Thursday 23 November 2017

Cup finals, tournaments and one-off games can provide occasional outlandish upsets . . . but this was different

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri kisses the trophy as he celebrates winning the Barclays Premier League. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters
Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri kisses the trophy as he celebrates winning the Barclays Premier League. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

Eamonn Sweeney

Ni fheicimid a leitheid aris ann. Our kids and grandkids won't see anything in sport like Leicester City's Premier League victory. Our fathers and grandfathers saw nothing like it either. Because what Leicester have just done is achieve the most surprising result in the history of sport. That's how big it is. That's how unlikely it was.

How best to capture the sheer improbability of all? Well, at the start of the season Leicester were 5,000/1 to win the title. That's the same price you can get on Carlow or Waterford winning this year's All-Ireland football title. The odds seem about right. It's the price the bookies put on something which they know can never happen. It's the going rate for the impossible.

No one predicted a Leicester title because no one could have. Even the greatest chancers in Ireland won't be trying the, "Do you know, didn't I say to someone back in August, Leicester are going win the league," number.

Take all the biggest upsets, Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson, Greece winning the 2004 European Championships, Japan beating South Africa, Sunderland beating Leeds in the 1973 FA Cup final, put them all together and you'll still come up short of Leicester's miracle on grass. Cup finals, tournaments and one off games lend themselves to an occasional outlandish upset but Leicester worked their magic over the long unforgiving course of a season.

They did it in a competition which had supposedly been shockproofed by the enormous financial disparity between the top clubs and the rest. It was quite something for Nottingham Forest to come up from the old second division and win the top flight in the 1977-78 season but that was a more democratic time. The gap between top and bottom has grown exponentially in recent years to such an extent that managers can earn big reputations merely by keeping an unfashionable club in the top half of the table.

Even as Leicester closed in on the title it seemed impossible that they'd actually go all the way. The majority of punters who had, for whatever bizarre reason, stuck a few quid on the Foxes availed of the opportunity to cash out even when City were several points clear with just a few games left. The dream surely had to end sometime.

It didn't. And we've become so used to the sight of Leicester at the top of the table that it's hard to recapture how outlandish their tilt at the title felt when it first materialised. At the start it was lost amid the fuss over Jamie Vardy and his record-breaking Premier League goal run. Leicester seemed like a one-man team, it would certainly have taken a knowledgeable fan to name the other 10 members of their starting 11.

Then we discovered Riyad Mahrez and Leicester rose to being regarded as a two-man team. Next we noticed the emergence of N'Golo Kante as one of the league's outstanding midfielders. After that there was a new star to notice every week. Bit by bit the identikit was being added to until it revealed a team that looked like champions. After a decade and a half of relative anonymity, all but two seasons of it spent outside the Premier League, Wes Morgan became everyone's favourite centre-back. Everyone's second favourite was the guy beside him, Robert Huth.

There was the story of Danny Drinkwater, a Manchester United reject and serial loanee who grew in confidence and stature until he made it into the England team. Of Kasper Schmeichel, the very model of a player destined to be told he's not a patch on the old man, suddenly carving out his own identity, his season with Notts County in League Two seeming an eternity rather than half a dozen years ago. And in every game the calming consistent excellence of Christian Fuchs at right-back .

By the end even the bench was getting in on the act, Leonardo Ulloa taking on the mantle of leader when Vardy was suspended and teenager Demarai Gray contributing some thrilling cameos.

Once Leicester hit the front they kept their form till the finish. It's often said that for an outsider to triumph they need everything to go right. But everything didn't go right for Leicester, 1-0 up in the top of the table clash at Arsenal on February 14, they were hit by a red card for Danny Simpson which forced them into a desperate rearguard action. They deserved to hold out but instead lost to a Danny Welbeck goal in the fifth minute of injury-time.

It was a denouement which seemed to presage a turning point, a 'how important will that goal be at the end of the season' moment. It turned out not to be important at all. Leicester didn't lose again, going on the run of seven wins and three draws which gave them the title. Arsenal, like everyone else, faded away.

Perhaps Leicester's moment of maximum danger came on April 14 when, with Spurs surging after them, they ran into West Ham United and referee Jonathan Moss. It was a 'one of those days' day, one where Vardy was sent off and the Hammers awarded a dubious penalty. Yet City stuck to their task and this time it was they who scored in the fifth minute of injury-time, Ulloa slotting home the penalty which rescued a point and might have been the most important goal of their season.

In the end Spurs wilted under the pressure while Leicester thrived on it. By the final games of their run-in they were playing with the assurance of a team who believed they were worthy champions. They were right.

The bookies have Leicester at 33/1 to win next year's title. Claudio Ranieri says their target will be make the top half. Guardiola will be at Manchester City. Conte at Chelsea, probably Mourinho at Manchester United while Klopp will have a Liverpool built in his image. The 2015-16 season will stand as a glorious anomaly, the greatest one-off in sporting history.

We really will never see the like of it again. But weren't we lucky to see it once?

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