Sporting Life

Only in title win will Leicester City's fab Foxes find a fairy tale

Leicester City might want to invest in a larger bandwagon because everyone is leaping on it. On Sunday night it was me. Barring Kasper Schmeichel, whose surname is his introduction and his burden, I'd never heard of some of their players before this year. Barring J.T. Edson, who wrote the thrilling Westerns of my youth about American gun-slingers while living close to Leicester, I have no interest in that city.

Yet here I was, cheering for fellows named after a law firm, Messrs Drinkwater and Simpson, and hailing N'Golo Kante, who pickpockets the ball from rival players with a dexterity and commitment that would have made Fagan proud.

Is this a fairy tale?

Not yet. But it's getting close.

Leicester already deserve a standing ovation because they've smirked at football's traditional powers and brought temporary joy in an increasingly depressing world. A coach who's never won in the big time is leading a team who's unafraid of the big time. It's what the English refer to as stirring stuff.


Leicester’s Danny Simpson fouling Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud in the 54th minute. It proved to be the turning point of the match as Simpson was shown a second yellow card and sent off and Arsenal scored twice later. PHOTO: REUTERS

David Attenborough, the legendary naturalist, who grew up in - where else - Leicester, would love Claudio Ranieri because the Italian is a species of his own. Loses to Arsenal, but gives his team a week off. Is a tactician by profession, but tells his chaps he'll speak little of tactics. Lives in a world of calorie-counting but lets them eat what they want.

What's next? Group chanting?

Ranieri's favourite word in the English language requires no debate. "Now they must enjoy," he urged in mid-December. "I want to see my players enjoy it," he insisted in late December. "Let's enjoy," he demanded in February.

Yes, yes, Mr Ranieri, we are enjoying. Because clearly so are his players, who play with a zest that is just this side of fanaticism. Against Arsenal their tackling itself was worth two hours given up on a Sunday evening.

Of course we adore the hair-gelled superstar who can create magic with a fine flick of his over-priced boot. But we admire the low-cost, no-frills, star-less, all-sweat team who succeed. We relish how the glue of teamwork turns a gang of disparate individuals into a solid fist. There are big-team rejects at Leicester whose names we now toss around like old pals. There is Jamie Vardy who began life with the Stocksbridge Park Steels whose stadium had 450 seats. Now thousands rise when he scores.

It's been a fine few sporting months of underdog scrambling, from Japan conquering South Africa at the rugby World Cup to Zhang Shuai weeping her way through the Australian Open. But this isn't a good rugby day, this isn't an inspired two tennis weeks, this is an entire season, nearly 10 months, 38 games.

We know the fairy tale in sport, we've seen Seabiscuit run, and spent a month watching the unheralded Sri Lankans snatch the 1996 cricket World Cup, and heard of Ben Hogan returning to win golf Majors after fracturing his pelvis, collarbone, ankle, rib in a car crash, but almost nothing will compare with this if it happens. Because this is a great persistence being demanded from the great unknown.

It's been a fine few sporting months of underdog scrambling, from Japan conquering South Africa at the rugby World Cup to Zhang Shuai weeping her way through the Australian Open. But this isn't a good rugby day, this isn't an inspired two tennis weeks, this is an entire season, nearly 10 months, 38 games. If excellence is consistency over time, then they, the 5,000-1 outsiders, will have defined it.

Of all sports, this is the dressing room to be in right now. The audacity of all that hope and the anxiety of all those men. A trophy is 12 matches and 1,080 minutes away. It's no longer a lark, it's within reach. It can make you cautious when abandon has got you this far; it can make you overthink when once you just instinctively played. It's one thing to play like you have nothing to lose till you find you actually have a title to lose.

Ranieri has said, "It's a great story so why the pressure" and he's right, it is a great story, even if they come fifth, but it will be a classic story only if they win and that is pressure. If, at the climax - when the great teams rise, when the depth of a bench matters, when no game is just any other game, when small teams look lost in this place where they've never been before - Leicester can keep calm and prevail, it will be astonishing.

And Leicester need to win, for themselves, for the small guys and for the game itself. If they win they will be authentically great; if they win no rival gets to patronise them ("bad luck, chaps, almost made it"); if they win football might seem less elitist. There has to be a way beyond the fat wallet to find success.

And they need to win because there's no prize for almost-a-miracle and no award for dream-nearly-came-true. Leicester have taken us on a fabulous ride but in sport it's the finish which makes the complete fairy tale. The only happy ending here is in the winning.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2016, with the headline 'Only in title win will fab Foxes find a fairy tale'. Print Edition | Subscribe