot wall of sound | Barney Ronay

The goal encapsulated Tielemans’ qualities: awesome power, impeccably dispensed. He lashed the ball into the one part of the goal the world’s most expensive goalkeeper could not reach. Tielemans does not always hit the ball so hard but is seldom anything other than precise. He is as happy to flick the ball two yards as he is to deposit a long curling pass at the feet of a striker or fire into the net himself.

It all depends on what the situation demands. He has the intelligence to see the best option, the poise and skill to execute it.

And Tielemans works tirelessly. Tracking back, tackling, intercepting. In the Premier League he has played more minutes this season than any other outfield Leicester player, and almost 500 more than any Chelsea midfielder.

Morgan, Jamie Vardy, Kasper Schmeichel and Marc Albrighton are exemplary figureheads for Leicester, each now holding an FA Cup winner’s medal to go with the league title they won with the club. Tielemans is the perfect flagbearer for what Leicester are becoming. He was hardly cheap but the club’s record signing – bought for £40m in 2019 after impressing on loan – represents money well spent, talent cleverly cultivated. Richer clubs may woo him – and others such as Wesley Fofana, Wilfred Ndidi and James Maddison – but Tielemans now knows for sure there is no need to hurry off elsewhere. Players can achieve great things with Rodgers and Leicester.