5000-1. Those were odds that, over the course of 2015 and 2016, became the stuff of legend for the English football fan. They became synonymous with a triumph of fantastical proportions, one widely regarded as a ‘fairy tale’ and perhaps the definitive underdog story in sport. It was one of the single most unlikely victories in football history, more ridiculous than Nottingham Forest winning back-to-back European trophies, more inspiring than Greece winning the Euros, more absurd than a World Cup hosted in…well, Qatar.
These are the odds many betting outlets offered on Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2015/16. Rather like England’s World Cup victory in 1966, this was a sporting story fans will readily and repetitively recount in pubs for the rest of their lives. I vividly recall watching Leicester hit three past Manchester City at the Etihad, with an apparent ease that finally convinced the sceptic in me that the Foxes could triumph.
Just like Wenger’s fabled Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ team, the names of the Leicester team under Claudio Ranieri have been afforded a special place in fan consciousness. I am certainly not alone in being able to name the majority of that Leicester team’s first eleven. These were not legendary names like Thierry Henry or Dennis Bergkamp. These were names like Danny Drinkwater, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez – journeymen, rejects and upstarts who somehow managed to form a cohesive unit, led by a manager who was most famous for being another head on ex-Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s sacking block.
Winning the Premier League alone was enough to make the modern era by far the most successful in Leicester City’s history, but in the five years that followed, Leicester City firmly established themselves as a top ten team, asserting themselves in the race for European qualification. From 2016 to present day, they have largely been managed by Brendan Rodgers, a mercurial figure whose teams are known for both free-flowing football and spectacular implosions of form. His teams are just as capable of winning a major trophy, as he did the FA Cup with Leicester, as they are to fall apart and ‘let things slip’, like his ill-fated Liverpool team captained by Steven Gerrard.
And slipped Leicester certainly have. In the 2022/23 season, they find themselves sinking into the financial quicksand that is a relegation battle. They are marooned at the bottom of the league, with one point to their name and not a single win.
The phrase that springs to mind is “fall from grace”. How does a team that has won more silverware in the 2010s than Tottenham Hotspur, and more truly prestigious silverware in the 2010s than Manchester United, suddenly find itself in such a precarious position? Is this a seemingly sudden decline, or were the seeds sown before the season started?
Unfortunately, it is indicative of the ludicrous state of Premier League football, a landscape so financially skewed and top-heavy that spectacular rises and just as spectacular falls are becoming commonplace. Though this situation has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be misguided to suggest such phenomena is new. For football to parade itself as a meritocracy is wrong; the way it’s run resembles a casino more than a business.
For many reasons, including the lack of a salary cap and the astronomical inflation of transfer fees, running a Premier League club is impossible unless you’re a multi-billionaire. Recently, the ownership free-for-all was exemplified by the takeover of Newcastle United by the PIF group, a sovereign wealth fund chaired by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
Leicester City’s owners are also billionaires. They have been owned by King Power retail and the Srivaddhanaprabha family since 2010, and while their rise through the football leagues and subsequent fabled Premier League and FA Cup victories are impressive – an upset to the established order – they would also have been inconceivable without the timely financial intervention.
In this volatile environment, is it really such a surprise that one bad transfer window of Leicester City’s own infliction is enough to undo five of the most prosperous years in English football history? For up until August, Leicester had been placed on a pedestal, held up as a model for modern football ownership.
Such eulogising now seems amusingly short-sighted, but in truth it reflects more on the game than it does on Leicester. Their poor form is arguably a result of their owners trying to avoid the catastrophic points deductions and European bans that constitute breaking Financial Fair Play rules . This is more than can be said of other owners, who have simply spent their money with the knowledge that the club will ultimately foot the bill.
In attempting to keep up, Leicester have overspent. According to The Athletic, their losses have exceeded £120 million for the past three years straight. One would think these statistics are nosebleed-inducing, but in fact they are par for the course. Just ask Manchester City. This has led to the departure of key players like Wesley Fofana and veteran Kasper Schmeichel; holes in the fabric of the team which Brendan Rodgers and his recruitment have failed to fill.
This is the weakest Leicester team in many seasons; but is it weak enough to be relegated? At the end of the season, we will find out if Leicester’s fairy tale ends in a nightmare: Cinderella may have married a handsome prince, but does she really know anything about managing a palace? In football, success often precedes great falls, as Portsmouth, Leeds and a great many others can attest to. Football is a financial tempest, without the regulation required to keep it under control. Leicester is just the next club to be caught in the eye of the storm.
Image: Wikimedia Commons