So what was it about, the Leicester Story? Something misperceived by those who ultimately oversaw it, no doubt. But the beauty of it is that, even now, when its magic has sunk in beyond the ‘this isn’t happening’ surface level of last season to the ‘that did happen’ level of this, I still don’t think what it was and is has taken on its lasting, unicorn shape. It’s not really their fault, that the owners don’t know how to act now, thinking that this might still be something of a regular horse they’re supposed to be handling.
If you were to answer ‘what defines the Premier League era?’, there are some easy touch-points to reach for: United’s ownership of its 90s adolescence, Arsenal’s Invincibles and then, more grindingly, Chelsea’s money then City’s money. And yet, now, you start to wonder – is the thing that truly defines it the thing that was nothing like any of them? The belief in the sun orbiting around the earth being defined by Galileo’s telescope, as it were.
In more day-to-day football terms, there’s the predictably accidental, boneheaded cruelty being applied by sensible, rational men like Paul Merson and Martin Keown to Leicester’s players this season. This column has wittered at length on how incapable footballers are of understanding footballers, beyond the most uselessly superficial elements. I think, given that the world is currently overdosing on hate, it doesn’t do anything particularly useful to hate on them for being thick; their physical intelligence, in terms of the way their body can shift its weight, judge speeds and distances and necessary angles and everything else, is on a genius-level compared to mine, and at the top end that puts them in the top 0.1% of the planet’s earners, whereas I am still regularly trying to add together the ‘pence’ scores in supermarkets while making mental referrals to my bank balance.
But in terms of perceptional, theoretical intelligence, they’ve got nada. Literally not a sausage of useful analysis has seemingly ever passed through Michael Ballack’s head. Even though I love how richly satisfied, how assuredly a ‘job done top that one lads if you can’ smile follows a proclamation that “a striker always needs to score goals to feel like he’s a part of the team”.
So it’s beyond their grasp to lay out the incapacitating new dynamics that Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy are now having to play under. So I’ll do it. Both of them knew, let’s say around 2011, when one was on loan at Barnsley and the other at Fleetwood, that they were never going to reach the top of the game. That is, they were never going to play for the clubs in that micro-cluster at English football’s pinnacle that won stuff. That remains true.
But now, the season after the triumph, they have to play both as champions in defence not of the exciting, yes, but still meat-and-potatoes ‘money-spent begets trophies-banked’ kind of sequence that City or Chelsea recognise, but of magic, in actual defence of magic; while at the same time, having to play like what they know they actually are. Riyad Mahrez, Kasper Schmeichel and departed friends aside, these are guys who knew they were never meant to reach the biggest of big times.
This, I fancy, provides more potential for conflicted thoughts than footballers are keen to entertain, and the results have been a consequence of conflicted performance after conflicted performance. Who are we, really? Last season, you suspect that the deepest thought Jamie Vardy had, with every run he made and shot he hit, was ‘Jamie Vardy’s having a party’ (24 goals); this season, it’s all ‘Who am I, really?’ (5 goals).
Of course, away from all this more floaty stuff is the practical reality that N’Golo Kante is possibly a better player than Claude Makelele, because he can also pick out some pretty elegant passes and complete some mini-bull dribbles and keep it together when he gets in the box, as well as all the indomitable shielding. Consistency, yeah, but for now, he could be. I would have liked, just for a cherry to stick on the unicorn’s spike, for Leicester in the close season to have rung up Real Madrid, circa 2003, to ask them who truly is the most important player to keep in your side, and Madrid could have warned them.
A part of me feels they must have been right to sack Claudio Ranieri, given how slack-jawed and empty his insides must feel in this second season. Ranieri (figuratively) has been nipping at some pretty thin liquor for his entire career, got used to it, you assume, and then from nowhere got served the opiate motherload. Think, for a moment, of what it’s actually like to have his career. How barbarically tinny a collection of silver and bronze medals knocking around in the garage it presents as the almost-but-not-quite mockingjays of his managerial capability. At 64, when he took over at Leicester, he knew who ‘Claudio Ranieri’ was, and doubtless knew how this last lap of his career would look.
But no, he didn’t. There is something eye-rollingly giddy about the opening scenes of an NBC documentary I watched, in the bath, about Leicester’s title-winning year. At Ranieri’s unveiling, Chief Exec Susan Whelan gives it the ol’ college try with her platitudes about what a successful, competent manager they have found. While we’re all sitting there thinking yeah Suze, this is Ranieri we’re talking about.
Then for a moment, the wraith of that season’s Premier League trophy shivers into focus on the dais of the little Leicester press room. It is beyond belief, and that’s a nice place for anything to live.
There is, though, a lesson to take from it, and that’s a nice thing, when it’s an actual lesson with an actual hug and a high five at the end of the episode. Don’t give up. Truly, don’t. Kante, Mahrez, Drinkwater, Vardy, Ranieri, Schmeichel when he was dropping out of the league his father dominated to trawl his loan contract around Falkirk and Bury, Danny Simpson…all of them would have had justifiable reasons to believe they would never be part of something truly special. So the lesson is, leave yourself unjustified, because as Leicester prove, you really don’t know.
Toby Sprigings – follow him on Twitter here