Monday 20 November 2017

Leicester City champions: A tale of the unexpected that touches us all - and gives hope to the little guy

Jamie Vardy celebrates after scoring against Sunderland last month. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

Manchester 15, London seven, Blackburn one. And now, Leicester - one. For the first time since Jack Walker's Lancastrians held the Premier League title 21 years ago, the championship sits outside the great metropolises and the huge corporations who have come to dominate the English game.

It sits in an East Midlands city that feels more like a town, where people appear actually to know each other, instead of just rushing past one another; where a civic sense is visible and where no sense of entitlement is detectable around a club who had never before found themselves top of the whole round-ball heap.

If Leicester can do it, so can everyone. This is the lesson, the reason the whole country feels inspired by the coronation of Claudio Ranieri's team.

Leicester winning the league is the universal triumph, uniting every level of the game and restoring elements in sport beyond new money. Team spirit, self-improvement, underdog positivity.

In an part of the world best known for Martin Johnson, England's World Cup-winning rugby captain, and David Gower, one of the country's most graceful batsmen (and of course Gary Lineker, the city's most famous son) a club whose previous best was runners-up in 1928-29 now look down on the teams who farmed 22 of the 23 previous Premier League titles: Manchester United (with 13), Chelsea (four), Arsenal (three) and Manchester City (two).

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri with Shinji Okazaki. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

If 1992-93 was Year Zero for the new corporate game, there is no doubting that Leicester's win is the greatest individual football story of the Premier League age, brilliantly marshalled by Ranieri, last seen being sacked by Greece for losing at home to the Faroe Islands.

Collectively, United's 13 titles in 21 years is a body of work without compare. Arsenal's Invincibles also left a major landmark. But Leicester's tale is freakishly melodramatic. It was never thought possible for a team to be bottom of the Premier League in April 2015 and top in April 2016.

Sure, the old heavyweights have stagnated or regressed. But Leicester have not simply capitalised on the weakness of others. Only their club crest is wrong. Foxes are hunted; Leicester are the hunters, galloping and tooting their horn across England.

Pre-1993, the obvious yardstick is the Nottingham Forest team who won the 1977-78 title and the European Cups of 1979 and 1980. For many, the European highs of Brian Clough's masterwork elevate that other East Midlands miracle above the one at Leicester. For people in that region of England, a satisfying golden triangle can be drawn from Nottingham to Derby (champions in 1972 and 1975) and now to the club who started life in 1884 as Leicester Fosse.

The greatest sports upset story ever? Maybe the best policy is to judge it in context, in a league where Leicester have had to barge past hugely wealthy, entrenched rivals who compete financially not with them but with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. In a season to gladden the heart, Leicester have cleared every obstacle on the path from bottom to top.

P8 Real boost.jpg
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo

Throughout the Premier League era, the title race has been a cartel, interrupted only briefly by Walker's money. It has been a high-stakes game for oligarchs, middle-eastern potentates and American speculators, encompassing some of the megastars of world football: Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Aguero.

Until Leicester marched from a relegation battle to a title challenge inside 12 months (with rich Thai owners, admittedly), the expectation was that the Premier League would always be selling a small platinum club of names to a global audience.

Nobody ever expected the front-of-shop goods to be Leicester City. Nobody could imagine a club whose biggest treasures were the League Cup wins of 1964, 1997 and 2000 sweeping past the Premier League plutocracy in a 32,000-seat ground that is now home to two Manchester United discards, a tattoo parlour-owning, old school stopper, bargain buys from the French provinces and a striker who was playing for Fleetwood Town four years ago.

This is hard to overstate. In this upside-down campaign, the Premier League finds itself selling the very opposite of what it has been hawking around the world for 23 years.

Now, Goliath is laid out and David is punching the air in the English shires. Forget what we told you. The Premier League is not Thatcherism in boots. It is a meritocracy in which television money gushes down so fast that a Riyad Mahrez or N'Golo Kante can hope to fulfil his dreams in the ethnic melting pot of Leicester as much as the city-states of London or Manchester.

Jamie Vardy celebrates after scoring against Sunderland last month. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

And yet Leicester have become cosmopolitan, too. Asian interest in the club is high and the world has sent its media to explore the miracle. After the 4-0 win over Swansea, a group of Thai visitors with Harrods bags took turns posing for pictures beside Vardy's Bentley Continental. To their left, a South American news crew rattled off a bulletin. Working on an essay on Leicester's ascent, the same day, was Wright Thompson, the American sportswriter who recently filed such an insightful piece on Tiger Woods.

To push the Dirty Dozen image with Leicester's starting XI would be to extend poetic licence too far. This is one of the best-constructed sides in Premier League history. It balances the counter-attacking speed and cunning of Vardy with the rugged negation of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth.

It blends the beautifully synchronised deep midfield partnership of Danny Drinkwater and Kante with the artistry and hard-running of Mahrez, Marc Albrighton and Shinji Okazaki. No less, it draws on the positional intelligence and zest of the two full-backs, Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs. Not forgetting Kasper Schmeichel, impermeable and implacable between the posts.

There should be a word, too, for the understudies, who all know their jobs and add to the work already done by those picked ahead of them. Chiefly, Leonardo Ulloa (striker), Andy King (midfielder), Jeffrey Schlupp (left-sided powerhouse) and Demarai Gray, a highly promising young winger.

This is a team with a level of harmony even the Buddhist monks who frequently bless them would envy. Leicester are a machine set up with the ideal blend of left and right, pace and power, attack and defence. Running through it all is a band-of-brother ethos that has led each player to see that his own best route to success is through the collective effort so well orchestrated by Ranieri, with his heat-deflecting funny-Italian routine, which seems part genuine, part strategic.

Coincidentally, there is an Indian restaurant in Leicester called Masalas that surprised itself by winning a national takeaway curry award 12 months after launching. People rang from Leeds, Sheffield and Oxford to book a table. The post-award deluge of orders was so great that the owners had to pull the phone line out of the wall for a while to clear the backlog.

As with Masalas, so with Leicester City. Overnight glory for a wonderful 'product'. In the broadest terms, leaving aside Leicester's city status, the English title has travelled back to the towns, the shires and villages of England. It has escaped London and Manchester. We can all touch it, and it touches us all.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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