Warnings From the Past For Modern Upstarts Leicester City
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Warnings From the Past For Modern Upstarts Leicester City

By simply challenging the established order, Leicester City have achieved something remarkable this season. But history suggests the upcoming period will be the most challenging yet for the Foxes.
December 22, 2015, 7:33pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

In November, Jamie Vardy scored for the 11th league game in a row, beating the Premier League record and inspiring the season's most hackneyed caveat, over which we in the football community seem to be at war with ourselves. Get your best Mark Lawrenson voice ready for this (burdensome and heady, as might cloud the atmosphere at a wake, but without any of the free wine and sandwiches): "Football didn't start in 1992; it's not all about the Premier League."

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But history is divisible and there are reasons why communities tell their stories tagged with the 'pre/post' conditional. We live in the 'post-war age' because the world was too different either side of that watershed to be analysed with the same tools or to be judged by the same schema. Everything changed, some doors closed while some were opened. Others were smashed to bits and replaced with revolving Plexiglas. The past is made incongruous with the present by the bustle of the shimmering and the new.

As was football in 1992 when it slipped into history alongside the old First Division and its customs. It's not so much that the Premier League changed everything, but rather that for which the Premier League is shorthand: Bosman transfers making players more powerful than their clubs, football as broadcast and media-driven rather than live and immediate, sport re-purposed as one living writhing mass of commercial opportunity. In the middle of which neither Leicester City nor anybody else are about to wrest the title from the super club elite.

A case in point: what is happening at the King Power Stadium this season is without precedent in the last 15 years of the game in England. It's worth remembering that this City team spent 19 weeks bottom of the league last season. They were rock bottom on Christmas Day 2014, but this year they will be enjoying their festive lunch as league leaders. So this is not a side that has been slowly refining things, adjusting to the league and preparing for the top-four over time; a transformation at this pace is not something we've seen before.

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Indeed, the last side to look so freakishly out of place at the top at this stage of a season was in fact City themselves, Peter Taylor taking the Foxes top in October 2000 and keeping them in the top-four until March, before losing eight in a row and ending up 13th.

We can learn a lot from the rise and fall of Taylor's side, mostly that City should proceed with caution. Whether as an example of what can happen when a team with a small budget plays out of its skin for six months and runs out of steam, or a new manager implements a killer system which is eventually figured out by the opposition, City should look upon the class of '00 with their eyes open. Hubris doesn't only come after those with a reputation, and Claudio Ranieri would do well to remember that Taylor only lasted three months into his second season before being sacked.

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On the other hand, that season Chelsea finished one place beneath Ipswich Town, so using it as a test case for the present is possibly no more practical than trying to teach the offside trap to a plate of chips.

But what we can say is that Leicester City will not win the Premier League. Even as recently as 25 years ago we couldn't have been this certain. While there were big clubs there were no super clubs, and this is a very real distinction.

By the beginning of the nineties Liverpool had just wrapped-up their 18th league crown, while Arsenal under George Graham had announced themselves as the official opposition with two wins in three years. Everton too were strong with two titles in the eighties and Aston Villa, with the scent of European Cup glory still hot in their nostrils, were circling following a series of near-misses in the First Division. Leeds United under Howard Wilkinson took the title away from the usual suspects in 1992, seemingly ushering a new cycle in the English league supremacy.

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Change the name badges and it all looked much the same as it does today. There were four or five clubs capable of going for the title, some more likely than others but all within the realm of the possible, and every season began with dead certs, rank outsiders and mid-table fodder who were ripe and ready to spring a surprise. To that end there have always been cheeky-chappies like Leicester to put cats amongst the ruffled feathers of posturing pigeons.

Money has changed the game but simply to recognise that is not the challenge. Better to reflect on modern football's potential to get the best out of itself, the seedling potential that was harnessed to create the maiden Football League in 1888 and which put only 28 points between bottom and top. Part of the deal when those 12 clubs signed-up was that they'd each get a fair crack of the whip, the thought that while teams would pass in and out of supremacy in cycles the tools to build sides capable of challenging for the game's prizes would remain within reach.

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The next hundred years of League football saw that contract more or less adhered to, and the patterns in the numbers confirm this. Between 1888 and 1960 the First Division was won by 18 different clubs; only one side, Arsenal, managed seven titles in those 72 years. During that time the top-three never comprised the same clubs from one season to the next. In fact, in the Football League's first 72 seasons, in only 33 of them did the champions make it into the top three the following season.

Compare this with the near-monopoly of the Champions League places of the 2000s: between 2004-2009 the same clubs finished in the top-four in five out of six seasons. Again though, just to spot this is not the challenge. These numbers are freely available to anyone with the necessary pent-up frustrations to look for them.

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In the chaotic seconds that followed Sergio Aguero's title-winning goal for Manchester City against QPR in May 2012, Martin Tyler in the Sky Sports commentary box remarked how "it might just be the beginning of a dynasty", as though this was the preferred state of affairs. It borrowed from the lexicon used by the Abu Dhabi United Group when they bought the club but it was just as much a reflection of Roman Abramovich's stated aims when he pitched-up at Chelsea. In both cases the new owners wanted to turn their clubs into controlling, untouchable forces in the Premier League and in Europe.

These clubs have found rich and powerful men to whisk them to a new level, and more power to them. Others have blended decades of history with a careful handling of domestic and overseas markets in order to multiply the natural riches of the Premier League many times over. The result has been a drastic concentration of success which has ring-fenced the game's major prizes, and might never be undone. If you support a club outside of that ring-fence then your relationship with the game has been changed, probably forever.

23 years, the current life-span of the division, is the length of period during which there would traditionally have been a reasonable turnover of clubs enjoying ascendancy; this hasn't happened. Manchester City and Chelsea have joined in with Arsenal, United and Liverpool by virtue of massive external injections of capital and all five are protected against falling back into obscurity, despite what some of the gloomier Merseysiders might tell you.

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But besides these five untouchables, the last time any club can be said to have mounted anything approaching a title challenge was Aston Villa in 1998/99. Under John Gregory Villa were top in mid-January having been so more or less consistently since the beginning of the autumn, before a catastrophic new-year saw them go winless for three months before finishing sixth. Bobby Robson's Newcastle stayed within a few points of the top for most of 2002/03 without ever finding the extra yard required to bridge the gap, and nobody since has done enough to even start a conversation.

Gregory's Villa are the archetypal success story derailed. Top with 16 games to go, they were beaten in ten of them, as the pressure of dealing with the challenge from Arsenal and Man Utd shredded the team's confidence until they could barely pick each other out with a pass. Upfront Julian Joachim and Dion Dublin had found some of the most fertile form of their careers until December; thereafter the goals dried up. If Vardy or the irrepressible Riyad Mahrez are out of City's line-up, due to injury or the January sales, then there are no replacements in the squad to provide the same level of threat and the pressure from the established clubs will be felt. City are five points better off after 17 games than Villa in '99 but even those 16 years have brought major polarisation in the way football clubs operate. The odds are against Ranieri and his team in a way that they never were for Villa.

So Leicester City are really doing something remarkable this season. If they're still on top on January 1st, when they will have played Liverpool, Manchester City and everybody else in the league, then they will have taken a huge step towards being called challengers, but as the season reaches its most intense and challenging month so far, that is a hefty conditional.

@hoovesonfire