Leicester City are going to win the Premier League. Leicester City. Leicester. City. The trouble with a football season is that it takes a bit too long, and things like this have time to become average, normal, but possibly also without really ever even sinking in. Leicester have now been at or near enough the top since November, five long months for us all to take it in, dismiss it as a flash in the pan, realise it’s not actually a flash in the pan, take it in again, and then for it to almost become sane. That there isn’t a lot of tension about the whole thing (aside from among Leicester fans, at least) with three games to spare could take some of the wonder of it away a little too.
But Leicester City are going to win the Premier League. Leicester City. Leicester. City. Martin Tyler’s declaration that ‘you’ll never see anything like this ever again’ after Sergio Aguero’s goal in 2012 has been proven incorrect inside four years. And while it’s phenomenal for them, and most neutrals, Leicester have ruined things for everyone else. What is possible in the Premier League has been redefined, the measure of success recalibrated, to the extent that achievements elsewhere have gone virtually ignored.
Southampton are about to finish in the top eight for the third season in a row, having been in League One five years ago. West Ham have a very good chance of finishing fifth when some (read: this column) wondered if they’d made a mistake in ditching the ‘sure thing’ that was Sam Allardyce. Bournemouth – Bournemouth! – are safe, and haven’t really been in any danger of relegation since early March having only been in the bottom three for three weeks all season. Even Spurs, who are receiving plenty of praise, probably would be receiving plenty more if it was Manchester City or Chelsea they’d pushed until the last few weeks.
In any other season, the acclaim for all of those teams would be much louder and longer, but largely because of Leicester, it isn’t. That’s either because there’s only so much capacity in the British psyche for positivity (perfectly possible) or because their achievements are insignificant next to Leicester’s. By comparison, Southampton seem like they’re plateauing; West Ham could finish behind Liverpool; Bournemouth haven’t set their ambitions high enough; Spurs are first losers.
It’s an extraordinary thing that might not properly sink in for a while, but sink in it will. By that point this Leicester squad might realise that they’re never going to do anything like this again, if they haven’t already. In terms of probability, the chances of Leicester finishing anywhere near the top next season, or making much of an impression on Europe, is like a mile-wide comet hitting the earth on a Monday, followed by another on Tuesday. It might happen, but don’t put your lunch money on it, never mind the mortgage.
This is the high-point for most of their players: after this they will make a nice bit of money, plenty will go on to have very pleasant careers, some may even move on and win more things with bigger clubs. N’Golo Kante will probably move before too long, Riyad Mahrez too, maybe Jamie Vardy, but what of the rest? They are having what Americans call ‘career years’, unlikely to be repeated, and certainly not at the same time as their colleagues, the cosmic simultaneousness of them all peaking in the same season being one of the big reasons for Leicester’s success.
Most of the rest should probably all retire on the spot, assuming they collect the three required points, because it’s all going to be downhill from here. Of course, the players won’t actually jack it in, but what of Claudio Ranieri?
The loveable old fruitloop seems pretty excited about the prospect of managing in the Champions League again, and Leicester should probably give him a job for life, doing whatever he wants to do, but this is his crowning achievement. What is there to stick around for next season? A creditable league finish? A plucky away point at Bayer Leverkeusen in the Champions League? A nice day out at the Charity Shield in August? If he saunters off with a league winners’ medal, shaking everyone’s hand on the way, then his career will end in the best possible manner, and everyone will love him for it. This is a manager who’s gone from a laughing stock to probably the greatest single-season achievement in English domestic history, inside nine months. What could top that?
After winning the World Cup with Italy in 2006, Marcello Lippi retired to sail his boat around the Mediterranean, but then ruined it all by coming back a few years later to do…well, worse. The best Richard Moller Nielsen had to show for his ‘post-winning Euro 92 with Denmark’ career was the 1995 Confederations Cup, before managing Finland and Israel. After winning Euro 2004, Otto Rehhagel’s Greece didn’t qualify for one tournament and went out in the first round of two more, then he came out of retirement to get relegated with Hertha Berlin. These were managers who very identifiably reached their career high points, but bafflingly decided to carry on. This is where Ranieri is now.
So few managers get to decide when to end their careers, but Ranieri can, and in the best possible circumstances. It’s been great having you around Claudio, but get out while it’s all still glorious.