Leicester City Don’t Need To Believe In Fairy Tales
As a species, we humans tend to like our narratives to be simple. We like black and white. Good guys and bad guys. The ultimate triumph of righteousness over evil. Real life, however, seldom seems to be quite so clear-cut. Things that seem bad can turn out to have redeeming qualities. The ostensibly virtuous can have a darker side. And the cognitive dissonance that this causes can be difficult. We are, after all, surrounded by simplistic stories from a very young age.
It is, therefore, easy to understand why the ascent of Leicester City to the top of the Premier League this season has been painted in the way in which it has. The club has ridden from the foot of the league table to its peak in twelve months, and it hasn’t done so by throwing half a billion pounds on the table and hoping for the best. It is, perhaps, as close to a fairy tale as professional football in the capable of producing at a club level in the twenty-first century.
There’s a problem with fairy tales, though. They’re not true. The current Leicester City team may well be managed by perhaps the most likeable man in top flight football at the moment and its rag-tag team of professionals may an unlikely group to be leading the Premier League table with four matches of the season left to play, but this team could hardly be described as a group of humble angels who spend their time between matches quietly polishing their halos.
Questions have been asked – and rightly so – about the corporate structure of the club as a means to bypass financial fair play regulations, whilst the prior behaviour of one or two of their players – including, of course, the player that has become their talisman over the course of this season – has in the past been questionable, to say the least. And the behaviour of some of their players has been a mixture of some of the worst character traits displayed by professional footballers across the board, in recent times.
Last Saturday, the infantilisation of the stories their season seemed to hit quite hard against the buffers of reality. Jamie Vardy got himself sent off for a mildly ridiculous second yellow card for simulation which was very quickly compounded by yelling obscenities at the referee from a close distance, which has this week led to an FA charge and the strong possibility of a one match ban – the timing of which probably couldn’t have been any worse – being extended further yet. There were two partisan groups speaking most loudly about events at The King Power Stadium last Sunday.
On the one hand, there were those who seem to wish for the illusion of fairy tale to continue to sit in front of us, for whom the plucky underdogs can do nothing wrong in their quest to overturn the bigger clubs’ apple carts. On the other, meanwhile, there are those for whom Vardy’s simulation and his contorted face inches from the face of the referee harked back to the darker side of his personality, the side that manifested itself so aggressively in a casino last year, which follows him around to this day and which will do most likely for the remainder of his career.
None of this, of course, is to make excuses for him or his behaviour, and the same goes for the club itself and what may well be interpreted as its financial chicanery over the years. Those amongst us with long memories will recall that the club collapsed into administration October in 2002 with debts of more than £30 million, brought about by the collapse of ITV Digital and costs of building the club’s new stadium, which were eventually resolved through a CVA which returned just 10p in the pound to non-football creditors.
The club’s promotion back to the Premier League in 2004, as this was being tied up, led to the introduction of the now standard ten point deduction for entering into administration. Similarly, money that poured into the club through sponsorship and stadium naming rights agreements facilitated by a company owned by the club’s owners have been criticised as an effective breach of the Football League’s financial fair play regulations have been questioned, and rightly so.
So Leicester City’s ascent to the Premier League isn’t whiter than white, but perhaps the most surprising element to this story has been the extent to which some have wished to promote it as a fairy tale of some sort when it really isn’t one. This shouldn’t, however, diminish what this season has been for the club. For Leicester City to be already guaranteed a place in the group stages of the Champions League this season and to have one hand on the Premier League trophy at this stage in the season in an era during which the calcification of clubs’ league positions according to their wealth has become a serious issue across the whole of Europe is a significant achievement, regardless of that mentioned above.
Drawing comparisons across historical eras can be a fool’s errand. Nottingham Forest’s First Division championship win in 1978 was the last title win to create waves like Leicester have made this season, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that in winning the European Cup the following year, their winning goal in the final was scored by Trevor Francis, whose signature for the club from Birmingham City in February 1979 more than doubled the British record transfer fee. Alternatively, we may look back to Ipswich Town’s Football League championship win of 1962 as being an upset of similar proportions, but is it fair to draw comparisons between the scale of the task of a smaller club in the corporate, Premier League twenty-first century with one which only came just over a year after the abolition of the maximum wage?
Of course, a large part of the problem is that we cannot divorce professional football from the economics that underpin it the same way that we used to. The game has changed, as has the way in which we, as observers, frame it. Similarly, it long ago became almost impossible to divorce the behaviour of professional footballers from their achievements on the pitch. Jamie Vardy shouldn’t receive a free pass on his atrocious behaviour last year on account of the fact that he has scored a lot of goals. If anything, the fact that this particular continues to follow him around is a part of the cost of what he did, and it is likely more harmful to him than the fine that he had to pay, the apologies that he had to issue or the diversity awareness course that he had to attend could ever have been. Indeed, it may even be that this incident has largely prevented him from being able to present himself as a brand in the way that many players do nowadays.
But we can recognise these things, see them for what they are, and still be astonished by Leicester City’s achievements over the course of the last nine months. To have outperformed everybody else in the Premier League is an astonishing achievement, perhaps the biggest single achievement in the entire history of English football, and it might just be that we are still too close to this to see it for what it is. Nothing should be glossed over because Jamie Vardy has scored a lot of goals this season, just as the club’s financial machinations should not be ignored because it’s at the top of the Premier League and any criticism might spoil the narrative for some. The story of Leicester City over the course of this season is a story for the ages on its own merits. It doesn’t need to be a fairy tale to be as extraordinary as it already is.