Back in the fading summer of 2012, if you had asked a football loving historian, or a history loving footballer (should such a person actually exist), which was more implausible – unearthing the long presumed lost remains of the notorious English king Richard III from the bowels of a Leicester council car park, or Leicester’s unheralded football team lurching from near relegation one year to winning the Premier League title the very next year, one wonders which option they would have plumped for? I think perhaps Leicester City Football Club’s Premier League title winning exploits would have marginally shaded the improbability stakes.
The bookies certainly thought such a concept was nigh on impossible, making Leicester City 5,000-1 outsiders for the title (did you take a punt? No me neither, which is why I am still here writing rather than living it up on an expensive Caribbean holiday) at the start of the current season in August 2015 (I wonder what their odds on the discovery of Richard III’s bones were?). Who could have blamed the bookies? For back in March 2015, while King Richard III was finally being given the burial his royal status (if not his alleged deeds) merited in Leicester Cathedral, the city’s football team was staring at a burial of a different kind: into the recesses of the Championship. But rather like the royal disinterment, Leicester City’s fortunes were resurrected by an exceptional run of form towards the end of last season with 7 wins in 9 games bringing an unlikely reprieve from the abyss. The bookies though – and let’s face it most of the pundits, both professional and armchair – considered it simply a stay of execution, hence those astoundingly long (in hindsight) odds.
So how did Leicester City contrive a comeback more akin to Lazarus than Richard III? Well, being rescued from financial meltdown by a Thai billionaire always helps. Hmm, billionaire, you say. There were allegations, still being investigated, that the said Thai billionaire – Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha (try saying that even without a drink) – helped the club flout Football League FFP rules on their way to promotion to the Premier League in 2014. So far, so familiar. But then, the club had to ride the storm of a relegation fight, a players’ sex and racism tape scandal and the sacking of their volatile manager Nigel Pearson. Enter a certain ‘Tinkerman’, Claudio Ranieri, to the derision of – well, almost everyone. The affable Italian had just suffered an ignominious spell with the Greek national team, culminating in a humiliating home defeat to the Faroe Islands, more famous for fashionable hand woven woollen jumpers seen on heroines of elegantly gloomy Scandi-noir dramas than its football team. A failed manager to add to a nearly relegated team recovering from a sex and race scandal and facing accusations of financial impropriety surely equalled football oblivion, and suddenly those remarkable odds of 5,000-1 to win the PL title seemed perfectly logical. I mean, haha, come on, did someone say WIN? Why there was more chance of unearthing the bones of a long-lost King of England under a Leicester council car park….oh hang on.
Yep, this is where the narrative veers dramatically off course. Leicester didn’t go down, and the Thai billionaire didn’t end up bankrolling the team to Premier League success, a la Jack Walker and Blackburn in 1995. He didn’t have to. Leicester City’s unique, unstarry combination of hardened journeymen, twinkle-toed hidden gems and sleeper non-league superstars nurtured by an experienced and sagacious, if not always successful, and certainly not fashionable, manager, created a serendipitous synergy to elevate their performance and sweep their illustrious rivals aside, winning the title with 2 games to spare. This was a squad assembled for a mere £54.4 million – that’s really, really cheap, Primark cheap, in the PL in 2016. So cheap that it is about the same as some individual players cost in the big name teams; teams who might be feeling rather silly now about the amount they have spent not to win the title. Leicester earned their title the hard way – with an unquenchable team spirit and gritty determination; confounding their opponents with thunderous counter-attacks and grinding out precious 1-0 wins when desperately needed. Ultimately, keeping the faith when all around them doubted and were waiting fearfully for them to crumble. The team stood firm, resolute, and were deservedly triumphant.
On Saturday, after their final home game of the season against Everton, Leicester City FC will be presented with the shiny silver Premier League trophy at their presciently named home ground, King Power Stadium (well, what else would it be called?), in front of disbelieving and delirious fans, who probably still think it’s all a crazy dream. A week later, on May 16, an open top bus victory parade through the city will be held to celebrate the team’s success. Just over a year ago, the denizens of Leicester gathered, with the world looking on, to bury their recently discovered King at Leicester Cathedral. This time they will gather to pay homage to their newly unearthed football kings. Once more the eyes of the world will be upon them. Thanks to kings old and new, the city of Leicester has been enjoying a remarkable renaissance. Perhaps that’s the most implausible concept of them all.
[An edited version of this post was published at www.boxtoboxfootball.uk – All Hail Leicester – the Renaissance Kings]