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A Team Triumph

• Posted in Football / Misc. • By JoeBaker

Sometimes it is hard to find the right words to properly honour a sporting achievement; to sufficiently describe the astonishing story that has just unfolded. People across the globe will be trying to do it for many months to come when describing the ascent of Leicester City. They were bottom of the table in April 2015 and labelled as favourites to be relegated at the start of this season yet, unbelievably and deservingly, they have just become Premier League Champions. The bookies had odds of 5000-1 for the Foxes lifting the first title in their 132-year history, with a previous highest positon being a runners-up spot in 1929. After Tottenham Hotspur failed to defeat Chelsea, the unthinkable became a reality, catalysing scenes of Monday night euphoria for fans in Leicester as their team became the first new winners of the English crown since 1978.  

Boyhood fan Gary Lineker described it as “quite possibly the most unlikely triumph in the history of team sport”. He isn’t wrong. This victory for the underdog has transcended football, countries and sport altogether not just because of the brilliance of certain individuals but because it truly was a team triumph. A band of bonded brothers who would never have dreamt of challenging for, let alone comfortably winning, a League title. Each playing every minute of every match to their maximum, working hard and harmoniously as one unit, driven on by disbelieving supporters and effectively glued together by the intelligent and inspirational management of Claudio Ranieri. If there was ever an example of what teamwork can achieve against the odds then this feel-good story, which has even captivated Hollywood, is it. 

There have obviously been leading lights in this unworldly tale, without whom a title charge would not have materialised. The goals of Football Writers Player of the Year Jamie Vardy, the midfield drive and defensive cover of N’Golo Kanté and the magisterial, creative brilliance of PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez. Nevertheless, what has made their win so appealing to sports fans from Leicester to Bangkok and New York is that it has shown the Premier League, and the world, that dreams can be achieved without fortunes and despite preconceptions about ability and experience, that teamwork counts. The images of stunned Captain Wes Morgan, who had spent so many years as your archetypal second-tier defender, holding back the tears as he lifted the trophy is symbolic of just what Leicester have proven. Until now every title-winning team had finished no worse than third the year before. Leicester rose from 14th.

Collective solidarity, belief, hard-work, organisation and of course talent won the day and pulled the rug out from underneath the ‘big boys’ and their sizeable transfer budgets. Having seemed for years to be a rich club’s game, the world of football has been turned on its head. Leicester’s wage bill is a quarter of the likes of Manchester United, who have spent more on new players in the last two years than the new champions have in their entire existence. No one can deny that there are teams with superior individual talent. Yet similarly no one can dispute that no team has had the  type of shared fortitude that has driven Ranieri’s men away from rivals lacking in this key ingredient for success. It is why they were able to stay composed at the top from January onwards, moving relentlessly towards their improbable goal when everybody, perhaps even Leicester fans themselves, were expecting them to run out of momentum and fall away just as they came onto the home straight. It is no fluke but something that began last year under previous manager Nigel Pearson with Leicester bottom of the league and finished under Ranieri with them Champions. They ended last season in great form, with seven wins from nine games propelling them out of the relegation zone. Including that run, they have taken 102 from a potential 138 points. With one game of the season to go they have won 30 of their last 46 matches, losing just 4. Remarkable.

The passion and togetherness seen at the King Power Stadium on the day the trophy was lifted was a worthy reflection of how Leicester have been all season. The spirit and determination shone through as the season progressed, rousing Ranieri every bit as much as his players. It enabled them to thrive in high-pressure games, the comfortable victory away to Manchester City being the prime example. It allowed them to grind out victories and points when form was lacking, to overcome tense moments and the winless streak at the turn of the year and to show immense composure at the summit as others slipped and stumbled below them. The league table doesn’t quantify teamwork but it has been crucial in Leicester’s climb to football immortality.

A group of outsiders have gelled and thrived together in a way never previously seen in the English game. Kanté was playing in the eighth tier of French football five years ago. Vardy worked in a factory while playing non-League after being rejected by Sheffield Wednesday. Ranieri himself was sacked as Greece coach 18 months ago after being beaten by the Faroe Islands. The list of incredible individual stories could go on. A collection of players desperate to prove themselves was pulled together and made into a proper team who played great football, won a lot of games and earned the admiration of football fans across the world. It is their unity, the sum of their parts, that brought this unlikely triumph.

A settled team free of injuries and European football, or long cup runs, knew their strengths and played to them. Two compact banks of four leaving opponents little room to play through them with a deep-lying, hard-working forward playing behind a striker with the lightning pace to finish off their devastating counterattacks. Despite having the worst pass success in the League and being in the bottom 3 for possession Leicester found a system that minimised risk and ruthlessly punished mistakes. Each player has had the seasons of his life, doing his job admirably and delivering time and again.

It will go down as one of the greatest achievements in sport because it was the ultimate team triumph. It is rare to have such near-universally popular champions. The next challenge is to prove that this was not a one season wonder. That they can cope with the increased pressure of defending a title and the augmented number of games that will come through participation in the Champions League. After the desire, spirit and ability that they have shown this year who would bet against them toppling the odds and upsetting the established order once again? Ranieri has told fans to keep dreaming. Indeed after what they have seen this season, why should they wake up?

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