Leicester City rekindle football’s flame

Football, goes the saying, is a funny old game. Its element of surprise, that glimmering hint of rakish unpredictability lurking beneath a surface increasingly settled by money and glitz, is what keeps the masses hooked.

This may be a national pastime whose character is now often defined by obscene transfer fees and underperforming, tweet-prone players, but it is romance that washes away all the sins.

 

The modern epoch has not been kind to romance, of course. For some time now at the high end of the European game, a gilded elite has enjoyed both success and its trappings.

This band of super clubs increasingly hordes the world’s best talent; it dominates both domestic and continental competition.

Fans have become inured to the sort of never-ending quality that such a concentration of wealth tends to breed, often turning up and tuning in out of habit, duty, or even a sense of obligation.

Not that there is anything wrong with consuming football through this alluringly filtered HD prism and one need only compare the standards of yesteryear with those of today.

The sport has evolved into an often very beautiful synthesis of athleticism and skill, its millionaire practitioners required to entertain as well as endure.

And, yet for all that, the masses lust after a dash of wildness. When it rears its head, the eyes are drawn, inexorably, in that direction.

English football, in particular, enjoys that precious unknown ingredient, its intense fondness for underdog tales owing to the establishment of a princely hegemony at the summit of the league pyramid.

While nobody beyond Old Trafford has ever managed to consolidate a stranglehold on the Premier League crown, it has passed between a select few like a timeshare on a foreign resort.

Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United; the link between glory and prosperity is obvious.

How wonderful it is, then, to see Leicester City install themselves as winners of the world’s most absurdly decadent round-robin.

That is no misprint — Leicester are champions of England, an achievement as glorious as it is apparently absurd.

Their triumph confirmed, with two games to spare, following second placed Tottenham’s draw at Chelsea on Monday night, Leicester’s ascent from the foot of the Premier League table in 2015 to their present spot at the summit cannot be undersold.

 

While few top-flight clubs in the current era are likely to be searching for loose change beneath the couch to make ends meet, Leicester and its fanbase remain scarred by the financial ruin that saw the administrators arrive in 2002, a season after relegation from the first tier, and six years before further demotion to the third.

However naive it may sound, this league title — the club’s first in the division — is one bred out of fraternity, a dash of luck and a palpable lack of fear, principles that tend to be drowned out by the din of the Premier League cacophony, where winning is cast as some kind of especially complicated puzzle.

Long a figure of mild derision, subject to an ongoing sniggering campaign that began during his time as manager at Stamford Bridge, Claudio Ranieri’s appointment to his sixteen managerial role last summer was greeted with predictable scepticism. He can now enjoy the last laugh.

Eccentric he may seem — boasting a sense of humour, humility and the ability to speak to journalists as if they were fellow human beings — but the Italian has crafted a unit that positively oozes spirit.

While his predecessor, Nigel Pearson, deserves some measure of credit for building the momentum that has propelled this squad from certain relegation candidates to champions, it is Ranieri, armed with a keen mind, who assessed the merits of his humble charges, then set them to work.

On paper, Leicester look like what they are: a collection of unspectacular Premier League veterans, former lower-tier performers and bargain-bin cast-offs.

In reality, they are nothing of the sort. Girded with a sense of purpose fostered by their coach, these players are rarely bested for effort, carrying with them instead an iron-clad belief that sheer effort alone will topple all challengers.

It is difficult to argue with that idea. Given the complexities of contemporary football, financial or otherwise, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that silverware is secured by limiting the losses.

Leicester have harnessed the concept, losing only three games in 36 and conceding 34 — less than a goal every week.

In a competition where greater fiscal health across all contestants has ushered signalled an era of parity (the instant subject being a case in point), such consistency is beyond startling.

Just as notable is the fact that Leicester have broken no moulds. The style of play is simple and direct; it adheres to the basics. They defend well and without complication.

Attacks are swift, devastating. Many foes, arrogant enough to believe themselves superior, have failed to adapt, paying the price in return.

Their personnel, too, continue to excel. Kasper Schmeichel has soared. His steadying influence and sharp fundamentals are a fitting tribute to that famous name.

Defensively, Robert Huth and Wes Morgan constitute the kind of partnership about which stories are told. Bruising and shrewd, both men have contributed to events at either end of the pitch.

Equally, neither N’Golo Kanté nor Danny Drinkwater is likely to refashion our understanding of midfield play, yet the Englishman’s consistent calm and his colleague’s powerful, gliding presence bring such certainty to the Leicester team that the confidence upon which they rely flows out from this duo, always onwards.

 

Crucially, their combined efforts have not been wasted. Grateful recipients of others’ industry, Riyadh Mahrez and Jamie Vardy exemplify the nature of the Foxes’ unlikely rise.

Neither was a known quantity two years ago; neither induced any fanfare upon arrival at the King Power Stadium. Vardy, a 2012 signing from Fleetwood Town, is 29 and a former factory worker.

Mahrez hails from the Parisian banlieues, a child of the colonies who grew up in France but chose to represent Algeria at the last World Cup — probably because the French national team had never heard of him.

They have heard of him now, what with his haunting technique, snake hips, 17 goals and 11 assists.

He and Vardy are the standout individuals in the collective. Indeed, they have led the way across the league and the twin accolades of PFA Player of the Year, awarded to Mahrez, and Vardy’s Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year gong are entirely merited.

Vardy, in particular, has played as if each stride was his last.

Like a greyhound loosed from its stall, this whir of perpetual motion has torn through the firmament of the established order.

Twenty-two goals and six assists confirm the extent of his stake in this victory.

Whatever transpires from here on out, his place within the zeitgeist is assured.

Leicester’s win must be shaking the traditional powers into re-assessing the approach they take to the pursuit of trophies.

To see a relative minnow wrench the title from more illustrious, expensively assembled opponents will induce consternation from the Etihad to the Emirates.

While it is worth acknowledging that Ranieri was unburdened by the draining obligations of European competition, such jostling demands have always featured on the schedules of the Premier League’s previous victors.

In a season when the Manchester clubs have been cursed by creeping mediocrity, and Chelsea’s spectacular implosion extinguished their chances long before Christmas, Leicester needed only to stare down Tottenham following Arsenal’s standard winter collapse.

Neither lineup possessed the requisite experience, both were untested at the season’s business end.

That Leicester should hold their nerve with such aplomb feels apt in the extreme.

Author Details

Matthew Coyle
Matthew Coyle

Belfast-based writer, blogger, lawyer. Seeking a change of direction from the stifling office. Blackburn Rovers victim. Football fanatic. It is at once a simple game and a complex one. Maybe that's why we all care so much about it. Read my other work at balls.ie, opinionfootball.com, creativityni.org, culturenorthernireland.org and pulpinterest.com. All views are my own and not necessarily those of any other person or body.

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