Sports

Could Leicester's Shock Title Win Become a Regular Thing?

Has Leicester's title win fundamentally changed the way we think about the Premier League? After all, if Wes Morgan can captain his club to glory, what's to stop Grant Leadbitter​ or Scott Dann​ doing the same?
August 9, 2016, 1:46pm
leicester
Peter Powell/EPA

Until May 1954, the four-minute mile existed only as an impossible dream, a myth. Elite athletes had been trying to break 240 seconds for hundreds of years, maybe even thousands, but none had managed it. Over time the figure had gained El Dorado status among middle-distance runners, while scientists had declared it a task unfeasible for the human body.

Then one morning 62 years ago Roger Bannister – running through a 15 mph crosswind, no less – gasped over the finish line in front of a small crowd in Oxford, beating the fabled milestone by six tenths of a second. The impossible had been achieved – and no sooner had it happened than it happened again. The following month, John Landy scampered over the line a full second and a half quicker than Bannister; 13 months after Bannister's landmark lope, three runners in a single race (none of them he or Landy) broke four minutes.

The story is well-told, and it's obvious why. Its moral – that possibility, kids, is merely a matter of perception – encourages and exhilarates. And it would be no surprise, with the Premier League trophy currently, ludicrously, the property of Leicester City, if the likes of David Moyes, Sean Dyche and Tony Pulis found themselves brushing up on their track-and-field history as the new season looms. After all, if Wes Morgan can captain his club to glory over 38 gruelling games in one of Europe's toughest leagues, what's to stop Tom Heaton or Darren Fletcher doing the same?

"We all have to sit down after what Leicester have done and think," grimaced Alan Pardew at the end of last season. "Because for chairmen, chief executives and football club boards it has changed the concept of what it is possible to achieve."

If Wes Morgan can lead a team to the title, why not Grant Leadbitter or Scott Dann? // PA Images

Whether Jamie Vardy's house party will indeed represent a Year Zero moment for English football remains to be seen. But in theory at least, it has certainly redrawn the parameters. Before Leicester, England's top tier was one of the most rigidly arranged power structures in professional sport. Since its breakaway in 1992, the established forces of Arsenal and Manchester United accounted for 16 of its 23 titles. The other seven – shared between Blackburn, Chelsea and Man City – had been won after the Faustian arrival of a sugar daddy clutching a blank chequebook.

But Leicester were emphatically not an established force. In fact, in the world of Premier League prosperity, they were relative paupers, their squad comprised of non-league graduates, lower-league veterans and bargain-basement journeymen. A year ago the club was provincial, peripheral and predicted by many to go down. Now they're flicking Vs down at the top brass, silverware under their arm, their starring role in sporting history a formality.

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So it wasn't money dictating the terms of competition after all: perhaps, in fact, the only thing holding the old hierarchy in place was a kind of mass-acceptance of it, the same way tepid Saturday-night talent shows continue to sleepwalk their way to the top of the ratings charts. In which case, the loop of compliance has now been broken by Claudio Ranieri's band of pizza-scoffing upstarts.

That's the hope of the idealists, anyway. The alternative, more cynical, outlook sees Leicester's title-win as a delirious flash in the pan, one enabled by a perfect Premier League storm of floundering giants, a rising middle class, and one team able to surf their own tidal wave of high-spirits in unprecedented and unrepeatable fashion.

But although the latter view is the one the realists are probably drawn to, there has also been the odd hint that the antics of Ranieri and co. just might point to something beyond themselves. Across Europe, the likes of Eibar, Angers, Darmstadt and Sassuolo all spent last season flagrantly disregarding the low expectations of others and scaling new heights as a result. The high-punching feats of Iceland and Wales at the Euros told a similar story of minnows not knowing their place.

Having reached Serie A for the first time in 2013, Sassuolo finished a superb sixth last term. // Alessandro Di Marco/EPA

In Spain, Atletico Madrid are no small-fry, but they too have been able to go toe-to-toe with two far vaster superpowers, and over a timescale that proves their feat to be no one-off. Hell, Leicester's main rivals for the title last season were Spurs – Spurs! – evidence, if there ever was any, that Batman has abandoned Gotham; that the old pecking order has given way to a preposterous anarchy.

But if that is indeed the case, if insurgency is to become the new normal, the higher powers have to remain susceptible. Last season, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal all limboed to varying degrees of heinous underachievement. Can that continue? The instinctive response, hardened by the summer arrivals of Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola – and of Jurgen Klopp last autumn – is that it most certainly cannot.

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And yet, and yet. While the sheer surreal lunacy of last season may indeed prove unique, the fact remains that it didn't happen inside a vacuum. The league's tottering goliaths didn't simply drop points into a black hole, they dropped points to other, smaller clubs – clubs who had spent the close-season replacing Jordan Mutch, Stuart Downing and Steve Sidwell with Yohan Cabaye, Dimitri Payet and Xherdan Shaqiri, and whose ability to land punches on the jaws of the heavyweights was increased tenfold in the space of one summer.

The Premier League's eye-watering new TV deal – £5.14bn for three seasons, a 71% rise on the previous figure – kicks in this summer, but was agreed a year ago. The most recent edition of Deloitte's annual money league listed the world's 30 wealthiest clubs as including 16 from England. Inter Milan were nestled snugly between Everton and West Ham.

So money, far from being the factor triumphantly wiped from the equation by Leicester's merry romp, was actually what enabled it, or at least in part – a fact that becomes properly clear when the rest of Europe is factored in: namely the fact that the triumvirate of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have slowly, over the last decade or so, come to exist pretty much on their own plane. And as such, a trend has emerged for the Premier League's hottest properties to waste little time in skedaddling to the continent once they've earned their stripes in Blighty. David Beckham, ever the trendsetter, was one of the first, followed by Owen, Henry, Van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo, Alonso, Mascherano, Fabregas, Bale and most recently Luis Suarez.

La Liga isn't short on players who left the Premier League for bigger things… // Juan Carlos Hidalgo/EPA

This all coalesced last year into a situation where the Premier League's elite clubs were losing their best players just as everyone else was upgrading theirs. Leicester, ironically enough, weren't one of the more obvious participants here (although the £30m they spent last summer was no pittance) but they were still the runaway beneficiaries of the new-look economy. Money has always talked in the Premier League, but recently it's changed its tune. Last year the division's obscene wealth became a force for egalitarianism.

Which isn't to say that other, less tangible factors didn't also play a large part – notably a shattering of the collective aura once held by the division's higher powers, the fortresses of Anfield, the Emirates, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge being reduced to bouncy castles. Leicester may have ultimately been the ones who completed the Premier League's own four-minute mile, but the glut of autumn slayings (West Ham alone had beaten Arsenal, Liverpool, City and Chelsea before the clocks went back) surely put an early spring in their step.

Whether the old aura – and the old order – will be restored remains to be seen. Few would bet against Pep and pals returning their clubs to something resembling the winning machines they recently were. And perhaps more significantly, the arrival of Paul Pogba – the first bona fide, in-demand A-lister to head to England in a generation – may signal the return to an age where the country's top clubs can buy and keep the planet's top talent. Maybe England's elite, after a decade of stalling at the lights, are finally about to accelerate back into the distance.

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Or maybe not. Perhaps the Leicester Effect will materialise after all, and a new era of competitiveness will be ushered in by the also-rans' refusal to comply with convention.

More likely it will be something between. The old elite will surely rise again, but – presuming Spurs and Liverpool continue their advances – there are more of them now, and they not only have to contend with each other but with a flattened economy that isn't changing any time soon. Compared with Spain and Germany, the sharing of the TV revenue amongst England's top flight is relatively even, and as of this season, prize money received by all 20 Premier League clubs will begin to soar. Those outside the upper echelons will continue to resist big bids for their stars, and will continue to cherry-pick the odd one of their own from abroad.

So to talk of a Leicester Effect is a bit of a red herring, given how their own triumph owed so much to external forces, as well as their own magnificence – just as Bannister's four-minute-mile wasn't just the romantic story of unwavering self-belief, but also a rather less romantic one of incremental improvements to track surfaces, training methods and sports science.

But Bannister's story was also one of unwavering self-belief, and of how infectious that mindset can be. And, symbolically or not, it did redefine what was possible. With a bit of luck, that will be Leicester's legacy too.

@A_Hess