Thursday 28 April 2016

Surely…. Surely…. Surely….

In the summer of 1968, when I was 13 years old, my family moved to Leicester, a small industrial city in the heart of the UK’s East Midlands, and there they stayed.  Located close to the geographical centre of England, Nottingham and Derby lie to the north, Birmingham and Coventry to the west, London further to the south.  It was the place where I transitioned from childhood to adulthood, and is therefore the place I think of first when people use the expression “back home”.  When they discovered the body of King Richard III (“My kingdom for a horse!”) under a city parking lot two years ago, it was the event that many hoped would put Leicester on the map.  Which, indeed, it did.  For a while, at least.  Most people still think of it as the curry capital of England.

The local football (i.e. “soccer”) club is Leicester City.  A few matches into the 1968/69 season I hopped onto a bus and took myself off to the decrepit Filbert Street stadium to watch Leicester City play Coventry City.  It was the start of a lifelong love affair.  I barely missed a home match until 1973 when I went off to University and eventually got myself a job in a town 500 miles away, before moving to Canada.

It may come as a surprise to Americans (and Canadians), but sports are organized differently everywhere else in the world.  Leicester City played in the English Football League.  This comprised 96 clubs, divided into four large divisions.  At the end of each season the top teams in each division would be “promoted” to play in the next division up, and the bottom teams would be “relegated” to play in the division below.  It was quite possible (although relatively rare) for teams to work their way from the fourth division all the way up to the first over the course of a few seasons, or vice versa.  Promotion and relegation are cruel masters, and no respecters of reputation.  Big clubs can (and do) go down and little clubs can (and do) go up.  There are no such things as end-of-season playoffs to determine the champions.  Winning the League is the big enchilada.  Today, this concept is extended to at least nine tiers of English football - several hundred football clubs - with automatic promotion and relegation all the way from top to bottom.  Football leagues around the world are mostly organized along the same principles.

As a hangover of Britain’s late and unlamented class-based society, most of the clubs in the Football League know their place.  Leicester City’s place was to hover precariously between the top two tiers.  When playing in the first division their season would be a constant battle to avoid relegation.  When playing in the second division, a constant battle to challenge for promotion.  In many ways, as a fan, it was a lot more fun watching your club doing the latter, even though its objective is to win promotion in order to struggle with the former!

Football clubs like Leicester City are privately owned.  But, unlike in America, ownership is viewed as a sacred trust, a shepherding of the values and fortunes of the club on behalf of its fans.  For example, football clubs cannot simply be moved at the owner’s whim from one city to another like an NFL franchise.  Even attempts to rename (or rebrand) a club can cause a permanent and irreversible breach of trust.  In the long term, an owner will not survive without the support of the fans, which can be a hard thing to come to terms with, because the last thing in the world the fans care about is whether or not the owner loses money.  A fair number of wealthy Americans - experienced owners of major league franchises - have got their fingers badly burned by messing with Premier League ownership.

At the root of this is the nature of the football fan.  Once you become a club’s true fan you are hooked for life.  Being a football fan is not the same as merely being a supporter.  Being a fan is like having children.  It’s a commitment - you can’t change to another team when the going gets tough, although there’s nothing wrong with cheering for multiple teams.  But only one team is ever allowed to break bread with your soul.  “Fan” is an abbreviation of ‘fanatic’, and in times gone by the fanaticism of certain British football fans has taken them down some dark roads.  Thankfully, these problems are firmly in Britain’s past, but in many parts of the world football violence - and, increasingly, racism - is still a shameful problem.

It has always been the case that the bigger clubs are the more successful ones.  After all, bigger means richer, and richer means you can afford better players.  This has always meant that the bigger clubs have gravitated to the higher divisions, and the smaller clubs to the lower ones.  But the size of that financial gulf is what determines whether or not a “have-not’ club can ever dream of playing successfully among the wealthy “haves”.  In 1978, Nottingham Forest - a club with similar ambitions and resources to Leicester City - most famously bridged that gap and powered its way to the top of the English First Division, and even won the über-prestigious European Cup.  To this day, they remain the benchmark for small clubs emerging from nowhere to reach the pinnacle.  The smaller the financial gap, as was the case in 1978, the greater the chances of a minnow emerging to fill it.  But the larger the gap, the less likely that possibility becomes.

Today this financial gulf is huge, and is only widening.  Clubs in the top tier of English football (the “Premier League”) are massively more wealthy than those in the second tier (the “Championship”).  And likewise down the chain.  Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992 only 5 teams have ever won it.  A select handful of clubs are expected to compete for the top spots every season, and for everyone else just breaking into the top five is pretty much the limit to their ambitions.  Furthermore, recently introduced “Financial Fair Play” rules now prevent a wealthy owner of a lowly club from injecting massive amounts of capital to make it competitive.  All of this makes a significant disturbance to the status quo less and less likely.

In 2002, on the back of a short period of minor success in the Premier League, Leicester City built themselves the brand new King Power stadium, one of the nicer, most modern Premier League standard football stadiums in the country.  However, they then found themselves relegated once more, and the resultant financial pressures brought them to the brink of bankruptcy and even relegation to the third tier.  Fortunately, they survived, but the scenario is becoming a common one.  Teams routinely face serious financial hardship following relegation from the Premier League as they, in effect, feel irresistible pressure to bet the farm in an attempt to go straight back up, but learn that the Championship is a much tougher division than they had bargained on.

Two years ago Leicester City finally won promotion to the Premier League.  For their pains, they got to spend the entire season at the foot of the table in a death struggle to avoid occupying one of the three relegation spots.  Miraculously, at the 11th hour, they won 7 out of their last 9 games to escape relegation, a feat that had never previously been accomplished.  And so, as their prize, they got to try the same thing all over again this year.

Bearing in mind that Leicester City’s budgetary limitations are such that their entire team cost them less than the top five powerhouse teams would have paid for any one of half a dozen or more global superstars, bookmakers offered odds of 5,000:1 if you wanted to bet on them winning the Premier League.  By comparison, you could bet on British Prime Minister David Cameron being appointed head coach of Aston Villa (2,500:1 odds), or Celebrity Idol judge Simon Cowell replacing him as Prime Minister (only 500:1 odds).  Or even Elvis being found still alive (5,000:1 odds).  As best as I can tell, no major sporting event has ever paid off at close to such incredible odds.  At the 2004 UEFA Euro Championship, Greece won at the long odds of 150:1.

As I write this, the season is almost over.  Thirty-five games are in the bag, three more to play.  On Sunday morning Leicester City plays the famous Manchester United.  If they win that game they will become Premier League Champions.  I can't believe I just wrote that.  That’s right, Leicester City stand poised to win the Premier League!  They ride seven points clear at the top, and only Tottenham Hotspurs (“Spurs”) can catch them.  One more win for Leicester, or one defeat for Spurs, and it’s all over.  If you wanted to bet against it, you can get generous odds of 33:1.  Across the globe, Leicester City is the talk of the footballing world.  Which, of course, means not in America.

I can’t begin to tell you what this means to me personally.  Seriously, if I won the lottery I would not be feeling as pumped as I do.  Leicester have led the league, quite comfortably, since the middle of January.  Pundits left, right, and centre, have been unanimous in their expectation that City would choke under the pressure.  Famous ex-Leicester and England superstar Gary Lineker, who presents the BBC’s flagship “Match Of The Day” football program, has vowed that if Leicester wins he will present the show next season in his underpants.  He, like me and thousands upon thousands of Leicester fans worldwide, is not sleeping.  His blood pressure, like mine, is through the roof.  One topic, and one topic alone fills my every waking hour.  I'm starting to dream about it.  I’m even writing a freakin’ blog post about it on a page for Audiophiles!  I cannot believe what I am witnessing.  Not only is the impossible about to happen, but it’s happening to MY TEAM.

Surely nothing can go wrong….  Surely….  Surely….  Surely….

UPDATE!  Fortunately, nothing did go wrong!  On Monday, May 2nd, following Leicester's 1-1 draw at Manchester United, Spurs could only draw 2-2 at Chelsea.  This combination of results confirmed Leicester City as Premier League Champions of the 2015/16 season, their lead now unassailable with two matches still to play.