Sunday 25 March 2018

Leicester fairytale is just a smash and grab, not a change to the status quo

Leicester City's Wes Morgan and manager Claudio Ranieri lift the trophy as they celebrate winning the Barclays Premier League. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters
Leicester City's Wes Morgan and manager Claudio Ranieri lift the trophy as they celebrate winning the Barclays Premier League. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

Tommy Conlon: The Couch

If every fairytale has a dark side, then the Leicester City fable is no different. They have taken on the might of the establishment and they have beaten it, but they haven't changed it and arguably they haven't even challenged it.

In fact, they may even have reinforced the entrenched status quo by proving it can be beaten - and if it can be beaten then why would it need to be changed?

The downside of Leicester's unprecedented achievement is that it offers the illusion of democracy. Their success becomes the fig leaf that conceals the profound inequality of the Premier League. They have unwittingly done a valuable service for the mega-wealthy clubs at the top who dominate England's football economy like a cartel.

While everyone revels in the romance of their story, there is less pressure on football's ruling bodies to engineer a fairer playing field for all the contenders. After all, what could be more egalitarian than a club like Leicester City winning the Premier League? They've given hope and inspiration to all the other also-rans: they too can "dream" of similar glories, "it can be done".

It is a seductive proposition. But it can only be done on the terms that are currently on offer. The problem with other clubs being inspired by Leicester is that they'll never question why they should have to compete under these conditions in the first place. It is the illusion of hope that perpetually postpones reform.

In 10 years' time Leicester's achievement, in all likelihood, will be seen not as a fundamental change to the established order but a guerrilla raid, a one-season wonder. They spotted a crack in the complex security system and made off with the spoils before the citadel could shut down and catch them in the act. It was a heist on the casino, an orchestrated coup at the blackjack tables that becomes the stuff of legend because it happens so seldom.

But the eternal rule is that the House always wins; in the long run, the House always wins.

So, having reviewed their security systems, beefed up their personnel and flexed their financial muscle, the Premier League cartel will re-arraign its awesome artillery on the playing fields to erase any scintilla of another threat to its hegemony.

This here is not some ideological argument for a sort of sporting utopia. Sport at its essence is anti-socialist. It is a strict meritocracy; there cannot be medals for everyone.

But in any race, there should be a chance for everyone. This is a fundamental principle for any sports fan: every contender should have a fighting chance. There is a hunger for fairness and an empathy with the underdog. And money grotesquely distorts the meritocratic principle.

Forty-seven clubs have competed in the Premier League since its inception in 1992/'93. Six clubs, including Leicester, have won the PL title.

In America since '92/'93, 13 clubs have won gridiron's NFL title; nine clubs have won basketball's NBA championship; 12 clubs have won baseball's MLB title. And no one would mistake American sport as a socialist experiment.

But they understand the importance of open competition. Financial monopolies are bad for sport. They lead to trophy monopolies. It is not healthy to have swathes of one's fanbase feeling disenfranchised before a ball is thrown at the start of every season. It is not just a form of sporting exclusion; it is a form of societal exclusion too.

To repeat: six out of 47 clubs have won the Premier League in the 23 years of its existence. The Leicester story will last forever. It will become one of the great romantic tales of the sporting universe. Dozens of writers have since sought to unearth the essence that made it happen, the core secret that made it possible. The core secret is probably not to be found in the nuts and bolts of formations and tactics but in the mysterious chemistry that binds people together.

Perhaps their survival story, the miracle of rescuing themselves from relegation last season, unleashed a torrent of oxytocin among the players that built friendships of exceptional depth in this transient profession. It released into the dressing room feelings of trust and fondness and mutual generosity which were translated into an enormous shared workload on the pitch, week after week after week.

"We have gone through a lot," said their captain Wes Morgan in February. "We have got promoted and avoided relegation against all odds. We have a real belief and togetherness, we are like a family." But it could all have been derailed by the upheaval last summer. Nigel Pearson had steered them into the Premier League and presided over that great escape last season. He was then dismissed in bizarre circumstances.

The personal chemistry in any team is always a delicate compound; the wrong replacement could easily have spoiled it. But in an act of almost cosmic serendipity, Claudio Ranieri got the job. A series of random chances had brought the right man into the right place at exactly the right time. His sunny disposition only elevated the mood further. In fact, it seems that the whole club, from boardroom to bootroom, managed to catch this delirious wave and surf it all the way to a golden shore.

Whatever the causes, it was a lovely thing to behold. And soon it will be drowned beneath a fresh tidal wave of cash.

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