BY PAUL BREEN
Romance died in the Premier League on Sunday 27th April 2014. That was the afternoon Liverpool rested on top of the division, needing only a point at home to Chelsea to keep the advances of Manchester City at bay. Fuelled by the passion of Steven Gerrard and the brilliance of Luis Suarez, Liverpool had surged ahead of the pack on the back of eleven straight victories.
The Gods of Football had decided that Stevie G, Anfield legend, would have the fairytale ending to a career that had so far been missing a Premier League medal. Significantly too, this would come in the year and months of Hillsborough’s 25th anniversary. After two decades, the natural order of British football was to be restored. The pretenders to the throne had been swept aside one by one.
Then along came Chelsea, and Jose Mourinho, master of anti-football, parking buses and catching the Gods of Football napping in first half stoppage time. Gerrard slipped as he reacted to a back pass from Mamadou Sakho, allowing Demba Ba to break free and give Chelsea a lead they maintained for the rest of the game, until adding a second in the dying embers of the contest.
In his autobiography, Gerrard talks about how he’d given a quarter of a century of his life to Liverpool Football Club, and watched part of his boyhood dreams dying in that moment. Perhaps a sense of romance died too, and maybe even a sense of entitlement to romance in the mindset of Liverpool fans.
Manchester City went on to win the league, and the year after Chelsea claimed the country’s highest domestic honour. This season again, most people expected either City or Chelsea to win the Premier League.
What has happened though has defied all expectations. Chelsea got off to a slow start, and then Mourinho’s public criticism of first-team doctor Eva Carneiro appeared to spark off a virus of discontent in his dressing room. Manchester City on the other hand has been drifting slightly below the radar most of the season. At times they appear to have stayed in second gear, saving up for that same final burst as in the season when they snatched the title from Liverpool.
Arsenal have drifted in and out of gears too in this season sometimes described as the one where nobody wants to win the League. That has allowed Leicester City to rise up and stay at the head of the pack, winning impressively from day one, 4-2 at home to Sunderland. All the while, they have done this in the humble, understated way that is a trademark of their manager’s character.
Claudio Ranieri has often been portrayed as a figure of fun in the media, and was never given the credit for many of his achievements at Chelsea, especially in laying the foundations that Mourinho would later build on. Even when he left Chelsea he did so in a gracious way, writing a book about the matter, and donating the proceeds to Great Ormond Street Childrens’ Hospital.
There has been a quiet dignity to his career, even again when sacked by Monaco two years ago after taking them to second place in the French League with a massive points total. He’s now got his team playing with the same quiet dignity, and it works at Leicester in a way it might not at one of the bigger clubs where managers are expected to be brash, confident, and loose with soundbites.
This is a Leicester team that’s very much the sum of its parts, and like Liverpool in 2014, getting goals from unlikely places too, when needed. There are a couple of crucial differences though, and not just in Ranieri’s pronouncements being so different to those coming out of the Liverpool camp under Brendan Rodgers.
Despite the importance of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the team doesn’t seem to collapse in style or psychology when they’re not at the top of their game, rare as that has been this season. More than that, Leicester’s defensive platform is strong enough to sustain them from all-out attack by their opponents, and behind this they have a goalkeeper finally living up to his family name. If they avoid injuries to key players, there’s no gaping hole for opponents to exploit.
There have been blips along the way, such as a 5-2 home defeat to Arsenal, but they have always bounced back, defying the expectation that they’re only keeping the nest warm for when one of the bigger clubs finally take flight. For much of the season, the expectation had been that sooner or later the goals will dry up, they’ll suffer injuries, or the pressure will get to them. There’s an unwritten rule in English football that small clubs can do well up to Christmas, and then make way for the natural order at the business end of the season.
Now though, after their 3-1 victory over Manchester City at the weekend the country not only believes in Leicester but maybe expect them to win the league, and to reclaim the romance lost in a world of TV money and wealthy owners.
Leicester winning the title would do a lot for the game. It would give hope to every other club that the cartel at the top can be broken, and prove that there’s not a natural order of how things ought to be in the Premier League.
In some ways Leicester’s story is a lot like that of the 2002 World Cup where a number of smaller nations defied expectations with their performances. Those dreams died out in the semi-finals in Korea and Japan, but Leicester now have a realistic chance of going all the way, especially if they were to get a good result, a win or a draw, against Arsenal.
Time will tell though if romance is to be reborn in Premier League football, or as some might argue born for the first time. After all, there were many fans of rival clubs who revelled in Stevie Gerrard’s fatal slip. There wouldn’t be the same mood of celebration in too many quarters if a similar situation were to happen to Ranieri’s Leicester City side, with a couple of games to go.
And if Leicester misses out, whatever they achieve has given hope to other teams that a top four finish is a realistic possibility. The names of those who are destined to reach the Champions League are not set in stone.
Aside from that, if they don’t win, there’s a strong chance the title will come to North London, to either Arsenal or Tottenham. Though that’s not quite as romantic as Leicester in the eyes of all supporters, it would bring to an end the three-club dominance of recent times. Whatever happens now, we’ve been reminded that romance can be found in the most unlikely of places.
Though he probably wouldn’t admit it yet, I bet Claudio Ranieri is dreaming of playing Monaco in the Champions League next season. The fans have been dreaming of Barcelona and Real Madrid. After their game against Arsenal this coming Sunday, Valentine’s Day, they might no longer be dreaming. They might be getting close to the ending Stevie G never quite achieved.
Romance is back, and wearing blue.
PAUL BREEN – @CharltonMen
Paul Breen’s first novel The Charlton Men is available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X and a second work is in progress.