Domestic Drudgery Makes Leicester City's Heroics All the More Wondrous
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Domestic Drudgery Makes Leicester City's Heroics All the More Wondrous

While Leicester City are flying high in the Champions League, they sit only two points above the relegation zone at home. But perhaps this just serves to make their Premier League title triumph and European exploits seem all the more wondrous.
November 23, 2016, 4:24pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

In hindsight, the signs were there right from the start. Back in August, the Community Shield represented Leicester City's first meaningful fixture following last season's pie-in-the-sky Premier League triumph. The game was decided in the 83rd minute when Wes Morgan – whose indomitable aerial presence had been a noted linchpin of the previous campaign – was beaten to a looping cross by Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the game's winning goal. Looking back, perhaps that was the moment when normality returned to football, the miraculous powers of last season's heroes deserting them as they were deposed, with dead-eyed efficiency, by the A-list summer signing of a financial juggernaut. Establishment one, upstarts nil. Welcome, belatedly, to 2016.

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And so it's proved in the months since. As Leicester acquaint themselves with the morning after the night before, a brutal regression to the mean has set in: one third of the way into the season (early days, admittedly) they hover two points above the relegation zone, the clubs populating their rearview mirror no longer the Premier League's petrodollared elite but the likes of Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Hull. In short, Claudio Ranieri and co. are exactly where you'd imagine them to be if last year had simply never happened.

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To be fair, you could be forgiven for forgetting that it had. Six months ago, Leicester's title win was a global phenomenon, but football being the breakneck treadmill that it is, no sooner had Morgan hoisted the trophy aloft and jetted off on his summer holidays than the watching world had retrained its sights on the Euros (and hooliganism, Iceland, Ronaldo, and the rest) and then the new league season (replete with an all-new Battle of the Bosses storyline), not to mention the odd event outside football. In the age of rolling news, Twitter timelines and yellow ticker tape, minds are only ever cast forward; there's little appetite for ruminating on stuff that's already happened.

From within this culture of mass-blinkeredness, last season's events take on an even more weird and dreamlike quality. Jamie Vardy, formerly a unstoppable goal machine and living embodiment of Leicester's zero-to-hero act, is currently on a 14-game barren stretch for his club; Riyad Mahrez, a player of unrelenting magnificence last season, now looks like the sort of winger who decorates rather than dominates; the Morgan-Huth duo have gone from unconquerable keepers of the gate to footballers whose dearth of pace and mobility looks distinctly outdated. Everyone, basically, is playing precisely as logic and pedigree suggests they should.

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All of which throws the events of last season into an even more mysterious light, if such a thing is possible. When asked to provide some insight into their achievement, even those at the heart of the enterprise fall back on standard-issue platitudes and admissions of bewilderment. "You can't explain it," said Vardy "No one expected us to be within a shout and we just kept going all season and made that come to reality. But trying to put that into words is very hard."

"I think we've always believed," said Morgan. We knew our capabilities, we are such a tight group of guys, we do everything together and there's no ego in our team. It's hard to describe, I can't put it into words."

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Ranieri's self-authored article on the subject is almost poetic in its meaninglessness, turning to commonplace notions like hard training, managerial warmth and the "terrific energy" in the King Power Stadium. "To arrive at the top level, you just need to keep an open mind, an open heart, a full battery, and run free," Ranieri writes, groping wildly at thin air.

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In journalism, Leicester's romp to the league has been variously explained through economics, tactics, recruitment, sports psychology, scientific innovation, excavated corpses and simple good fortune. All of these things (or nearly all of them) carry an element of truth; they scratch the surface of the phenomenon, but none come anywhere near actually explaining it. And there's a perverse satisfaction to be had in that, at least for those who like to think that sport (and by extension life) retains an element of magic and mystery, capable even in the face of the most rigorous microanalysis of being utterly, gloriously incomprehensible. That this plummeting down to earth has been accompanied by a near-faultless Champions League campaign only adds to the inscrutableness of the whole Leicester Story.

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In a weird way, then, Leicester's title win is more heartening for being followed by this instantaneous reversion to normality than it would be if – as some idiots contemplated – it had ripped up the hierarchy for good, permanently dethroned the Premier League's elite and cleared the path for a legion of mid-ranking imitators. That would lend the whole thing some context and logic, albeit in retrospect; whereas now that Leicester have slipped back into the lower regions, and the division as a whole has already clicked back into that familiar old power structure, last season seems just as preposterous and inexplicable as it ever did. Perhaps even more so.

The film critic Pauline Kael said of the first Star Wars movie: "Even if you've been entertained, you may feel cheated of some dimension – a sense of wonder, perhaps." So much of football, in today's age of trophy-hoovering superclubs, feels exactly like that. Of course, it was never going to be that way with Leicester's title win, it being one of the most awe-inspiring achievements in sporting history. But now the dust has settled and we can only experience it in hindsight, perhaps the fact that normal service has resumed so seamlessly only serves to heighten that rarest of things: a genuine sense of wonder.

@A_Hess