It is the gloriously improbable, the sheer unpredictability of sport, but very particularly football, that gives it such opportunity to enrich our lives. Some months ago a well-known racehorse trainer from the West Country, an area steeped in Rugby Union, fell into discussion with me about his failure to appreciate what we call football. I explained that football is a game of few scores, rugby has many high scores.
“But this means,” he argued, “that the best team don’t always win”
“Precisely, that is why we love it.”
And of course, I went on, over the course of a season the best team does in the end win, but cup competitions have most often improbable winners.
There has been much talk in the media that this Premier League season has been the most unpredictable. Unpredictable, no; improbable yes. As it has worn on Aston Villa has become the most consistent team – consistently rubbish – Leicester equally consistently good, and at the end the best are the champions and Villa, the worst and bottom. Logical? Who looks for logic? Otherwise the most powerful teams, the best-bred horse, would win every time.
The days since Eden Hazard scored Chelsea’s equaliser last Monday to hand Leicester their first ever top-flight title have been gloriously mad. Unbelievable, and beyond my wildest dreams, have been the most overworked words in the English language in this corner of the East Midlands. When my wife was told that it was a “once in a lifetime event,” Margaret, who like that racehorse trainer has never quite grasped football replied, “I certainly hope so.”
What a day it was in the most unremarkable of towns on Saturday, the city where JB Priestley observed years ago that nobody appeared to have much fun. When the Italian opera singer Andrea Bocceli, standing alongside Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri, shed his hood to reveal a blue City shirt, and the crowd joined in a deafening crescendo to Nessun Dorma, the roof did appear to be in danger of coming off the stadium, and the description of this as the greatest story ever was just for a moment not the greatest hyperbole in a world littered with such. And Shakespeare’s five hundred year-old assertion that Brutus was “the noblest Roman of them all” no longer holds. Ranieri is truly the most improbable character in Leicester City’s saga, never mind the 5,000-1 odds against Leicester winning the title this season. Who, a year ago, as Nigel Pearson led virtually the same team out of the relegation zone, would have predicted Pearson’s demise and Ranieri’s appointment?
Last Saturday, I had the honour of entertaining my boyhood heroes, the 1963 City team that so nearly won the double, to the final home match of the season. When Jimmy Mulville likewise entertained a group of us at Goodison fourteen months ago, in a rash gesture I said that as Jimmy had done I would sponsor the corresponding match at Leicester next season, confident in the knowledge that since relegation was certain, it wouldn’t happen, and my wallet was safe from extravagant incursion. So before the fixtures came out in June and fresh from the adrenaline of The Great Escape I booked the deal. The rest as they say is history, and as the crowd sang and Leicester tumulted in glorious ecstasy, Richie Norman, an unsung hero of the Ice Age Champs whispered in soft Geordie tones to me, “Even if we had won the double, it would never have been like this.”
Richie is 80 now, the senior member of the sextet of those great men sat around me, who so entranced the emotions of a twelve year old all those years ago, only to leave a broken heart, and scars in the minds of all Leicester men of a certain age. He told me a week or so ago as we chatted of the prospect of this day, how as a member of that top of the League side he approached the manager, Matt Gillies, with a view to a rise from £15 a week. The gentleman Scot reacted with customary politeness and reserve, and told him that times were tough, the cold weather had caused turnstiles to need repair and there was no chance.”I just turned round and went home,” Richie said with a chuckle and without the slightest hint of rancour.
And so the game featuring players from the same club earning that amount per second eventually started and they did not disappoint at least those in the City blue. Everton, who won that title 53 years ago, are also blues, but their supporters had them rather than wore them. The fairy story went on. Jamie Vardy, returning to the fold after the mayhem of West Ham, finished with real aplomb to give Leicester he lead after five minutes. Andy King, who now only scores at the most incredible of times, and has charted the Foxes’ rise from the misery of being owned by Milan Mandaric at the club’s lowest ebb to this day of days added another. Remember it was his first goal since in last season’s win against the Hammers he kick-started that Great Escape. Vardy, the man from the prosthetic limb factory, added another from the penalty spot, then as if to prove we were not dreaming he missed the fairy tale hat-trick, blasting high over the bar from the spot again, and Everton’s Mirallas scored a wonderful consolation. Rarely if ever has an opposition goal been so generously applauded.
At the final whistle, Wes Morgan, our captain, lifted the trophy, fireworks lit the early evening sky and the top, the Chairman’s son ran off with the trophy – on and on he went almost half way round the stadium. Amongst the plethora of revelations from the canalside last week was that the revival of Jamie Vardy’s career was prompted by the super-motivational encouragement of Toptop, the boy chairman. “Come on Vards you must do better.”
Wow! I must try that one sometime on my underperforming dogs.
Eventually he gave the trophy back, and Huth and Fuchs, Vardy and Mahrez, Okazaki and Ulloa, Simpson and Albrighton, Schmeichel and Kanté, Captain Morgan, the Captain Fantastic and brown dirt cowboy “hardly a hero just someone your mother might know” twinkling stars and journeymen footballers basked in the acclaim of an astonished city.
As I walked away still in that euphoric dream, a place where no-one bore other than the broadest smile, the experience was akin to a late-night bus in London: so many different languages, races, colours and creeds. Truly in this most racially-diverse of cities there was fun in abundance. I was so carried away I never got the chance to seek out the gourmet burger barge.