Monday night’s final whistle at Stamford Bridge sparked some truly remarkable scenes in Leicester, as the city’s football club was confirmed as champions of a division the bookmakers (and many others beside) believed it had no chance of winning.
Around this time last year, the Foxes looked all but doomed to relegation, before manager Nigel Pearson oversaw a miraculous escape from the yawning abyss. Subsequently however, under the outwardly unassuming but clearly inspirational guidance of Claudio Ranieri, the players have arguably redefined the adjective “miraculous”—their feat being as close to unprecedented as anything ever witnessed in a sporting arena.
Clearly this has been no fluke. Leicester City have been consistent throughout the season, losing just three league games thus far (with two still to play). Chelsea’s 2014/15 championship winning side only lost three games, but before then you have to go back to 2008/09 to find a club that suffered three or fewer defeats: that team was Liverpool… they lost just two games… yet still didn’t win the title.
Leicester have (to date) won three more games than any of the sides below them. Over a full season in any sport you finish where you deserve. I suppose you can dress up statistics to show pretty much what you want; but the truth is Leicester are the best side in the Premier League and their success is as richly deserved as it was unimaginable twelve months ago….
Of all the debates that surround this most wonderful achievement, I’ve found two particularly interesting. To a lesser degree: what was the defining moment of Leicester’s season? Much more significantly: is this genuinely the greatest sporting story of all-time?
Looking at the former, I’ve heard cases put forward for the 3-2 victory over Aston Villa, overturning a two-goal deficit to claim the three points in a pulsating finish, and the outstanding performance to sweep aside Manchester City at the Etihad; but my “moment” came on a February evening at the King Power Stadium when Liverpool were the visitors. Some sublime skill in his own half from Riyad Mahrez… a long ball downfield… which was collected by Jamie Vardy who unleashed an unstoppable 30-yard shot that simply flew past a despairing Simone Mignolet.
Watch the goal again and see the look on Vardy’s face as he celebrates a stunning strike with his team mates. He knew it was something very special… and perhaps that one swing of a right boot was the perfect microcosm of Leicester’s entire season. The Foxes are something very special.
But the greatest sporting story of all time…? That’s another matter altogether… and a totally subjective one at that. One-off shocks in football are relatively (and I use the word guardedly) commonplace, but to maintain such impressive levels of performance over a full season is something else altogether.
There are parallels with Brian Clough’s magnificent side which won the old 1st Division title in 1977/78 (with Leicester slightly ironically finishing bottom), the year after being promoted into the top flight. Forest went on to claim European glory as well; Leicester still have that adventure to come—but the vast sums of money that exist in the upper reaches of the sport make football a completely different game to those heady days of the 70s, when you at least had a fighting chance of being able to pronounce the names of your favourite players.
And the scale of Leicester’s achievement is further evidenced by the fact that they defied odds of 5,000/1 to win the Premier League. Bookmakers rarely get things wrong; but it was their considered opinion that finding Elvis Presley alive and well (nearly forty years after he died…) was only ten times less likely than the Foxes beating the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Arsenal et al….
It’s much harder to draw valid and objective comparisons with accomplishments in the wider sporting world (especially when one has literally only just happened—and it is really only the passage of time that allows us to reflect on the true impact of sporting achievement). Will Leicester City winning the Premier League ultimately be considered “better” than England’s memorable victory in the 1981 Headingley Ashes Test for example? England were “only” 500/1, so perhaps not… ah but 500/1 in a two-horse race….
My favourite moment in British sport is Ann Packer’s 800m gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. To come from almost last to first in the closing 150m in the final over a distance she’d only ever run competitively twice before the Games—and to break the world record in the process… that’s pretty incredible.
In fairness, there are numerous other examples, but if I list them, it may detract from the main reason for writing this blog, and that is to congratulate everyone involved with Leicester City, the players, manager, staff and supporters on your brilliant season and wonderful success.
5,000/1 says you won’t celebrate….