Greatest Achievement in League Football

Greatest Achievement in League Football

Leicester City winning the English Premier League completes a dream season for a club that battled to survival only twelve months previous. This unexpected success still belies belief, for months so-called experts have struggled to give reason for their insurmountable lead. A common denominator is that other teams have failed. This denies The Foxes the full credit they deserve.

The obvious comparison people have gone for is between the current Leicester side and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. Clough’s side gained promotion from the old First Division and went on to win the title as the new boys. Throughout that season they had many doubters. It was deemed unlikely they could maintain the pace and stay at the top.

Sound familiar?

Of course, Forest went onto greater success but this initial title win has been the watermark for all underdogs in English football. Until now. Football was a different game back then. The gap between the haves and the have nots has never been greater than it currently stands. Massive clubs like Liverpool – who are the third highest spenders in Premier League history – have still yet to win their first Premier League title.

Clubs of Leicester’s stature are supposed to be happy with Premier League survival – nothing more. But they haven’t read the script this season, even after a bad start at Arsenal. It’s imperfect beginnings that laid the way for this journey.

Unlike Forest in 1978, who came up in good form and were full of confidence, they should have been riddled with doubts. A great escape didn’t mask their deficiencies. Sacking their manager, Nigel Pearson, after a series of explosive moments could have upset a fragile dressing room. Then they brought in The Tinker Man.

Claudio Ranieri, a man that had never won a top flight championship, was hired to ensure they reached 40 points. Many pundits claimed his arrival would send Leicester down, whenever anyone questioned this they were reminded his Greece side lost to San Marino.

As a polar opposite to Brian Clough, he remained a man happy to be in the shadows. Humble rather than full of Clough’s bravado. He was living the dream along with his fans. His humility sowed the squad together. He protected them from pressure, maintained expectation.

It was a case of all the pieces coming together at the right time. A manager with years of experience, a bunch of players with a point to prove, and the bigger boys struggling for one reason or another. That latter point shouldn’t be used against The Foxes. If teams failed to meet their personal targets for the season it doesn’t take away from Leicester’s success.

The league table never, ever, lies. Only three defeats speak volumes in a season where so many teams have struggled for form and stability. Some of the big guns may have been shy, but somebody had to take the chance. It was Leicester that came out head and shoulders above the rest.

A man that once tinkered stuck with familiar players. Unlike so many current managers, that claim to have an “ideology” or “project” as a cover for stubbornly sticking to rigid tactics, Ranieri evolved along with his players. They started the season almost playing like a Sunday league side, fast on the counter, looking like grinding out results was above them and it was only a matter of time before they became unstuck. Rather than become stale, they morphed into a side capable of chalking up one-nils.

It proves that cash doesn’t guarantee victory. The football goliaths should hang their heads in shame. Extensive scouting networks and the best facilities in the land have continued to show snobbery and fail to give talent within the lower leagues a chance. How many more Jamie Vardys are hidden, waiting for someone to take a gamble?

Naysayers have pointed to Leicester’s summer transfer spend but it is small fry compared to the likes of clubs expected to finish in the top four. With the new TV money coming into the game next season they now have the ability to spend. The sad fact is they will probably have to with the extra European games filling up their schedule.

Even if they do now splash the cash, it will be brought about because of success, not the pursuit of it.

The fear with Financial Fair Play was that football would be plunged into a status quo. That the dreams of fans up and down the land, clubs big and small, would be extinguished unless a rich benefactor spent billions. Leicester may have the new rich owner but it is good old-fashioned on the pitch ethics that have brought about the fairy-tale title.

The gap between the top and bottom has never been so high, the scope for daring to dream the impossible so low, but Leicester have changed this. Winning the Premier League is an achievement unlikely to ever be matched. Unless they go onto further success in Europe next season. But that can’t happen . . . can it?

It’d be a brave person that placed any restriction on hope following this triumph.

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

It is the strangest of times. This season has been one of the most unpredictable in Premier League history. It’s long been noted, especially by this writer, that the technical standard of England’s top flight has been on the decline. Any doubts surrounding this can be erased by noting the recent performances of Premier League sides in Europe. For several years the excitement levels have increased while tactical know-how has been reduced. It couldn’t go on forever and have the steady balance at the top of the league remain. This season the status quo was demolished.

When Manchester City gate-crashed the top four party, they took their place at the established table with the look of a team willing to fit the mould. They spent big to play catch-up, only asking for a place in the Champions League that usually went to a team like Liverpool.

Their presence didn’t threaten the see-saw of dominance, that hadn’t moved for so long one could assume it had rotten to a rigid state. It was coincidence that City’s arrival at the top coincided with a slow drop-off in domestic tactical astuteness. La Liga sides had evolved, with most of that thanks going to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team.

Gone were the days of expecting two English sides in the Champions League semi-finals; just getting to the knockout phase has become an achievement. In tandem with La Liga’s intelligence growing at a rate faster than the Premier League’s, so was the Bundesliga’s.

Bayern Munich became the dominant force in Germany and won Europe’s top competition. It’s often remarked, in a negative angle, that there isn’t the weekly competition for Bayern that English teams have to face. La Liga has similar accusations aimed at it. There’s an idea there’s only two good teams – Barcelona and Real Madrid – and the rest are just walkovers.

If this was the case, these three giant teams would struggle. A lack of big games would lead to head’s drifting off. But they remain focused in Europe and it’s battle-hardened Premier League sides that struggle midweek. This season the sentiment that anyone can beat anyone in England has never been truer.

Even in the face of such inconsistency patterns were emerging that pundits and fans failed to recognise or accept. And even with normality taking a break, people expect old ways to return. Leicester City were tipped to drop away before the hectic Christmas period. When that didn’t occur the prediction was it would happen during. That never materialised so the next prediction was it would happen after.

We’re now in February and they still top the league.

The latest effort to reduce their expectations meets reality with the failing perceptions halfway. Observers still can’t allow themselves to believe they are in a title race – even after 24 games – but concede they are likely to finish top four now.

It’s a tremendous accomplishment. The Foxes started the season as a relegation candidate. Claudio Ranieri has taken a set of players that weren’t in the spotlight and instilled belief and most importantly: a strong work ethic.
There may be more money spent on players in the Premier League, both in transfers and wages, and new TV deals eclipse those from more successful European leagues, but that doesn’t mean the best players are here.

Leicester have exploited the weakness in the league as a whole, not the shortcomings of separate teams that expected to be placed higher. Now that they have momentum, stopping them will be hard.

Against Manchester City they face a team that won’t begrudge the Foxes any lasting success at the top. Fans of Manchester’s club can easily recall a time before the Sheikh’s money, when winning one more League Cup would have been a heady dream and chances of a Premier League title were folly.

Financial Fair Play (FFP) was seen as a tool to maintain a status quo for the traditional big names. The assumption being, only a massive outlay of cash could enable a side to break the top four.

Multiple articles here, and Financial Fair Prejudice, never spoke out against FFP to keep Manchester City safe. They already made it in the castle before the drawbridge was up. The bordering on illegal and morally ambiguous FFP meant teams feared that if weren’t already a big fish, they never would be.

Leicester have changed all this.

Okay, they do have billionaire owners that have restructured the club. But their accelerated growth period pales in comparison to Man City’s.

Their stubbornness to accept everybody else’s predictions and perceptions has been aided by a stuttering league campaign from the title rivals they face next. The Citizens have been equally consistent in their form by being the antithesis of Leicester’s attitude.

Instead of non-stop application, Pellegrini’s men appear to fire in spits and spats. When their backs are against the wall then a world class City emerges and brushes sides away with ease. Far too often they spend the first twenty minutes of matches drifting, as if their talent alone will ensure success. The effort comes later, when the task has been made harder than it should have been.

After Saturday there should be a clearer idea on where the season’s heading. The neutral will warm to the idea of Leicester City taking victory and then securing a title win so improbable Hollywood movie execs wouldn’t dare use it in a script. If the Foxes win, the press will say it is remarkable achievement that they won the “best league in the world.”

If Manchester City remove Leicester’s point advantage it could be the start for the final push. Players are now fighting for their careers as they try and impress incoming manager, Pep Guardiola, from afar. With Arsenal commencing their annual fall away, only Tottenham lurk as the other potential dark horse.

If Man City win the title in Pellegrini’s final year, the press will comment on the lack of a legitimate challenger and make more news about the low number of points needed to win a weak league. The points spread is currently being used to rejoice at how competitive and tough it is.

But there’s nothing but truth in the statement: the league never lies after 38 games. Whoever that is will deserve it most, all other factors become irrelevant.

The City that takes three points Saturday lunch time will start to imagine their hands on the title.

Pound Sterling

Pound Sterling

So after much mudslinging, with press speculation on the reasons why and possible motives, Raheem Sterling has joined Manchester City for a fee that could rise to £49M. Liverpool fans are soothing themselves with the loss of a prized asset by revelling in the amount received. Openly taunting at taking the coffers to the cleaners. To put it another way: Scousers are laughing at committing robbery. But as high as the fee sounds – and it does sound a lot – it’s the same fans that tried to convince the world £35M for Andy Carroll made sense. It wasn’t, whereas the Sterling figure won’t seem so stupid if he reaches his potential.

Therein lies the first problem. Is Sterling going to reach that “potential”? City fans have heard this term banded about a lot in recent years. Mario Balotelli was given all the chances in the world because he had lots of it. Rodwell and Sinclair were brought in as it was assumed City could fill them out into the players we all hoped they could be. Buying potential is a trip to the casino.

Sheikh Mansour is justified – on this occasion, especially – to feel he can bet on red or black a few times. In reality the chances are stacked higher in his favour than the slightly less than half a roulette spin offers. If Raheem becomes the next big young talent his value will quickly eclipse the £49M shelled out. Take Paul Pogba, another City target, the fee floating around for him currently stands at £71M. This is with the proviso he still hasn’t reached his full potential.

Transfer fees will always be a bone of contention. They continue to rise in a time when the world is facing tough austerity measures and countries like Greece face economic collapse. To make matters worse, they continue to rise from an already over-inflated base line. Yes, £49M is a lot. But it also happens to be the market value for a young promising, home-grown talent.

What I find more disturbing than the price is the treatment of a young twenty year old by members of the press, former teammates and “fans.” Stevie G, the Liverpool legend that never won a league title, not so subtlety sounded Sterling out as unprofessional and possessing a bad attitude when comparing him to the new Liverpool captain Jordan Horrenduson. Nice to know Steven helped nurture that talent under his watch.

Gerrard is obviously offended that a player would choose to leave his club for a rival. It makes the statement that the modern day professional sees Liverpool as a place less likely to collect titles. He should remind himself he once thought the same and agreed to join Chelsea, only changing his mind when the threats from fans came in.

Raheem has also faced disgusting abuse and threats to his wellbeing along with his daughter’s. He has stood tall and will see out the storm. Hopefully there’ll be an added element of protection surrounding him during this time. And perhaps a little TLC will work wonders too. I can’t begin to imagine how he feels reading such threats when his own father was murdered back when Raheem was only nine years of age.

Jamie Carragher has also been outspoken and condemned Sterling. It doesn’t come from the mouth of a neutral Sky Sports presenter. He lacks the ability of Gary Neville, who can be a Manchester United man at heart but still speak sense, of reporting the news rather than opinion as fact. He clearly wanted Sterling to stay and arrogantly assumes it will be better for Raheem if he did. Apart from the argument he would get more game time at Liverpool, it is founded on nothing more than blinkered hearsay.

It’s typical of the anti-City media to turn the transfers of the Citizens into a carnival while applauding preferred click-bait teams for their market endeavours. Memphis Depay, not exactly a snip at £25M, has been packaged as future world-beater. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t say either way. It seems only bitter former pros and bad journalists can see future events with any clarity. To top off this sentiment, SportYapper notified users today Sterling had asked for a nap during his Man City medical.

Back to the price, it also needs to be noted QPR receive a slice as part of their sell-on clause. This will have ramped it up. Add this to the home grown quota he fills, along Liverpool’s reluctance to sell, and it’s less grotesque. The price tag will hang heavy for a while. Di Maria still carries his around in a wheelbarrow. All Raheem Sterling can do is produce form on the field. With every successful game the pounds will drop away. With success he can prove this was never about cash but about football.

About winning.