It’s different now. Maybe they caught the first glimpses even as they trooped back to the halfway line after Robert Huth’s looping clincher at the Etihad.
The final day pitch invasion. Old men’s tears. The view of the throng from the open-top bus. Civic receptions. Town hall steps. The new Mark Selbys. The jesters from Leicester.
They’ve already taken the bonus cheque for a test drive. They can hear the strains of the Champions League music. Who’s the other side of the officials? Probably can’t get Barca, can we, if we’re in pot one?
Some can taste the kudos. Chatting shit. Getting banged. A League of Their Own invites may have already arrived.
The more reflective have been back, in their minds, for the 30-year reunions. Collected the OBE. Stitched their name in the fabric of a place. Banks, Chandler, Smith, Lineker, Drinkwater.
The more ambitious have been back at the King Power in Chelsea blue, or Liverpool red, or Juventus stripes, whatever their fancy. The returning hero. Taking the grateful acclaim. Modestly. Emotionally. Already tried out a muted goal celebration for size in the mirror.
All of that is at stake now.
Aston Villa Season Review 1992/93, YouTube. Modern football has just been founded. Carol Teale, wife of defender Shaun, looks strained, ashen- faced. Out of shot, she may be thumbing worry beads. This is different. She tries to put a finger on the reasons. Maybe it’s all in the name.
“The tension has been a lot worse this season mainly because of the word ‘Premier’. When we were in the First Division, it didn’t seem quite as bad.”
Or maybe it’s something else. Villa have just gone top in January, Shaun knocking in the fifth in a rout of Middlesbrough. They catch a glimpse. They’ll still be there six games from the end.
Big Ron does what he can. Even tries humble on for size. “The one thing I’m confident about is that our lads won’t bottle it. If, in the end, they’re not good enough, then fair enough…”
They win four of the last 10. On the night it finally slips away, at Ewood Park, all that was at stake collapsed on top of them, flattening them.
“We actually looked like a team that had no spirit, which is the first time I’ve seen that happen,” says Teale. The OBE looked a long shot now.
It’s different when you’re carrying everyone’s hopes. “Football’s Robin Hood,” is how Atlético Madrid midfielder Tiago described his side as they raided the La Liga establishment in 2014.
As English football struggles to clamp the lid on an insurgency against commercial prerogatives, Leicester are timely poster boys for long-held festering resentments against protected elites.
“Football in this country is run by and for the benefit of about half a dozen clubs,” railed Norwich fan DJ Taylor in the book My Favourite Year, reflecting on his club’s challenge for the title in that first Premier League season.
“Any club which manages to storm the citadels of seven-figure transfer fees and TV revenue is regarded with a kind of fascinated disgust, like a dustman arriving in the Ascot enclosure. The reaction to Norwich’s run began as amused condescension and ended up as outright contempt,” wrote Taylor.
Norwich stayed in the hunt until April. The Carrow Road fanzine “Liverpool Are On The Telly Again” had been born, a protest at big club preoccupation. “Just Accept It, Hansen,” ran the headline, when Norwich went top, defying all pundits’ predictions.
In the end, they too were flattened, by Manchester United. Hansen only had to accept that Liverpool’s perch was gone, but not to Canaries.
This week, men like Taylor will have noted a little sniffiness emerge at Leicester’s pass completion stats. At their possession numbers.
Even as most people glory in the Premier League’s most romantic story, fans with everything at stake will imagine all kinds of sleights, now they’ve caught a glimpse.
It’s different now, and there are different ways to deal.
Even in more democratic times, what Brian Clough did with promoted Nottingham Forest in 1978 was a miracle. Clough didn’t just allow his players a glimpse, he obliged them and everyone else to stare. “You just fucking wait and see. We’re better than you fucking think we are.”
As Duncan Hamilton put it in Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: “There was no discernible trace of self-doubt in him, just a reluctant acceptance that it would be some time before the rest of us appreciated the seismic movement going on in the First Division.”
Clough could carry a City’s hopes — a nation’s, if they’d only let him. Diego Simeone looks that kind of guy, too, but two years ago, he insisted, right until the end, that Atletico’s task was ‘impossible’, that forces as powerful as Madrid and Barcelona could not be overcome.
He didn’t want anyone sneaking a glimpse. Any setback was embraced almost as vindication. “You’ll see, I’m right. It will be Real or Barca at the end.” Maybe he goaded his team into proving him wrong.
Until now, Claudio Ranieri has worked from an older template.
Osvaldo Bagnoli’s Hellas Verona shocked Serie A in 1985, taking their one title with a small counter-attacking squad of cheap cast-offs.
“For my part, I had never spoken about the Scudetto in public, only about survival,” said Bagnoli later. “Obviously in the dressing room, I’d said to my lads that I had the impression that we could do something important this year, but I also recommended that these thoughts should stay in the dressing room.”
The 40 points mantra, has been Ranieri’s version.
It worked for Clough to make it about him. “I’ll tell you how we did it,” he said once to Hamilton.
“‘If we ever got too high and mighty, I just had to call a team meeting and go around the room. I could point to Robbo and say, ‘You were a tramp when I came here, now you’re the best winger in the game’. I could tell Burnsy and Lloydy that they’d both have been on the scrapheap without me. I could pick out Frank Clark and say that I’d just given him the best years of his career after Newcastle.”
But just as Ranieri insists he “speak little of tactics” to his players, that he “trusts them”, Bagnoli too backed away from alchemist status.
“Football is a simple game. I trained players that deserved the scudetto without being Machiavellian, without any secrets, without inventing any new tactics.”
With his almost childlike wonder at effervescent men like N’Golo Kante, Claudio is trying to convince them they deserve this. “It wouldn’t surprise me if one day he were to cross the ball and get into the box to head it.”
And yet, he will also know well the famous caution of respected Italian pundit Mario Sconcerti: “Every surprise in football lasts a maximum of 30 games.”
Maybe it’s why we heard more than usual from Claudio this week. Interviewed in his native tongue, he dug deep for beautiful, inspirational, words as if he knows it’s different now. “I always tell my players to find the fire within themselves. Seek that fire, don’t be ashamed of it. And they are not ashamed, if anything, they demand to dream.”
And yet, as he stands on the brink of a first ever title, a crowning glory for a dignified, respected but under-rewarded career, you wondered who he was talking about when he said: “A chance like this will never come round again,”
A man who has allowed himself a glimpse.
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