Leicester’s win over Manchester City last Saturday proves that they have staying power to remain at the top of the English Premier League. Will the Foxes’ season prove to be anything more than a one-off fairy tale? Or is Leicester City F.C. setting down a new model of success in the EPL, one that other smaller clubs and storied big-city sides alike might adopt for themselves?
What exactly is a sports team for?
In the past I’ve suggested that its true role is to foster character in its unfortunate supporters, or even to float along like a jellyfish on tumultuous seas, without any pretence of ambition. This week, in the latest instalment of a frankly astonishing season in the English soccer Premiership, Leicester and Liverpool have outlined two other models to ponder.
First, Leicester City.
Last season they were rubbish. They scraped survival in the top flight only thanks to an unlikely last-minute sequence of wins. This season they were every expert’s default choice for relegation, a small-town team with small-town players, ready to be kicked out of the big-city league.
But not so fast. To start the season, Jamie Vardy (a £1 million buy from miniscule Fleetwood Town) went on a record-breaking scoring run that has seen him called up into the England team. Then Leicester jostled with the big teams at the top over Christmas. Now, with two successive (and potentially season-defining) wins over Liverpool and title-rivals Manchester City, they are five points clear at the top and – finally – counted as favourites to take the title. We’ll know in May.
To get an idea of how against-the-odds this is, compare the starting line-ups when Leicester won 3-1 at Manchester City last Saturday. The home team cost something far north of £200 million; Leicester’s cost £22.25 million, including the bargain-basement, £400,000 player-of-the-season Riyad Mahrez. In the era of the Premier League and Champions League, when money and talent are concentrated among the top clubs, this was not meant to happen.
What is the lesson that we can take away from this? For me it is nothing less than that smaller, well-run teams can prosper, even if only for one, preposterous season. It’s not only the case that Leicester’s stars have aligned and the ball has tended to bounce just right off the turf. The team’s canny coach, Claudio Ranieri, has them playing with a solid defence and quick, direct breaks that make the most of the talents of Vardy and Mahrez, and make the current vogue for possession-based football look very outdated. Leicester’s success shows that brains and hard work can defeat an all-star lineup.
For Leicester, the questions will not end if they are crowned world soccer’s least likely champions in May. Even if they blow the title, they will still get a massive windfall from qualification for the Champions League. Do they then shuffle their shoulders, weigh up what it means to have joined the elite, and blow it all on a parade of fancy prima-donnas who earn stratospheric wages? Or do they consolidate – at the risk of annoying the dreamers among their fans – and spend the money more wisely, betting that the same small-town philosophy will continue to work in the future. In short, Leicester City will have to decide what kind of club it wants to try to be next.
Liverpool, one of the grandest clubs in world football, has spent decades grappling with that exact same question. They ruled European football in the 1970s and 80s, and won the Champions League a decade ago, but since then they have won close to nothing. As a club with great traditions, rooted in a poor city with strong working class traditions, this has hurt.
This season, Liverpool once again girded its loins for another attempt to rejoin the elite, complete with fancy foreign manager (Jürgen Klopp) and a rebuilt stadium. But the American owners, Fenway Sports Group, have also announced the financial commitment for this thrust that they expect from their fans – raised ticket prices that mean some supporters will have to pay £77 ($112) per game for their seat. In response, a quarter of the fans in the stadium simply stood up and walked out on the 77th minute of their match on the weekend.
Is their anger justified? No, argues The Economist. Success in football, it says, is so tied to finances that Liverpool simply must squeeze more money out of its spectators if the club is to rediscover past glories. Match-day revenue at its Anfield home brings in less than £60 million a season, compared to almost £90 million at bitter rivals Manchester United and over £100 million at Arsenal. “It is a clear weak spot,” says The Economist, suggesting that fans will have even more reasons for disgruntlement if success continues to elude Liverpool.
Well yes, that is the route that football has been taking for years – cash is king, and if the demand is there for £77 seats, milk it and invest.
But then look at Leicester. Their success is no fluke – it is based on the diligent coaching of good players who were unearthed for peanuts thanks to clever scouting of prospects. They did not go to title rivals Manchester City in the hope of nicking a lucky goal and clinging on. They went to the Etihad and comprehensively dismantled a club that is funded by the riches of Abu Dhabi. If Leicester City win, they’ll deserve to do so.
And a Leicester win need not be a one-off. If Leicester slip up now, the most likely league winners are Tottenham Hotspur, a team who have spent years loitering on the fringes of the elite like a salaryman gazing through the window at a plutocrat buying his wife a Bentley. In contrast, last year’s super-rich champions, Chelsea, backed by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, are floundering badly.
Not only has the iron link between success and money been loosened, but clubs have been given the chance to build an identity beyond the balance sheet. The Economist is simply wrong – Liverpool can rejoin the elite without selling its soul and its roots. The Premiership’s recently signed, bountiful TV deal reduces the importance of ticket money. It also helps that in England’s Premiership the TV money is more evenly distributed than in, say, Spain’s oligarchical La Liga, where Barca, Real Madrid and (sometimes) Atletico Madrid dominate. It will be tough for Liverpool, with or without those £77 seats. But Leicester City has shown that it is possible, if a club uses money carefully and looks to outwit their opponents rather than simply outspend them. Yes, the richer teams will always have the edge, but wise sports clubs can consider other things beyond trophies, such as a connection to a local community, or an attractive style of play. They may still make it. In the era of the “Leicester City miracle,” Liverpool should remember that glory is fleeting, but the best sports teams never take their fans for granted.
Nicholas Walton was the European editor for the BBC World Service and correspondent in Sarajevo and Warsaw. He is author of Genoa, ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower. Nicholas tweets at @.