The sporting miracle is an, at times, overblown cliché, but it is alive and well with Leicester City completing the most improbable of seasons with the Premier League title to show for it. Hollywood script? Absolutely. Somebody’s exploits on FIFA 16? You bet. But never did it seem conceivable that the most unlikely of stories would come true. Leicester City are the champions of England.
They have often been dubbed ‘the people’s champions’ this season and it is fair to say they have had their fair share of well-wishers willing them over the finishing line. They came in their droves, they dared not to rub their eyes and they sat expectantly, more in hope than expectation, trying to comprehend what had happened. But 100 miles away, nestled in the heart of west London, Stamford Bridge rose as one to salute Eden Hazard’s wonder strike that ended bitter rivals Spurs’ own title dreams all the while doing a huge favour for a former Chelsea favourite, Claudio Ranieri. Leicester had been crowned champions without kicking a ball. Cue a huge party at Jamie Vardy’s gaff. Unbelievable.
One of the nicest men in football, the man who Chelsea owe a lot for laying the foundations that Jose Mourinho would inherit, was now a champion himself. Ranieri, less the tinkerman, now more the self-proclaimed thinkerman, the man goaded by many for being a perennial runner-up has his first league championship of a 30-year career that has taken in stops at some of Europe’s top clubs.
And yet this extraordinary season may not have been afforded the opportunity to take shape had predecessor Nigel Pearson, the man responsible for preserving Leicester’s top flight status last year (an extraordinary achievement in itself) not been dismissed partly for his son, James’, role in a racist sex-tape on an end of season trip to Thailand. Many scoffed at the appointment of Ranieri, a rather left-field one given those initially linked with the role. Ranieri was a mere footnote among potential candidates and left even Gary Lineker himself questioning the strange nature of the decision. After all, Ranieri had been out of England for 11 years and ignominiously sacked by Greece during their ill-fated Euro qualifying campaign which included a defeat at the hands of the Faroe Islands.
Almost as soon as he had walked through the door at the King Power, Ranieri was the bookmakers’ favourite to become the first managerial casualty. 12 months on no one is laughing, Leicester fans and neutrals alike are marvelling at one of the greatest underdog stories of all time. Crucially Ranieri did not make wholesale changes to the squad but merely added one or two players here and there to supplement a squad that produced a miraculous escape from relegation in their first season back in the Premier League for a decade. One of the signings of the season without a doubt was N’Golo Kante from Caen, a relative unknown, but who epitomised Leicester’s work rate and their fearlessness. There weren’t many who covered more ground than the Frenchman, whose exploits have earned him his first cap for France.
Forget complex tactics, forget total football and forget possession statistics. Leicester City ripped up the rulebook for how to win a title. There was not anything too complex about it though. Here is a side fuelled by their manager’s enthusiasm and stress-free outlook, his players played with a confidence that defied anything we have seen in years. Operating a simple 4-4-2, Ranieri not only proved that this formation, once thought to be dead, is well and truly alive but that it has a future too. Old fashioned no nonsense centre-halves, two old fashioned but effective wingers, two box-to-box centre-midfielders and a striker with deadly composure. A bunch of misfits and rejects, no problem. Team spirit and togetherness can take you far and momentum is a wonderful thing. It’s hard to think Leicester would have started the season as they did, the ultimate catalyst for their charge to the title, without their incredible end to the previous campaign.
These types of stories were meant to have died in 1992 with the formation of the Premier League. While it is worth remembering Leicester have incredible financial backing, they did it at a fraction of the price it took Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, the three most recent winners of the title, to do it. Rather than being a closed shop, Leicester have thrust open that door and given hope to teams everywhere that stories like this are not a thing of the past.
The Nottingham Forest side of the late 1970s were the underdog team of that era as Brian Clough spearheaded promotion, a top-division title and back-to-back European Cups. These eras are arguably incomparable because football, despite all the positive things we have seen since satellite television transformed it, is not a level-playing field, so stories of this kind are long thought to be relics consigned to the history books. Leicester’s story will be told again and again. Breaking the dominance of the top-four monopoly was but a dream to most. This could be the very best thing to happen to the Premier League in years and, should this prove to be a one off, it makes the achievement all the more remarkable.
Jamie Vardy’s rise from non-league to become an England international has been well documented but he is hardly the only Leicester misfit to overcome obstacles. Messrs Danny Drinkwater and Danny Simpson had skipped around various places after being dumped by Manchester United, Wes Morgan is only playing his second top-flight season after over a decade in the second tier, Riyad Mahrez, a steal from Le Havre has become the first Algerian to win the Premier League, while Andy King has completed the remarkable feat of winning a hat-trick of league titles with the same club; League One in 2009, the Championship in 2014 and now the Premier League.
Leicester have not just maintained incredible consistency over a grueling 38-game season where many expected them to fall away, they have set a precedent for future sides. The first new winners of the English top flight since Forest in 1978 may have just written the greatest sporting upset in modern memory. And while we may bemoan our own team’s shortcomings, we can at once admire Leicester’s story.
Ranieri and his players performed a modern-day sporting miracle and we are among the lucky ones who lived to witness it. King Claudio? He deserves nothing less.