Ding Dong Merrily On High?
For the eve that’s in it, yes, of course.
But it can only be ‘Dilly Ding Dilly Dong Merrily On High’ for the season that was in it in the Premier League.
From Dundalk to Iceland, there were plenty of candidates for the starring role of footballing underdogs turned top dogs in 2016 – the year in which we learned that everything we know is wrong – but, at the end of it all, the story of Leicester City’s title triumph remains untouchable.
Not so much a case of Christmas coming early for the little club that could, more like they wished it could be Christmas every day - and it was.
All this and the man at the helm was a twinkly-eyed old soul with an ever ready ‘ho, ho, ho’, a feelgood character straight from central casting almost, except that, a bit like his team and quite unlike Yer Man, Claudio Ranieri defied all the pre-season predictions by not getting the sack.
Ok, enough of the festive puns. After all, if Leicester’s title was the stuff of fairytales – and it was – it was nevertheless a staggering achievement which was firmly rooted in sport’s eternal verities of desire, spirit, honest effort, sound organisation and inspired light touch leadership, albeit liberally sprinkled with the magic dust of goals, guile and superhuman endeavour as supplied by the outstanding triumvirate of, respectively, Vardy, Mahrez and Kante.
The miraculous transformation in the space of one year which saw the club go from relegation certainties to champions with, lest we forget, a full 10 points to spare over second-placed Arsenal, was reflected in some stirring tales of late development and personal redemption among the players at the King Power, not least of which was the ultimate rags to riches fable of Jamie Vardy’s rise from non-league to Premier League to England international.
And then there was Ranieri himself.
Before fetching up at Leicester, he’d last been seen in a dug-out in Athens in November 2014, looking on helplessly as his Greece team went down to a humiliating 1-0 defeat at home to the mighty Faroe Islands. That earned him the order of the boot after just four games in charge, with the Greek FA president Giorgos Sarris taking full responsibility at the time for what he called “the most unfortunate choice of coach.”
Which is also what more than a few people were saying about his appointment at Leicester City.
They’re not saying that now. But they are beginning to ask a few hard questions given the Foxes find themselves just three places above the drop zone in the Premier League. Relegation might somehow seem almost as improbable for them in 2017 as winning the title was in 2016 - and not least because Leicester, it will be remembered, got out of a much trickier predicament in 2015 – but to avoid the mother of all anti-climaxes, they’ll know that they need to get the hangover out of their collective psyche sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, there’s the small matter of a European adventure to be going on with.
On a recent journalistic speed-dating exercise at Sky Sports HQ, I derived some amusement from adopting a perfectly straight face and asking a couple of the station’s star pundits to assess Leicester’s chances of winning the Champions League. “No chance,” Graeme Souness almost barked.
But wouldn’t you have been saying the same thing about them winning the Premier League this time last year?
So this is a different kind of no chance?
“Yes, because of the exceptional teams in the Champions League.”
Then there was Niall Quinn, who was happier to play ball.
“Round of 16, quarter- finals, semi-final, they’re not too far away, I know,” he chuckled. “It’s kind of mind-blowing to think about, especially with the awful start they had in the Premier League. But until it goes off the rails you won’t hear me saying they won’t do it!”
Souness reckoned success has changed Leicester, and not for the better.
“They had the most incredible season last season,” he said. “They now believe they are better players so they’re less direct and not playing to their strengths. Kante is a big loss to them but that doesn’t explain going from being champions to sitting above the relegation zone. Losing one player – especially a midfield one – is not going to do that. Not scoring goals will. And I think they now see themselves as footballers who feel they have to play a certain way, keeping the ball and passing it around, whereas last season it was about getting into the opposition half as quickly as you can and playing from there. I think they’ve fallen between two stools a bit.”
Maybe so but there’s something about subjecting Leicester City to routine criticism, especially at the close of this unforgettable year, which can’t help coming across as a bit ‘bah, humbug’, like people blathering on about the commercialisation of Christmas and missing the magic of it all.
Leicester made all us all feel like kids this year by making us believe in the impossible. This wasn’t one of those freak one-offs, like The Crazy Gang upsetting The Culture Club. This was a team of 5,000-1 outsiders who, after negotiating 38 games in one of the toughest leagues in the world, were crowned champions in front of their adoring fans to the sound of Andrea Bocelli singing ‘Nessun Dorma’.
You couldn’t make that stuff up. Any more than you could make up a story in which, in 2017, Leicester City are crowned Kings of Europe.
Leicester City eclipsing Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich the way they did Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester City?
Nope. Can’t happen. Won’t happen. Will never happen. Unless… (Looks up, spots strange moving light in the night sky, here’s a faint tinkle of bells and the far off echo of a jovial laugh…)
Happy Christmas one and all.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved