When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put away a last-gasp winner to secure the European Cup for Manchester United in 1999, manager Alex Ferguson had just three words to say. “Football. Bloody hell.”
Who couldn’t have been thinking that when Eden Hazard’s mercurial right boot dispatched the goal that would win the Premier League title for Leicester City? Football has given us some stories. But few quite like this.
Rated at 5000-1 to lift the trophy by the bookmakers before a ball had been kicked back in August, Leicester had pulled off one of the greatest escapes in the history of the Premier League. Bottom of the table at Christmas – an almost unerring death knell for teams staring into the abyss of Championship football – a run of seven victories in their last nine league fixtures saw them escape relegation by a margin of just six points. Now, almost seven years to the day since the plucky Foxes won the third division of English football, they were confirmed as champions of the top division for the first time in their entire history.
Every bit of Leicester’s success is steeped in unimaginable improbability. Top scorer, Jamie Vardy, was turning out for eighth-division Stocksbridge Park Steels at the age of 23. At the age of 28, he went on to break Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of scoring in nine consecutive Premier League games by finding the net eleven matches in a row. His talismanic teammate, Riyad Mahrez, was a graduate of fourth division French side Quimper Kerfeunteun (No, me neither) in 2009. This year the magisterial French wingman was voted PFA player of the year. Together they’ve been part of a side that’s given football’s affectionately-dubbed ‘tinkerman', whose career has taken him from Chelsea, to Juventus, to Monaco, his first top flight title in football at the age of 64.
Football’s great unlikely victories most often come in two forms. You have the spirited comeback by a wounded giant – like Liverpool’s three goal salvo in 2005 that put them on the path to European glory. Or you have the one-off encounter of David and Goliath – Wimbledon’s 1988 FA Cup final victory, which also involved Liverpool, leaps immediately to mind. This was neither. This was the story of a rank outsider that held its nerve over a thirty-eight game season.
We all thought their early season form was a one-off. We all thought it couldn’t last. Then team bottom at Christmas the previous season was top at Christmas the next. An away win to Tottenham in January caught our attention. An away win to Manchester City four weeks later caught the imagination. Gradually it became obvious that the fearless foxes were genuine contenders for the greatest prize in English football. The inevitable drop off never arrived. Their exhilarating blend of staunch defence and breakneck counterattacks has delivered just three league defeats out of thirty six games played.
It really has been a title race for the underdog. Amid all of Leicester City’s deserved limelight, Tottenham’s contribution to the most fabulous of championship battles is too readily ignored. Though much of their conduct in the match that ended their championship hopes was lamentable – Erik Lamela, Kyle Walker, and particularly Moussa Dembélé were extremely fortunate to escape red for egregious fouls – they are a marvellously well-run club. All signs point towards a team on the up, and who deserve to be – star turns such as Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen are not the acquisitions of extravagant exuberance but of astute recruitment. There’s a stadium on the way to rival that of their North London rivals, and they have an outstanding young manager tied down for the next five years. And the prodigious Pochettino brimmed with class and decorum after a title decider lacking in either: ‘Congratulations to Claudio, the players and the supporters of Leicester,’ he said. ‘It’s been a massive, amazing season for them. They deserve it. We need to make sure that we’re in the race again for the title next season.’
That not one, but two clubs have ousted the financial clout of clubs like Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs with little more than careful planning and progressive coaching is stunning. So don’t let the fact that this was the unlikeliest winner of the English top flight since newly-promoted Nottingham Forest became English champions in 1978 distract from the fact that this was a title race that tore the rulebook to shreds and discarded it.
In spite of all that, be in no doubt that Leicester thoroughly deserve this success. But their title win is just such an anomaly, such an exception, so unexpected, that it’s impossible to know where they go from here. So when Wes Morgan lifts Premier League trophy at home to Everton this Saturday, make sure you cherish it. You might never see anything like it again.