Kevin Keegan knows a bit about fairtytale endings except, that for him, there was to be no happy ever after when English football’s greatest tale of the unexpected — until Leicester City came along — reached its climax on a famous night in Madrid in 1980.
“Yeah, Nottingham Forest beat us in the European Cup final when I was at Hamburg,” the former European player of the year grimaced, as he recalled ending up on the wrong end of a truly astonishing achievement: Forest’s successful defence of their European title just a couple of seasons after maverick genius Brian Clough had brought a team of supposed journeymen and also-rans up from the Second Division.
“That said, back in the late 60s/early ’70s six different teams won the league in six different years,” Keegan pointed out, when we spoke last Friday. “It used to be shared out. Derby could win the league. Everton could win the league. Leeds could win the league. Liverpool could. Man City could. But over the last 10, 12 years, you know the top four, just about, before the season starts. You just don’t know what order they’re going to finish in.
“So it was getting, dare I say it, boring. And this Leicester team have just given inspiration to everybody. I mean, Bournemouth must think, ‘if they can do it, why can’t we?’”
That Leicester City, the little team that could, are fully deserving champions of England is beyond dispute. They have confounded conventional wisdom right from the start — chiefly that you can’t expect to challenge for the Premier League without spending the biggest bucks or having a marquee manager — and they were still defying expectations at the finish, when even many of those who had already been thoroughly won by their improbable rise and rise still feared that altitude sickness would finally get the better of them as they closed in on the summit.
Instead, it was Spurs who buckled under the pressure, first against West Brom and again, decisively, at Stamford Bridge last night, while Leicester made light of the absence of the suspended Jamie Vardy in demolishing Swansea and then, when his role as an outlet was perhaps most urgently needed, by showing trademark resilience to come back from the concession of an early goal and take a share of the points at Old Trafford.
But without wishing to detract in any way from the wonderful qualities which this team brought to their title success, that 1-1 draw with a Manchester United side which began Sunday’s game as if they were of a mind to put nervy opponents to the sword, was a reminder that no assessment of Leicester’s uplifting success can be entirely credible without acknowledging how the Premier League’s pre-season favourites — the usual suspects Keegan refers to — helped clear the road for the unlikeliest lads.
Chelsea set about surrendering the crown almost right from the off, the reigning champions never recovering from Jose Mourinho’s implosion. Manchester City have always had more of a whiff of project than team about them and, amid their own games of managerial roulette, have also been distracted by their ongoing Champions League adventure.
United are still struggling to find a strong enough personality to fill that gaping Alex Ferguson-shaped hole.
And Arsenal continue to be, well, Arsenal.
It’s hardly a coincidence that this has been a Premier League season when not just one but two clubs — Spurs being the other — have managed to infiltrate and upend the old order.
“A lot of teams that were strong have weakened themselves by getting rid of managers too quickly as well as buying players that they don’t need,” Keegan observed of the changing of the guard. “It’s been a greed thing, like trying to collect all the pebbles on the beach. I mean, Chelsea have got 31 players out on loan. That shouldn’t be allowed. They shouldn’t be allowed to sign all the good young kids and then say, ‘well they’re not good enough for us now, so we’ll throw ‘em out to these clubs and maybe one or two of them will come off’.
“Leicester have probably only got about 16 good players. But they have had that bit of luck you always need too, mainly not having injuries to key players. And they’ve got a manager who has got it right after a terrible experience with Greece and then coming in with this reputation as a tinker man and a nearly man.”
At which point, Keegan proffered a most flattering comparison, drawn from his own storied playing past.
“You know what? I think Claudio Ranieri did what Bob Paisley did at Liverpool when he took over from Bill Shankly. He looked at what he’d got and he thought: ‘it’s not broke here, so I don’t need to fix it’.”
Although it would only be properly recognised with the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, what the Italian actually found when he fetched up at the King Power Stadium was a side coming off the back of a title-winning run of form — except, of course, that they had been obliged to put it together at the wrong end of the table as, under Nigel Pearson, the Foxes pulled off last season’s great escape.
To most people, that had the look of being the pinnacle of Leicester’s achievements but, like The Godfather II following The Godfather, they have succeeded in creating a sequel which has not only eclipsed the stunning original but is a thing of such historic dimensions that it’s destined to go down as an all-time classic of, not just the Premier League, but world football.
There have been so many feelgood factors feeding into this story, from wise ownership to the ceaseless racket in the stands, but ultimately it comes down to the talent and work rate and desire of the men who have crossed the white line and excelled themselves, week-in, week-out, both as individuals and as a team.
Of course, the added romance comes from all those heart-warming narratives of personal redemption: the all-action, hugely influential N’Golo Kante, who was playing in the French 8th division five years ago; rock solid skipper Wes Morgan who debuted in the Premier League at age 30; Danny Simpson and Danny Drinkwater, both Manchester United cast-offs; the wonderful Riyad Mahrez, spotted by perceptive scout Steve Walsh and bought for just £400,000 from Le Havre; and, of course, the rags to riches saga to beat them all, in the form of Jamie Vardy’s late development from non-league to Premier League to England international.
The critical x-factor of Mahrez’ Algerian alchemy and Vardy’s own penchant for turning base metal into goals has been the key to converting a team that could be hard to beat into the team that would eventually beat all-comers to the biggest prize.
There has been nothing enigmatic about the Foxes’ fundamentals — which, to put it almost as simply as their football, have been about every individual knowing what he has to do and consistently giving everything for the collective cause. But for a side which rarely dominated possession in any given 90 minutes, and was often content to play on the counter-attack, the transformative element has been the creative flair of Mahrez and the devastating pace of Vardy, whose combined goal haul of 41 pretty much makes its own title-winning case.
And so a title-winning mission impossible, forged in the white heat of a great escape from relegation, has been successfully concluded. And now, gloriously, the Champions League beckons.
Could Leicester City really go all the way and do a Nottingham Forest next year? Could they do to Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich what they’ve done to the Premier League’s big guns?
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