Leicester City. Earlier in the season, during their improbable run to the top of the table, they were – in sheer footballing terms, never mind what else they stand for – inspirational. Like when Riyad Mahrez (playing in Ligue II two years ago) did this to the plutocrat-funded EPL champions:
Or when Jamie Vardy (hero of Halifax and Fleetwood in his mid-twenties) stuck this belter (goal of the season?) on five-times-European-champions Liverpool:
Just two examples.
Declaration of interest: I am a neutral, a lapsed (hooliganism in the ’80s, not serial failure) Leeds fan. But how could anyone not want an unfancied team that play like Leicester to win the title?
Of course, it could never happen. Money in top-level football is a relative thing (after all, Leicester themselves are backed by the owner of the Thai duty-free monopoly, hardly a pauper), but the golden sacks of the big four will win out come May. The natural order: just like the free market, trickle-down economics and free-trade agreements, all that stuff we’ve been schooled to since Maggie won in ’79. Forget what you knew in the ’60s and ’70s; no first-timers had been champions since Brian Clough’s Forest, straight off the back of promotion, in 1978. But Clough was a certified genius fit for the movies, right? And that was in the days before squad rotation; that was almost black-and-white TV.
Of course, you could argue, here are Leicester, just like the teams of 40 and 50 years ago, turning out (and winning) the same way every week: Schmeichel; Simpson, Morgan, Huth, Fuchs; Mahrez, Drinkwater, Kanté, Albrighton; Okazaki, Vardy. Something about team spirit and discipline, maybe? Well, that helps of course; but it must be a blip, without the big money to back it.
Clever, plucky little Leicester. So entertaining while it lasts.
And then, about a month ago, it began to look serious. Top of the table in February? Here’s a challenge the big boys – Arsenal’s turn this time – will surely pass, and Leicester will fail. But instead Leicester changed their game; they stopped being routinely impressive, and instead clung to it. Vardy stopped scoring, Mahrez virtually disappeared, but they kept grinding it out: 1-0, 1-0, 1-0. It was beginning to look like they knew what they needed to do to win. Last week they kicked off against Southampton five points clear, and were outplayed for large stretches of the game. Mahrez looked tired, Vardy went missing; Southampton could – maybe should – have had two penalties. But the central defence of Morgan and the “ever-growing Huth” (as a commentator called him yesterday) were right on the spot when it mattered. Leicester rode the luck of potential champions, and all it took, in 90 minutes, was one perfect cross and one spectacular header:
Yesterday at relegation-threatened Sunderland, the unbelievable seemed, once again, unbelievable. Kanté was functional as always, but Vardy was driven wide and Mahrez hardly there; even when he woke up in the second half, he kept losing the ball. Drinkwater was trying to pick up the attacking slack; but, let’s face it, he’s not a striker. Sunderland outplayed them at times; survival, again, was down to Morgan, Huth and Schmeichel. Well into the second half, here comes a draw – or even, breathe it, a 1-0 loss. They could still win the title that way.
And then this happens:
So it became another 1-0, clinging in there for the last 20. Except that right at the end, after lots of messing around by the corner flags, lightning struck twice:
If you’re not a Spurs fan, how can you argue with that?
But for all of that class, the moment that illustrates why they deserve to be champions came in the 78th minute, with Sunderland attacking. A cross came in, and the Sunderland striker on the end fluffed it. Any self-respecting multi-million asshole from the big teams (why am I visualizing Diego Costa?) might have stuck it in the loser’s face for psychological advantage; but instead the Leicester defender (I didn’t spot which) patted him on the back, as if to commiserate: “I’ve been where you are, and I feel it. You may be playing a division lower next season, but I will be there with you, because that’s where I came from. You dream, so do I, and we both give all we have; we’re footballers. But in terms of success, that guarantees nothing. And maybe in a few years – months, even – our positions will be reversed.”
Can Leicester really do it? It’s still not guaranteed. Claudio Ranieri, who used to be styled the tinkerman (he seems to have got over that), could also be called the nearly man: he has been second with Chelsea, Juventus, Roma and Monaco, but never won. There are still four teams in with a mathematical chance, of whom Tottenham, the other underdogs, are (pleasingly) the most likely. Leicester still have to win three of five, or win two and draw three; that’s not easy. It has often been pointed out that for them even to have come this far is a triumph, but that no longer seems enough, at least for those not affiliated to a big-money club: by mid-April, they’ve been doing it so well for so long that it will really only satisfy if they go the whole way.
Now if only Bernie, on a more important scale, can pull the same honest trick in 2016…