It’s become about more than one club’s impossible dream, rather a sport railing against endless greed. So please, just this once, can Leicester City win the title, writes Ewan MacKenna
For some weeks now, the nagging question has been about when to pen this. It had to be after Leicester City proved legitimacy because we’ve had other smaller teams flex in front the mirror mid-season only for the girdle to snap. But of late, as it became clear they were truly in shape, a new worry emerged. In football there’s been anxiety over just thinking, never mind talking out loud, in case of jinxing what would perhaps be the most unlikely title in the sport’s history. And this isn’t merely about one club for as much as Leicester desperately want this, the sport and sport in general desperately needs it.
It can be hard to get excited by sport at present amidst Fifa corruption and athletics doping and rugby’s tragic and terrifying brain injuries. Yet here we are with 13 games to go and Leicester, little Leicester sit five points clear at the top of a league long since destroyed by cash. Of course, little is relevant as the club is owned by Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, a Thai billionaire whose true passion is polo, but given Premier League petro-dollar predictability we’ve been made to suffer, we’ll take it. Besides, just because he has it doesn’t mean he’s spent it as for once this isn’t a football story overtaken by those in the boardroom and by ticket income and corporate boxes and TV deals and transfer fees.
Simply consider the heroes of this tale.
Back in 2006, for instance, when Riyad Mahrez’s father died of a heart condition he began to take his football far more seriously. But still his size was always an issue to the point family and friends warned him against a move the to Championship for £400,000 in 2014 because of the physical nature. Today, he is the Leicester playmaker and fulcrum, and arguably the best player in the entire league this season.
Back in 2007, for instance, Jamie Vardy was on £30 a week with Stocksbridge Park Steels and five years later his career had advanced no further than Fleetwood Town in the Conference. Today he is the highest scorer in the Premier League and a five-time England international.
Back in 2014, for instance, Claudio Ranieri had failed again. What made it all the more painful was he’s one of football’s most likable people but there was no overlooking defeats to Romania, Northern Ireland and a loss at home to the Faroe Islands that saw him sacked by Greece. Today he’s on the cusp of an achievement no manager could claim to have equaled.
As with all such runs, what’s needed here is context to appreciate the true majesty. The feeling since early-season was that the first waves of the new mega-broadcasting deal were lapping against the league. But they’d an unusual effect as rather than Gareth Bale joining Manchester United, you’d Crystal Palace buying Yohan Cabaye, Stoke bringing on board Xherdan Shaqiri, Watford picking up Valeron Behrami and Leicester themselves paying £3m of their summer outlay for Gokhan Inler. But none of those other clubs are challenging the top four, never mind front-running for the title. And while a mediocre season in quality terms has allowed for openings, it should never have been anywhere near enough of an opening for Leicester to squeeze through. What they’ve now done is make probably the worst Premier League potentially the greatest Premier League.
Back in August, they were 5,000-1 and with good reason, having last season clawed their way out of the relegation pit with every keratin strand of fingernail. Today they play Arsenal but just 368 days ago, the club lost to Arsene Wenger’s side and it was a fourth defeat on the bounce as the side were in the middle of a 19-round run where they lay last. Between 27 September and 26 December last season, they picked up two points across 13 games. Indeed a February loss to Crystal Palace saw the ownership forced to deny reports regarding the sacking of then manager Nigel Pearson who was involved in a touchline incident with James McArthur, weeks before calling a journalist “a prick” while talking about the need for “drastically improved form” just to avoid a return to the second tier.
There is a question here though, rather than a caveat, for it would be wrong to talk about Leicester and ignore some mumbling about how they’ve done it. That is not to accuse but nor is it to ignore the thinking of some out there because so many players have gotten so much better, based on a high-energy counter-attacking game where they’re happy to let the opposition have the ball and where a small squad have had the energy to maintain a high tempo long after others have faded. Given how miracles happened in other sports, football should not be above asking and it would be in everyone’s interest for Leicester to be proactive in giving answers.
Let’s hope that happens because it’s the only possible smear on what otherwise has amounted to the unbelievable. This isn’t the 1972 Olympic basketball final or Buster Douglas landing a flurry of punches on Mike Tyson in the 10th or Seamus Darby swinging a left leg in anger and hope. All those events while stunning were mere moments. What Leicester are doing is topping a thorough test laid out to prove who is best with little left to chance. As Martin O’Neill put it of his management of the club, “My team won the odd thing and we never finished outside of the top ten. This side has the potential to emulate and surpass what we achieved but I’d rather draw comparisons with the team I played for. Forest scrambled up in 1977, signed a couple of splendid players and took off. People were saying, ‘It’ll blow up, it’ll blow up,’ but at some point it became obvious that it wouldn’t blow up.”
Forest won both league and league cup that season but even their European Cup triumphs would be overshadowed by this. They played at a time when there was romance and there were upsets, but now? Look for instance at the hundreds of millions Liverpool have thrown away in trying to make up the last few metres. And then look at the £30m Leicester have spent to make up utter miles. That wasn’t supposed to happen in football anymore and it may not happen again – in fact don’t be surprised if next year they are back battling relegation. That’s what makes this all the more important for them and the game, that they go on and win it so we can smile at the sport again.
Printed outside the King Power Stadium in the city is the word ‘fearless’. It’s printed inside the dressing rooms as well and while meant to be about marketing and branding, it’s proven week after week to be so much more. But now Leicester must not let their fear of what could happen make nothing happen for this is a title that would be good for the very fibre of football and beyond.
Sunday Business Post
14 February, 2016