The international break is over, so we can all stop getting a bit giddy about England’s prospects for the summer on the basis of one result/getting a bit gloomy about England’s prospects for the summer on the basis of one result. It’s time to get back to the more workaday business of domestic affairs, the undulating ‘narrative’ of the Premier League and the unlikely, implausible, completely ridiculous and fairytale story of Leicester, five points clear and odds on to win the whole bloody thing.
What a tale it is, too. A manager, universally acknowledged to be a delightful avuncular old soul, plucked from the scrapheap fresh from being hosed by the Faroe Islands. A collection of players who had literally never played football before last August (check this – Ed). A famous fan who hasn’t looked this happy since his agent rang and said “Walkers have been on the phone, how do you fancy selling some crisps?”
This is the ultimate underdog story, a team who more or less everyone thought would get relegated, pulling down the pants of every team in the world’s richest league, smacking their bottoms red raw and running away giggling like schoolboys who’ve just egged the headteacher’s house. David has taken on several Goliaths, and has somehow managed to construct a slingshot that takes out them all. They are ultimate feel-good story in a game that has precious few feel-good stories.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Leicester are winning this title with a few rather unpalatable characters in their team. Last summer Jamie Vardy was fined and reprimanded by the club after racially abusing a Japanese man in a casino, for which he later apologised. Leicester later made it clear that the Daily Telegraph’s Jonathan Liew would not be welcome at the King Power Stadium after he wrote a blog about Vardy’s actions, exactly the sort of thing a PR department would do when trying to brush something under the carpet. Last year Danny Simpson was convicted for assaulting his girlfriend, an assault that saw him straddle the woman in question and throttle her, apparently in an argument over some shoes Simpson bought that he then decided she “didn’t deserve.” He escaped jail and instead got 300 hours community service, some of which was spent being a bingo caller in Salford. And also last year Robert Huth was fined by the FA for posting links to a transphobic game and account on Twitter.
Thus, at the moment of a Leicester win, or Vardy scoring a goal, or Simpson winning praise for his attacking runs down the right flank, the instinctive reaction is to be momentarily thrilled at what they have achieved and are achieving, only for a few minutes later to remember and think ‘Yeah, but…’
Football is not exactly a haven for the morally righteous, and perhaps some players at other clubs have done similar things and managed to get away with it, but the actions of a few in Leicester’s squad at the very least give a moment’s pause, and take the edge off the warm and fuzzy feeling that an unlikely sporting victory gives. It’s a little like seeing a local independent coffee shop resisting an aggressive takeover attempt by Starbucks, only to discover the proprietors kick puppies around their yard for sport. Or put signs like this in their sugar bowl.
There is always the argument that we should simply assume that most footballers do some fairly unpleasant things anyway, that their play is all that matters so their actions off the pitch should be discounted. That makes a small amount of sense, but it does fall down a little when you consider people like Marlon King or Ched Evans. If you’re happy having convicted domestic abusers or rapists in your team then all the best to you, but football teams are supposed to be extensions of their fans and in many cases communities. Expecting them to be monastic role models who set a shining example for the children is unrealistic, but not racially abusing or throttling someone does seem to be a baseline of decent human behaviour.
Of course, if we are to only admire sportsmen, or indeed artists, musicians, actors and so forth if they’re fine upstanding citizens, then we could be in some trouble. No more John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Bill Murray (yeah, even Bill Murray – sorry), Sean Connery…we could go on; your CD racks and bookshelves might start looking pretty empty. Therefore separating the art from the artist, so you can still enjoy ‘Abbey Road’, or ‘The White Room’, or ‘Ghostbusters’, or ‘Dr No’, is not exactly ideal but is a useful compromise.
It is, after all, perfectly possible to hold both views simultaneously; to be thrilled at English football’s most unlikely title win since Ipswich managed it in their first ever top-flight season back in 1962, while at the same time expressing distaste for the actions of their players.
But even if you can hold both of those opinions, it still remains that at least some of the joy this Leicester side bring is worn away by the other sins of a few. The fairytale is not quite as idyllic as it could be.