With cross-city and national rivals Athletico and Real Madrid lining up for the Champions League final tonight (28th May), not only bragging rights but also millions in prize money and commercial deals are up for stake in this one match. That would be the case in any other Champions League final, pitting the two ‘best’ clubs in Europe against each other, but this one seems different. If ever you needed a clear statement that one country is currently dominating a competition, I don’t think you could find one better than tonight’s match-up between such close neighbours. Their casas, the Santiago Bernabéu and the Vicente Calderón, are only 5 miles apart, kept at arm’s length by the sun-kissed orange-topped houses of the supporters of both Los Blancos and Los Rojiblancos. Real and Athletico isn’t any average derby, it’s full of Spanish flair, passion and diehard spirit, it’s an inner-city tradition that, certainly in this case, can be more important for both than their matches against constant league-conquerors Barcelona. As we sit down tonight to witness the spectacle of a season-concluding, star-studded cup final, there couldn’t be a more obvious opportunity to talk about the future of the Champions League. Will it continued to be claimed by our highly-skilled Mediterranean cousins, or can English, or even British, clubs make a comeback in the competition? If we have what is apparently the best league in the world, why aren’t we performing on the Continental stage?
Well, looking back over the history of the Champions League (or Euro Cup as us English would like to call it, considering we were regular victors before the name change) it used to be a competition that could change hands, by club and country, every season. In the 1980’s, for example, there were nine different winners from six different nations, ranging from the fallen giants to the modern leaders (Nottingham Forest, Liverpool twice, Aston Villa, Hamburg, Juventus, Steaua București , Porto, PSV Eindhoven and AC Milan). Having begun in 1955 as a knock-out tournament for the league winners of the top nations in the continent, the European Cup was an escape of luxury and a dive into the unknown for most clubs, part of a select bunch. It always had the pedigree of the crème de la crème across Europe, but needed an image change in a time of mass change in football and society, the 1990’s. In 1992, at the same time as the birth of the Premier League, the Euro Cup became the Champions League, a revamped continentally-wide and multi-team competition with a group stage, brand new logo and an imported soundtrack. Finally fans from all countries across Europe could get excited to witness a spectacle of entertainment, from the unknown underdogs to the most marketable names in the globe on parade. You now didn’t have to be the best-assembled team in the continent to win, you had to be the richest and most widely-supported club to even stand a chance in the latter stages. This is where clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan and Manchester United really came into their own and staked their claims on being the best.
Since 1992, you could say that the amount of competition between smaller clubs, who come 3rd or 4th in their national leagues or are from countries with less rich footballing histories, has increased and therefore the big clubs have been invited to sweep up. They are deployed on first-class airlines in suits and ties to far-flung capitals across Europe, such as Moscow, Minsk, Belgrade and Brussels to dispatch the inferior opposition and further their sights on domination like machines, and this is what the best players have become. This suits those who can part with millions of their ‘hard-earned’ cash, but not so much those who run on tight budgets, always looking over their shoulders at financial collapse. You do get the surprise result or two every season, but seldom are the casualties of them those who reach the semi-finals and further. In this sense, English clubs should’ve swept the board with trophies over the past two decades, as we have the largest commercial brand of a league in the world, meaning larger club economies, better players and world-respected managers. Our desire for the greatest sporting prowess in this country is unparalleled across our continent, allowing us to attract everyone and everything we lay our eyes on. You ask a young player in Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe where they want to play if they made it as a professional sportsman or woman, the most popular answer would be the fair isle of England. They recognise the badges of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea in a heartbeat and could quite likely reel you off a list of their favourite players, with, Rooney, Sanchez, Costa and Agüero all featuring.
So if we are so well-respected and idolised as a footballing nation, and this question should apply to our national team as well, why do we continuously fail when the whole world’s eyes are fixed on us? There’s something very British about being so modest that we are afraid to beat sides easily, that we refuse to take the baton in competition whereas others relish the chance to take risks, to make or break their tournaments. Sometimes, we even value good records above cup wins, just look at the England stats of Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, Peter Stilton and Wayne Rooney, impressive but notably without the icing on the cake. We are an unremarkable nation when it comes to our recent records. Maybe we overthink everything, maybe we ponder too much on the past (is there anyone who doesn’t reference 1966 and all that when the Euros or World Cup turns up again?) and maybe, quite possibly, we are too hard on ourselves. Just look at the upturns of fortune for France and Italy after their group-stage exits at the 2010 World Cup compared to us, they made radical changed in approach with new staff and players, whereas we take our skeletons out of the cupboard for reuse every time.
Considering our last Champions League victors from this country were Chelsea back in 2012, you wouldn’t have thought that we had such an issue with competitiveness in England. Yes, we’ve had three winners (Liverpool, Man United and Chelsea) in the last 11 years, but only one of those has come in the last five, and we’ve only had just three quarter-final or better appearances (excluding Chelsea’s win in 2012) in the past five seasons, one of those being David Moyes’ Manchester United. As apparently the second strongest nation in the competition according to UEFA’s coefficient rankings, it is unbelievable that we have such a poor recent record. We have certainly thrown enough money at the problem, with the record-breaking signings of Angel Di Maria, Sergio Agüero and Kevin De Bruyne, as well as probably Zlatan Ibrahimović soon, alongside bosses such as Jose Mourinho, Manuel Pellegrini, Louis van Gaal and Jürgen Klopp, but it hasn’t been enough.
In my opinion, the main focal point and issue in this whole debate of why we haven’t been in European finals is the fact that our league is considerably different to others in Europe. It's been criticised in the past by outsiders, our way of doing things, such as our lack of winter breaks and congestion of fixtures with the BPL, FA Cup and Capital One Cup all in quick succession. The theory is that all these games, sometimes four in about 10 days at the peak of the season, can mentally and physically fatigue players much easier than the broken up Spanish, Italian, French or German leagues, which take a rest for three weeks from late December to early January, or for a whole month in the case of the Bundesliga. Our method often results in inconsistent performances across all four league, domestic cup and European competitions if you are a top club, with less chance of completing a double or even treble like Man United back in 1999. This may vary winners in our country, which is good for the game, but it definitely decreases our chances in Europe, as the opposition, who are no mugs themselves, are much sharper and better prepared for matches. As they are given a long resting break, the players can enjoy the season a bit more, rather than regarding it as a long, hard slog like we do in the UK.
Just look at the performance patterns of the German, Spanish, Italian or French national teams compared to Roy’s boys, and you will draw a stark conclusion that they are far superior at reaching semi-finals and winning tournaments than us. Some may say that is because we import too many foreign players into the BPL when matched with other European leagues, failing to give British youth players a chance, but it would be foolhardy not to admit that fatigue also has a large part to play. We are heralded, by other countries as well as by our overconfident fans, as one of the best footballing nations I the world, but we don’t demonstrate that on the world stage at all. If we were as ambitious and open to change in order to improve as the Spanish, Germans or Italians, we could soon be appearing in semi-finals of Euros and World Cups, but for now we will languish and settle for quarter-final or round of 16 exits. That’s really not good enough for a country of our pedigree, and it could be fixed oh so easily. Just by adopting a clear and forward-thinking mind-set, we could sacrifice our apparently vital Boxing Day and New Year’s Day fixtures at the top level. Of course, these games could still be on the calendar at levels below the Championship, which would encourage hundreds of thousands of fans to flock to their local non-league clubs, where they income and presence is really appreciated and does much more good to the community. But no, a lot of people are still set in their ways of rejecting the vastly improved possibility of even winning an international tournament in favour of not missing Match of the Day for two or three weekends every year. Let’s be honest, we could be just as good as the Germans and the Spanish with our young talent in a few years’ time, but we could be held back by fatigue and overplaying. It seems totally nonsensical to the development of the game when you put it that way, doesn’t it?
Another point to add to the conversation is the commonly held opinion, bordering on fact, that the leagues of our Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, German and Dutch counterparts are far weaker in terms of strength in depth than the BPL. Think about it, who did you expect to win each European League this season when it began? I’m willing to bet that 90% of fans would’ve gone for Barcelona, Juventus, Paris Saint Germain, Porto, Bayern Munich and Ajax. Yes, I am aware that Benfica and PSV won the Portuguese and Dutch league respectively, but the point is that with the untouchability of the top three or so clubs in each of these countries, nobody else has a chance. In the BPL, everyone has a chance, not quite 50/50 though, of beating whoever is put in front of them each and every week, whether you are Manchester United or Bournemouth. This season’s totally unpredictable win for a certain crisp-famed city in the Midlands has proved to absolute perfection the fact that the Premier League is the most competitive and hard-fought league in all of the world, with the best of English football all fighting it out for a chance of glory. It is by far the least scriptable. But this explosiveness does affect our top sides in the Champions League, as Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool and Man United have to fight tooth and nail to keep up with each other every weekend, while the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus don’t. I’m not saying these sides don’t give their all in league games, I’m just noting that they can usually wrap up a win within the first 60 minutes or so of a game and then take their foot off the pedal. Just look at some of the score lines of La Liga matches every single season for Barça and Real. Only this season, there’s been Real Madrid 10-2 Ray Vallecano, Deportivo de La Coruña (who I manage in FM16 at the moment) 0-8 Barcelona and Real Madrid 7-1 Celta Vigo, as well as numerous 6-0’s, 5-0’s and 4-0’s. These score lines are becoming normality in La Liga, just demonstrating the disparity in terms of quality of sides.
If the top sides never have to waste all of their time and energy on walkover league results, they can make their investments in world-class players worth it by focusing squarely on the Champions League. Simply because of this, far more is expected of them by their fans, the media and the general worldwide audience, with reaching the semi-finals of Europe’s largest cup competition a failure for sides such as Barcelona, who are pressured into slightly unrealistically winning the tournament every single year. As our British sides have to go hell-for-leather on Saturdays and Sundays while our Mediterranean cousins are kicking back, cold beer in hand on the golden beaches, our chances in the competition diminish by the second, and expectations of British fans are significantly lowered. Our best hopes of success, sides like Manchester City and Chelsea, have to manage their squads appropriately, but when you need to beat someone like West Brom or Stoke to keep up the chase for the top 4 or 1st place, you can’t afford to put out a weaker side. In many ways, English sides are placed in a quandary by their own FA, with so many vital games to play sometimes over the period of about 10 days, resulting in less impressive results across the board. To expect managers like Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte to come in and change that basic fact is totally unrealistic, but apparently they can handle even the toughest of situations with much more success than the likes of Manuel Pellegrini or Louis van Gaal, who both had to sacrifice competitions (the FA Cup and the Europa League) in pursuit of more financially rewarding titles. So the real reason why these guys were sacked was the whole English footballing layout, rather than personal mistakes. They both had to lose things to stand a chance of gaining another, and ultimately neither of them gained enough back from their risks.
What I propose is a total rethink of the setup in this country from the top down by the FA, who need to finally listen to those around them and find inspiration from their counterparts across Europe. What we need to do is find the perfect balance of tradition, competition (in the most basic form of the word) and rest, and I do realise that it is not easy at all to fix. There will be no immediate wide scale change, that’s for sure, but over time we can ease in new regulations.
As I was writing this blog back on Thursday (26th May), I was pleased to see that the FA Cup has scrapped quarter-final replays, which is great news for the ambitions of top clubs and the fitness and wellbeing of their players. Rather than playing one extra Wednesday night, teams can focus their attentions on being fully prepared, mentally and physically for their Saturday game, which is a massive boost for job security and overall competitiveness of top teams. But we cannot stop here, we have to use this momentum and ask for more from the FA for the sake of the future of the English game, as in the end, after all of our club allegiances, all we want is for our country to be represented well on the world stage, becoming world leaders and tournament winners. I would far prefer to be watching Manchester City, Arsenal or England in the semi-finals and finals of the Champions League and the Euros, rather than just settling for mid-tournament exits. It’s not enough for Manchester United, Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea or Spurs to be challenging for the top four every season, we need to adopt a long-term view of what Champions League victory would do for any of these clubs, and aim for that above anything else. Like Barcelona, Real Madrid or Juventus, believe that if you win these competitions everything else will sort itself out. We need to be far more optimistic as a footballing subculture, rather than pessimistic and stuck in our depressing routines. After all, what is life without a little glory and enjoyment on the way? What are we without our human thrills of taking risks? Who are we if we don’t pursue the things we don’t have in life? It’s human nature to do so, and I think our FA needs an injection of it, straight to the heart.
As I sat in my room watching the Europa League final between Liverpool and Sevilla on the television through YouTube on Wednesday night, I couldn’t help but feel BT Sport were commencing a desperate plea for attention. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the game and the experience of watching it through an innovative live streaming service that YouTube now provides, but there was a distinct abnormality about it all. The commentators (pointing out the obvious throughout the game as per usual) were acting no differently than they would for any other BT Sport televised game, the pundits (totally Liverpool-biased in Michael Owen and Steve McManaman) were nothing out of the ordinary, but there was an aura of a slight façade. It all seemed to be an audition to potential new customers, which in the end is all that BT Sport, and BT above them, care about, the income from intrigued (Tyler) onlookers. They only came up with the idea to try and offset their poor ratings for their new European football coverage monopoly from the rest of the season, and they were quite open about that fact when they released a statement last week saying they had agreed an ‘exciting’ deal with the YouTube bigwigs. The final on Wednesday, coupled with the Champions League next Saturday (28th) might salvage some success for BT from this season, but they will realise that their future might not lie on our TV’s, but across all platforms.
But this kerfuffle about the rights to platform football to the nation is not all about BT Sport, the story also encompasses BBC, ITV, Sky Sports, Channel 5, ESPN, in fact most major broadcasters in the whole of the UK. I am a passionate supporter of the BBC and all free-to-air television, call me a traditionalist, but I am opposed to multi-national companies swooping in and waging their war against the establishment. There is something very self-centered about Rupert Murdoch and Sir Michael Rake (chairman of BT) widening their business empires and outpricing the people’s broadcasters in BBC and ITV to win the rights to show world-class, unparalleled, 24/7 sport. What they are doing is lining their vast, velvet pockets with even more cold, hard cash and enticing the viewers into buying into the dream of exclusivity and luxury, the Sky and BT visions. It is the ultimate capitalist goal, to dominate your field in such a way. Adam Smith (not the Bournemouth player, the founding father of modern day capitalism) would be smiling down on magnates like Murdoch with his single-minded, cold-blooded mind-set, but I don’t agree with that. I don’t think we should buy in to what Murdoch and others promote. I don’t think he even has a heart.
I know what you’re thinking, what I am about to say doesn’t have much to do with football, but I have to say it really does. In the modern day, football is a business in which the richest survive and the small are crushed without a second glance from those at the top. You know the phrase go hard or go home? Well that is the current mentality in football, no matter where you are in the world. In this business, you have to make friends with those guys with deep pockets, even if you work for the Premier League (or FIFA, but let’s not talk about that again), if you want to be rewarded with your own pay package at the end of the week. In its current state, the people involved in football have to be callous to survive. But it doesn’t have to be that way; things could be run with compassion and respect.
The thing is, the longer we let money rule the game, the more ground Sky and BT will steal from BBC and ITV and the more top-level live sport will be lost to channels you have to pay to access. The very idea of that kind of television to be is just disgusting, it’s like in-game purchases in the thousands of apps you can get for ‘free’ on your phone, nobody likes them but plenty are sucked in by the temptation. BT and Sky profit from the desperation of many to watch live sport, but they are two of the most famous companies in terms of poor customer service. So how does this work? Well, even though BT have conquered the telecommunications and Wi-Fi markets (butchering the customers’ needs by ignoring the point and putting them hold over the phone, and taking weeks to even install basic cables for rural areas) they still want more. To get more, they have used their (somehow) respected brand to get a foothold in television, then just splashing the billions they have reaped over the past few decades on shiny desks, even shinier presenters and ‘Ultra HD’ (whatever that means) cameras to provide the luxury experience expected. But they still somehow manage to f**k this up, marketing their channels as FREE on their posters, television ads and magazine commercials. It’s one thing just to try and say your product is free one small time, but to do it in almost all of your adverts is just a deliberate misleading of the British public. After this FREE message in bold, you might notice there will always be an asterisk which comes with a message in the finest print imaginable at the bottom of the advert that it’s only free after you pay so much for line rental and broadband. After that, you have to pay for the special BT box to plug into your TV, and then an even more magical Sports card to put into the back of the box to start it up. Even following that, you have to pay close £50 every month to keep all of this technology in your house. From when you start the process, there is little or no escape, as you are subconsciously programmed into following the steps to becoming BT’s newest favourite customer, or cash cow, which they for some reason don’t like to refer to you as. If you want to jump off the bandwagon, good luck with that as their office staff will only keep going about the whole disembarking process in such a roundabout and confusing way that you will either go crazy or give up altogether. How this company is one of the richest in the UK I will never know.
But BT is only a tiddler in its construction compared to the colossal squid (look it up) that is Sky, who are the kingpins of the paid TV market. They not only hire the biggest names in sport they can pay into representing them, but they also have the most innovative styling, filmography and planning you will ever see in sport. It’s all thanks to Rupert Murdoch, the 85-year-old Australian born multi-billionaire (apparently worth $12.4 billion!!!) who has dominated the transatlantic media markets by founding Sky and Fox and purchasing 21st Century Fox (who own 20th Century Fox now), The Sun and The Times. He’s been married four times (once to a woman 38 years younger than him, and now to a former model who is 26 years his junior) and had six children, who have all been involved in his businesses in one way or another. He has crushed anyone who has stood in his way in business and made billions doing it. Everything he touches turns to gold, simply because he knows all the right people to keep his companies expanding and succeeding. The businesses he owns, by means of character, won’t stop until they’ve engulfed everything in their paths, whether that is the BBC, ITV or even backstabbing BT, its friendly little brother who just wants to share in the success.
What these two massive companies are doing is outbidding our lifelong national broadcasters for every single sporting event that takes their fancy. This could be the Premier League, the Football League, the Champions League, International Cricket, Continental and League Rugby, Basketball, Golf, Tennis and soon Formula One, they don’t really care, they just want the best. All of the biggest sports in the world, all of the biggest choices for the ‘avid sports fan’, all in one place. It’s cold-hearted, it’s ruthless, it’s unethical, but they do what they have to do to make sure they can keep paying off the mortgages for their country mansions, the payments for their Ferraris and the investments into new companies. It’s a hard life for these people, don’t you think? The people that we pay every second we spend watching these programmes, the ones that profit off our endless desire for entertainment, which they are only too happy to provide us with.
But what happens when this goes too far, when we lose all sport from terrestrial television? Well, as distinct a possibility as this seems, if we carry on the same path, it undoubtedly will. It’s mostly down to weak heads in charge of sport, who jump the gun at the very mention of money and television deals, and will therefore hand over the rights to show the games to the highest bidder, providing that is Sky or BT, not Dave from the pub. You shouldn’t be able to believe it, but there are very few people in sport these days who actually have any heart when it comes to these situations. Sometimes they do need to go out of their way to do the right thing for the stakeholders of sport, who are all of us. Most of the time though, they don’t, so we’ve been left with this mess of a TV rights deal, and many other circumstances similar to it. In British sport right now, there is a massive contrast of characters, from Barry Hearn, the legendary sports promoter, who says television deals with the BBC are the best things imaginable for the sport of Snooker, because they gave the sport a life, to Colin Graves, the ECB (English Cricket Board) chairman. Graves said the other day that Live Test Cricket will never return to free-to-air television, having previously been a bastion of terrestrial television until 2005, when it left Channel 4 for Sky. These two differing opinions for me, display the disparity between the heart in sport and the money-making objectives of some. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, sport is not, nor should it ever be, a method for making money. Some people realise this, but nowhere near enough put it into practice. We cannot let the parasitic leeches sink their teeth into our love, our sport, and suck all of the human spirit out of it. It is just morally wrong.
But there are some stories of redemption and spirit in our sport. Luckily for British football fans, we are still able to watch the FA Cup on the largest and most famous worldwide broadcaster, the BBC, for free and with top-quality insights. Admittedly, it’s only a shared deal with BT Sport and they only get to show a maximum of two games every couple of months or so, but it is a showpiece deal for the BBC to host the most historic cup competition in all of football. In many ways the FA Cup and the BBC go together very well, both historic, both synonymous with the United Kingdom and both having the very best talent in the world on display for them. Having the FA Cup available on free-to-air television is a massive thing for the tournament and the country, as it allows children nationwide to be inspired and enlightened by the action, giving football the widest possible audience as well. This is massive for the sport, as it demonstrates that it does care about the next generation, and value everyone getting the privilege of feeling the moment and creating the memories without having to stump up about £100 for the day to watch the games in person. I know that when I sit down to watch the FA Cup final today (21st May) I will be grateful for having the possibility to experience the magic of the cup, but I shouldn’t need to feel that way, as I really believe everyone should have the right to watch and live the big moments in sport, that it should value lifelong adoration from everyone possible over cash. Memories and emotions last forever, but money can only last a man (or woman) so long.
The World Cup and European Championships are also beacons of hope for the working man, as these competitions use a fair policy of handing the rights to the largest broadcasters in each country, similar to the Olympics, rather than the highest bidders. This way of doing things ensures that the BBC and ITV will be able to host the biggest worldwide sporting events for decades to come, rather than having to bid astronomical and incomprehensible fees to oust the opposition. These tournaments attract some of the leading viewing figures for entire decades, and it is only right that those broadcasters that have been serving us for generations are trusted to give us the best coverage, rather than those who have bought themselves into the game.
What we need are reforms. Something needs to be changed to aid the causes of the national broadcasters over the capitalist fat cats, before we lose all live sport from our free television. The government need to impose regulations for Sky and BT, to make sure that they never have the ability to wipe out the opposition in their market and protect their own organisation, the people’s organisations, the BBC. It would make things much simpler if there were spending caps on each event, stopping for example Sky and BT spending over £5 billion, that’s right £5 billion, for a few seasons of Premier League football. That’s basically the equivalent of everyone in the world outside China and the USA paying £1 each to buy the rights to watch a few men kick a ball around in the pursuit of winning one trophy for about three years in a row. When you put it like that, it doesn’t really all seem worth it, does it? It is ridiculous how the top 1% of our society live, and they do it all off of our backs, taking our hard earned money and running off with it before they can ever be held to account. We need to stand up to their ploys and cement a real change in our society, rejecting the cut-throat ways of our upper classes and prompting a world-shaking change. I can’t see it actually happening anytime soon, but I do believe that if we come together as a society we can make real change, and I do believe in the power of the people. Call me an optimist, but I feel strongly about this and believe that as a unit we can change the world one step at a time. I want reform, and I will keep campaigning and encouraging others to help force it for the sake of the future.
So, is anything ever going to change? Are we heading down a slippery slope or can we still make amendments to a broken system? Well, it’s in moments like these that we have to take a step back and have a long, hard look at the whole situation. Once we have done this, analysed all issues and understood the ramifications of what we are currently doing, then we can make the reforms necessary. Until the people in the high places have done this, nothing will change for us, more and more live events will slip out of the grasp of terrestrial TV channels. But right now, nobody in these positions is willing or brave enough to challenge the big companies, in fear of going against the social norms of their jobs. But our world was not shaped into the one we see today by those who took their places on boards and turned up for meetings, not adding any input and collecting a paycheque. No, it was formed by the type of people who are confident and thought-provoking enough to encourage others to follow their calls for change. In my view, there aren’t enough of these philosophers, these leaders, these revolutionaries who want, and more importantly are willing to put the effort in, to shake up the face of our world. We need to bring back football to our screens, whether that be on TV, laptops, mobiles or tablets, and we need for it to be free. It should be a top priority for our government to reclaim sport for the little man, the underdog, the 99% of us. If you asked me what the single most powerful thing about sport is, it would be the fact that it can unite people across the globe in a single moment, no matter your background. But how are we supposed to unite if we can’t even access the spectacle? The thing is, we can’t if things continue in the same vein. If these people were real fans of sport, not interested in just themselves, they would hand sport back to the people. If they had a heart, they would hand it back to the people it really belongs to.
It’s that time of year again; the annual awards ceremonies are in full flow drawing another season of league football to a tidy conclusion (for most clubs). Wherever you like awards ceremonies or not, it is undisputable that they are a part of footballing culture in the modern day, rewarding players for what (unimportant compared to military service people, politicians and police officers) work they put in for a season of 10 months a year. Yes, you would’ve thought that being paid tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds a week would be a big enough incentive to put in everything you can physically give to your club every working day, but let’s put that issue aside and celebrate who has been rewarded for their work this season. Of course, there are many different opinions from a lot of different people, fans, players, writers, managers and league officials. But only a select few players can make it into the 2015/16 Barclays Premier League XI (and subs for my side) so only the very best will be picked. Without wanting to ramble on for too long, let’s unveil my end of season awards for this season.
Team of the Season – Formation 3-1-2-3-1
Goalkeeper: Kasper Schmeichel – Leicester City
Where better to start in this team than with the man who has broken barriers and records this season? He has been a vital piece in the spine of Claudio Ranieri’s title-winning side, a consistently dependable and outstanding man between the posts, good enough this season to walk into any of the top sides' starting XI’s. Considering he was only playing in the Championship with Leicester two seasons ago, and turning out for Notts County and Leeds United in the two seasons prior to his signing for the Foxes in 2011/12, it is simply exceptional that he has now been a focal point of a Premier League winning side.
In many ways, his story is representative of that of this Leicester side, rising out of the shadow of his father’s world-renowned reputation and making a real name for himself that will go down in the history books. What he has had to defy in his career has surely been very hard for him, having to change the perceptions of millions across the world on whether he is fit to wear that famous surname on the back of his shirt. It’s as if this story has been told before. Well, this exact theme was the heartbeat of Creed, the latest installation of the Rocky franchise, yet so different from all of the others. In the film, Adonis Creed, wonderfully played by Michael B. Jordan, is posed with a perfect crossroad in which he has to decide whether to pursue his boxing career with the burden of his father’s (Apollo Creed) name on his shoulders or whether to make his own way with his father’s widow’s maiden name. He knows that if he picks Creed then the expectation will be sky-high and the critics will be quick to put him down if he crashes and burns, but also realises that he needs to remain true to his roots and persevere through the trials to eventually succeed and the make Creed his own. In the end, he accepts the weight of the name and reaches the World Light Heavyweight title bout, going the distance but eventually missing out on split-decision. Luckily for Schmeichel, this is where the similarities end, but one piece of true filmography gold is the quote of one of the fight commentators bringing Creed to a conclusion is “Conlan (his opponent) won the fight, but Creed won the night.” This line is a perfect example of the true heart and soul of sport, and luckily enough for Leicester they won both the fight and the night this season.
Centre Back: Chris Smalling – Manchester United
Quite simply one of the best defenders in the entire Premier League right now. ‘Mike’ Smalling (so called by Louis van Gaal) has not only ensured himself a starting place in the line ups of both club and country, but also the respect of millions across the world after previously being labelled unfit at such a big club as Man United. This season, he has proved so many people wrong and has led by example in the whole United team while many have laboured their way through a disappointing season for the club. His part in the 17 clean sheets from the 34 games he has played this season has been imperative, and very useful for van Gaal, who would’ve probably lost his job by now if the side hadn’t of kept grinding out narrow wins. He has anchored the unstable defensive mix with Daley Blind, Matteo Darmian on the left and Antonio Valencia on the right, proving his real worth in his varying and world-class attributes. Smalling has the raw pace, defying his tall stature by outpacing the top strikers in the league, the hard-earned strength, the commanding heading ability and the well-trained passing ability all required to be a top defender. His place in this team has become a formality just for his all-round ability and Euro-winning (please?) form.
Centre Back: Robert Huth – Leicester City
Tough choice between Huth and his defensive partner this season, Wes Morgan, but I would edge Huth forward purely on his totally title-winning performance against Manchester City back on 6th February. His game-changing two goals and dominating defensive turnout was a real thrust towards the title for the Foxes, who I am running out of superlatives for. But you don’t just earn a place in the team of the season on a man of the match performance in one game; you have to keep that form up for the whole season. That is certainly what Huth has done this year. His so called ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘brutish’ style has been often heralded on Match of the Day this term, and whether you like that or not, you cannot deny that it has been effective. For me, Huth’s defending is so plain and harsh but so masterful at the same time, as he physically and mentally breaks down opponents so often that it has won him another Premier League winners medal. It may be old-fashioned, but sometimes the old ways are the best. Sometimes you just need a bit of brute strength to win.
Centre Back: Aaron Cresswell – West Ham United
Yes, yes, I know centre-back isn’t Cresswell’s natural position, but I believe he has been so good this season that he really deserves a place in this side, no matter where he plays. Only signed from Ipswich for around £4 million in the summer of 2014, Cresswell has been a high riser and fans favourite ever since he stepped foot on the pitch of Upton Park for the first time. Last season, he played all 38 matches for the side and won Hammer of the Year, and although he has played one less this season (with one match to go) in 36 games in the league so far, he should definitely be in the debate for the same award this term.
His defensive talents are obvious; he has been part of a mainly mid-table quality defence which has conceded only 49 goals from 37 games, the same as Liverpool and better than Chelsea. Discipline is a major part of his game, and having only picked up a single yellow card and no reds this year; he has become an easy choice for every starting XI throughout the season and made sure he doesn’t miss any games the boss would need him for. That is what every manager wants in a player. He has earned the trust of Slaven Bilic, who could’ve easily bought in a big name to fill the position, but has instead allowed Cresswell to play with trust and freedom. This freedom has been clear through his probing and constantly threatening attacking play, scoring two goals and assisting four more this season, vital to the success of West Ham in challenging for a Champions League spot this season. His work with Dimitri Payet (more on him later) down the left flank has been one of the biggest outlets for goals and chances this year, with the two having the ability to fit into any of the sides around them.
Defensive Midfielder: N’Golo Kante – Leicester City
What can we say about this little guy that hasn’t already been said? The heartbeat of the title-winning side, a real bargain at £5.6 million, the signing of the season, an unshakeable rash on all attacking threats of any opposition Leicester faces and so on, it has all been previously noted. This man, previously unfancied to even keep up with the pace and power of the BPL, has not only fitted in to the league, but has absolutely thrived in it, staking a real claim for player of the season. He may have only scored once and assisted four this season, but Kante isn’t in the side to be a goalscorer. He is the kind of player who keeps running, keeps tracking his target, keeps using his mind to see where the movements will be and how to stop the other side creating chances. Usually these kinds of players don’t get the plaudits they deserve; quietly going about their work, but Kante has changed that precedent. He has been a real surprise success for a real surprise side of champions.
Central Midfielder: Dele Alli – Tottenham Hotspur
Signed from MK Dons for only £5 million back in the last few hours of the January transfer window in the 2014/15 season, Alli has transformed the sides of Tottenham and England over the past year while also disobeying the perception of what a young player is worth to a top club. Expected by most to be a bit-part player for Spurs this year, drafted into starting line-ups in the Europa League and Capital One Cup, he has shown his dedication to the side and to his own career by putting in the hard hours of training, improving his game and bringing himself to the attention of Mauricio Pochettino. He has not only been a part of Spurs’ title-challenging side, but he has been a real leader in it, breaking down age barriers and pre-conceptions (having previously only played in League 1). His box of tricks is more diverse than Dumbledore’s and his class on the ball is comparable to that of Andrea Pirlo, that is how good he is right now. For a 19 year-old, he is a prodigious talent that should be nurtured and allowed to flourish in Euro 2016 and the Champions League next season. He has heaps of talent and enthusiasm, and could be the next big star for both club and country. If he improves his discipline (shown up through his ban for punching Claudio Yacob two weeks ago), he will be a very well-rounded player, Rooney or Beckham-esque in importance for England in the future. A well-deserved Young Player of the Year award goes to this outstanding sensation, Dele Alli.
Central Midfielder: Dimitri Payet – West Ham United
Another West Ham player making the team, Dimitri Payet has been the well-spotted (in terms of a transfer) catalyst this season for the Hammers, inspiring them to challenge with the very best, the big spenders at the top of the league. The Frenchman has adapted brilliantly to the Premier League, a tier that he probably should’ve switched to much earlier, considering his world-class technical ability and physical style of play, which is perfect for the English game. It could’ve been a very different story for Payet, had he chosen fewer starting opportunities at a club like Chelsea or Arsenal over regular football at West Ham, where he is coveted as undoubtedly the biggest star in their team. If I was the manager at Marseille, I would feel very frustrated and rueful to have seen Payet go for just £12 million or so last summer, as with the benefit of hindsight we know that he should’ve commanded a much larger fee.
His talents don’t just stretch to his inch-perfect free-kick skills, as good as they have been this season, but also to his ability to create opportunities from nothing, so often this season being seen picking the ball up on the half way line and forging his way forwards. He targets the gaps in the opposition’s defence so well, resulting in his highly valuable 12 assists and 9 goals this season, effectively lifting the East London club up to a solid 6th place, ahead of Liverpool, Chelsea (and potentially Manchester United) with himself as the spearhead.
Right Winger: Riyad Mahrez – Leicester City
A definite Player of the Season by my accounts. The 25 year-old Algerian has brought to fruition all of the promise that he had last season, bamboozling defenders and mesmerizing goalkeepers into allowing him to walk all over the BPL this season, making a mockery of the £49 million spent on Raheem Sterling for example. The very fact that according to transfer prices, one Sterling (not the monetary unit) is worth as much as 98 Mahrez’s (considering that he was signed for around £500,000 by Leicester back in 2014) is a preposterous and incomprehensible one. This guy has been as good in this league as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo have in Liga BBVA in my opinion, making a real mark on the entire shape-up of the table. His step-overs, back heels, pacey runs and curling efforts on goal seem so simple in words but are so, so powerful and beautiful when put into practice on the pitch in a masterful combination of quiet commitment to the cause and showboating flair. This is what makes Mahrez so special and so vital to whatever Leicester do. They need to hold onto him this summer if they want to stand any chance of finishing in at least a Europa League spot.
Attacking Midfielder: Philippe Coutinho – Liverpool
This stereotypically Brazilian player has taken the bull by the horns in a difficult season for the Reds, leading the side in an unusually dour period for attacking players in Merseyside. Having to deal with a misfiring Christian Benteke in front of him in the absence of the regularly crocked Daniel Sturridge, Coutinho has salvaged some respect for Jürgen Klopp’s men in 2015/16. His long-range shooting ability, as well as his crossing and passing attributes make him a complete attacking midfielder, who could easily walk into any side in the league.
To be honest, it shocks me that Liverpool brought in Roberto Firmino last summer and also reportedly attempted to sign Alex Teixeira in the January window, as last season Coutinho was a top quality player for them, form that he has repeated this year. I think it is not the attacking midfield position that needs looking at for Liverpool, it’s shoring up on the talent that is already there such as Sturridge, Nathaniel Clyne and Jordan Henderson and offloading deadwood in the squad.
Left Winger: Marco Arnautovic – Stoke City
He may be a surprise pick for this team in many of your opinions, but for me Arnautovic has been a real game changer for Stoke this season and has hugely shook up the prejudices about Mark Hughes’ side. He has played with style, grace and precision, yet with a very different approach to my other winger Mahrez, bagging 11 goals and 6 assists from just 33 appearances. As a winger, a 1/3 goals to game ratio is outstanding, and would’ve been given far more attention had the Austrian been playing for Leicester, Spurs, Arsenal or Man City. For Stoke to finish a probable 9th in the BPL this season is a massive achievement considering they have had to change their style under Hughes in a league of very similar tactics, also gelling a number of (mostly foreign) players this season. Throughout this, players like Arnautovic have stood up and been counted, making the manager’s job much easier. This guy could definitely help Austria exceed expectations in this summer’s Euros.
Striker: Harry Kane – Tottenham Hotspur
Wasn’t this North Londoner meant to crumble under second season pressure? Wasn’t he meant to help Spurs to another Europa League finish again this year? Well, he has done it again this season, becoming the leading English goalscorer in the league and (so far) the top goalscorer in the whole BPL with 25 goals. It’s hard to explain just why Kane is as good as he is, maybe it’s a combination of hard earned pace, well versed combination play and point perfect shooting ability, maybe he’s just a jack of all trades, master of none. His ability to create goals from all angles from in and around the 18 yard box is unparalleled in this league, even possibly on the European stage. 25 goals and counting this season, let’s hope he can secure that golden boot award tomorrow and continue his form into the Euros, as he will be one of our main assets. He could even become the biggest and best striker in this league for years and years to come.
Huerelho Gomes – Watford
So often berated during his time at Spurs for failing with the basics, the Brazilian has found his feet again as a settled 1st choice at Watford, really lifting the Hertfordshire town to new heights in the biggest league in the world. Boasting the most saves of any goalie in the league this season from the most shots on goal against him (120 from 165) as well as the most penalty saves from the most penalty kicks against him (6 from 8), he has had an incredible season. Nobody expects mid-table goalkeepers to be so solid, but Gomes is another player who has gone above and beyond the line of form expected.
Christian Fuchs – Leicester City
What an amazing man, on and off the pitch, eh? His videos and tweets this season have seen us all fall in love with the Leicester story, while his form on the pitch has shown that he is worth millions more than the exactly £0 they had to pay for his services at the start of the season. He has had so many top performances, covering all areas of the left side of the pitch, both defensive and attacking-wise, and been so successful every time. He stands up and takes responsibility for the whole side, a characteristic that is so useful to any manager. He plays with desire, commitment and heart, while also using his experience to calm the whole team down. A true champion of a man.
Toby Alderweireld – Tottenham Hotspur
I’ll be honest; I didn’t expect much from a defensive partnership of Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld at the start of the season, but I’ll admit to have being wrong in my views. He did betray Southampton last summer by scrapping his permanent move there, eventually moving up the ladder to White Hart Lane. You do have to say that he did make the most of it though, really cementing his position for club and (probably) country for this summer’s Euros, replacing Vincent Kompany. His long range passing is up there with the best in the game from his position, his organisational skills are top notch, and his defensive skills such as tackling, intercepting and heading are second to none. He is one of the biggest factors in Spurs’ record as the best defensive side in the league (having only conceded 30 from 37 games) as well as the best goal difference. A great season for him, with another one like it one of the top orders from Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs fans alike, if they want to progress next time around.
Mark Noble – West Ham United
A true representation of the spirit and loyalty found in one-club players. The fact that his testimonial for his club (signifying 10 years) happened this season at the age of just 29 is a remarkable feat, and shows his ability to keep improving his play and adapting to fit different manager’s styles. He is an excellent passer of the ball, utilising all angles of the pitch to his advantage. His penalties are legendary at the club, his poachers instinct is solid for a English box-to-box midfielder and his presence is a reassurance for all new players. This has probably been his best season at the club to date, and if he doesn’t break into the national side now, he never will again. It is now or never, sink or swim for Noble.
Mesut Özil - Arsenal
So often branded a ‘luxury player’ and a player who drifts in and out of games, Özil had endured a tough time as record signing at Arsenal in his first two seasons. The German World Cup winner has taken the initiative this season though, and led from the front in a team that has always attempted to play the best aesthetic football in the league. He has finally become the player that Arsene Wenger wanted in his side, a real personification of his ideology; creative, accurate and clinical. The top assister in the BPL this year with 18, while also chipping in with 6 goals of his own, I doubt Arsenal would be anywhere near challenging for 2nd place in the final weekend of the season without his presence. Next season will be even bigger for him.
Michail Antonio – West Ham United
As an outsider, I saw Antonio’s move to the Hammers last summer for £7 million from Nottingham Forest a better deal for the Championship side in the short term, but this mercurial non-league product has surprised everyone with his performances. He has proved he is worth every penny of what West Ham paid for him, contributing massively to the side this year by not only by visibly putting in 100% every single game, but also reverting to right-back as a result of injuries to Slaven Bilic’s side. He may have only made 25 appearances this season, but he has made the most of each and every one of them, scoring 7 goals, including some very special ones, as well as creating 3 more for strikers like Andy Carroll and Diafra Sakho. He chose to chase an England place over representing Jamaica in international football earlier this season, and we can only hope he repeats and improves his performances next season to see him in a Three Lions shirt before too long.
Jamie Vardy – Leicester City
The image of this man, arms outstretched, smile beaming across his face, will be one of the most memorable ones of the 2015/16 Premier League season, and rightfully so. The former Stocksbridge Park Steels player has brought all of his down-to-earth charm and irresistible talent to the fore at just the right time in his career for Leicester City. Nobody would’ve foreseen this guy as a Premier League winner and England player at Euro 2016 two, three, four or five years ago, but he has not let the opinions of others hold him back. He has made miracles possible and inspired everybody across the country to believe in the impossible again. With 24 goals and counting, he could still win the Golden Boot to crown a glorious and totally unthinkable season, and it wouldn’t now surprise me if he did. It was tight between Kane and Vardy for a starting place in this team, and it could be just as tight deciding which to pick at the Euros this summer for Roy Hodgson.
Petr Cech, David de Gea, Hugo Lloris, Jack Butland, Kyle Walker, Danny Simpson, Charlie Daniels, Angelo Ogbonna, Wes Morgan, Etienne Capoue, Danny Drinkwater, Cheikhou Kouyaté, Marc Albrighton, Ross Barkley, Wahbi Khazri, Jesse Lingard, Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Olivier Giroud, Troy Deeney, Jermaine Defoe.
Manager of the Season
Claudio Ranieri – Leicester City
It couldn’t go any other way, could it? The masterful old Italian has somehow found a miracle, a one in 5000 chance, to gain success, and boy has he done it with style. He has been an absolute revelation by producing a series of results previously unseen in his whole 30 year-long career, earning his first top-level league trophy in his managerial career. Eddie Howe, Mauricio Pochettino, Slaven Bilic and Quique Sanchez Flores can all count themselves unlucky to have been very good in a season in which another manager has been fantastic. Not just fantastic, but absolutely unbelievable.
Goal of the Season
Dele Alli vs Crystal Palace, 23rd January 2016
A stunning strike worthy of all of the plaudits that it earned the young Englishman. Starting by facing the corner flag, his first touch to just keep the ball at the perfect height, his second to hook it gently back over his head and the third to smash the ball goal wards were all absolutely flawless, creating the most beautiful goal this season for my liking. Alli’s breakthrough season has seen plenty of special moments, but this has got to be seen as the highlight of it all. If only he could reproduce it for England in the Euros, we might just stand a chance of upsetting the apple cart.
Match of the Season
Norwich City 4-5 Liverpool, 23rd January 2016
What. A. Game. It swung this way and then that, surely giving all betters heart attacks, as well as the fans inside a constantly rocking Carrow Road at the time. In one of the few games in which Norwich actually threw caution to the wind and had a real go at the opposition with their undoubted attacking ability this season, they had a real chance of winning this one. Liverpool did lead 1-0 after 20 minutes with a goal from Roberto Firmino, seemingly assured of a lead until half time at least, considering Norwich’s goal scoring record. Suddenly though, the Canaries went into the break 2-1 up, and further extended that to 3-1 ten minutes after. They were 3-1 up with 35 minutes left for god’s sake, but then Liverpool came straight back at them with a triple whammy of goals from Jordan Henderson, Roberto Firmino and James Milner to lead 4-3. Sebastien Bassong hit back with a goal on 90 minutes, grappling back a respectable result with three minutes of added time to go. But then, Adam Lallana popped up in the box for the Reds, finishing off a game of pinball to secure a season-defining win for Jürgen Klopp’s team. This was a game that had (nearly) everything.
Well that is my summary of the season, well done for making it this far! 2015/16 has been a golden period for English football, revitalising the game in all corners of the country. Whatever happens this weekend, we will always remember this season for being the one in which miracles happened, records tumbled, new heroes took to the stage and history has been well and truly made. So much has happened, so many words have been written, so many stats have been recorded, but it has all been worth it for the pride it creates. Thank you 2015/16, we will all miss you.
Leicester City 2015/16, a season that will be remembered for decades to come. In all of our memories, a story to tell our children and grandchildren of the true underdogs who rose from relegation certainties one season to undisputed champions of probably the best league in the world the very next. Let’s enjoy the moment, whether or not you are a Leicester fan or not, because this has been a remarkable and magical season, one to be celebrated by world football for its heart and Hollywood blockbuster-quality storylines. We have just seen the 15th largest city (by population, lower even than Wakefield and Coventry) in the UK win the Premier League, a side that only seven years ago was in the depths of League One, a side that has spent just 48 of its 111 seasons as a club in the top division of English football. It has only taken them three seasons, two very different managers, 43 players (making at least one league appearance each) 58 home games (excluding todays match against Everton) and countless chants from the fans to go from Championship winners to Premier League victors. Not to mention all the banter along the way. It has undoubtedly taken a lot, especially behind the scenes, to see such a seemingly minor team become the champions of English football. The question on many fans’ lips is; will there ever be another Leicester? Will there ever be another team that could become Premier League winners out of the blue like this?
Well, examples of true underdogs have certainly been seen before, over many sports and many different times. A number of names begin to roll off the tongue as soon as you mention the word ‘underdog’ in football, such as the Blackburn Rovers side of 1994/95, Greece’s Euro-winning team back in 2004, Brian Clough’s Derby County and Nottingham Forest of 1972 and 1977-1980 respectively. Other sports have had the Miracle on Ice (the American Ice Hockey team of amateurs who overcame the previously unbeatable Soviets at the Winter Olympics of 1980), Joe Johnson (the amateur snooker player who came through qualifying to beat the best in the world in the 1986 World Championship) and the Netherlands Twenty20 Cricket Team (who beat England at the World Cups of 2009 and 2014 despite being a team of mostly part-timers in a country with only 6,000 registered cricketers). None of these teams or individuals, though, were rated 5000/1 outsiders to achieve the things they eventually did. Considering this, surely Leicester City are the largest outsiders for any feat of this nature ever, in the entire modern history of professional sport.
The main reason the Foxes’ accomplishment is rated so highly in the list of unlikely and unbelievable sporting moments is because they have defied the entire money-orientated and big-team-favouring set-up of the BPL. They have single-handedly flipped the outlook on the BPL and the sort of teams that have success for the football fans and general public of the world, giving belief to all the underdogs out there. Five of their favoured starting eleven this season (Schmeichel, Morgan, Drinkwater, Mahrez and Vardy) were all integral parts of their 2013/14 Championship-winning squad, which just goes to show you don’t need to reinvent your team every season like Manchester City, United or Chelsea to create a victorious Premiership side with the quality and strength in depth required. The additions that Nigel Pearson and Claudio Ranieri made were hardly star-studded themselves, with the likes of Marc Albrighton, Robert Huth, Danny Simpson, Christian Fuchs and Gokhan Inler all coming in on the cheap. When your record signing is Leonardo Ulloa (from Brighton in 2014 for £8 million, it says a lot about your quality, and sends a message that you aren’t exactly the type of side likely to win the Premier League, of all competitions, anytime soon. Compare Ulloa to Angel Di Maria at Man United (£59.7 million), Fernando Torres at Chelsea (£50 million) or Kevin De Bruyne at Man City (£55 million) and it warms the heart to see Leicester triumph over these ‘bigger’ sides. They have finally showed that you don’t have to spend the most to win the most, overriding a vicious cycle of buying and selling at these clubs to hopefully (but not realistically) herald a new age in the BPL.
The reason it is not realistic is clear through the messages of so many across social media and punditry over the past few days; the scepticism that Leicester can repeat their feat next season. People have been very quick to note the unlikeliness of this season’s triumph, and even slimmer possibilities of a repeat. If ever you needed any piece of evidence to sum up the imbedded culture of money wins in the BPL, it would be best found in any of these statements. This seems especially significant after Claudio Ranieri announcement of faith in the cheaper market and distaste of big-name signings in his press conference on Thursday (5th May). Ranieri’s message is a positive one for the whole of football, a strong swipe at the likes of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, the man who dismissed the Italian after his purchase of the West London club back in 2004 despite a second-place Premier League finish and a Champions League semi-final that season. At least Ranieri is a steadfast believer in his morals. He may not win another Premier League title, but he has certainly won a lot of fans for his belief in the likes of Demarai Gray and Christian Fuchs, young players and free agents who can easily be priceless to a squad if they come in with the right attitude. Ranieri is no longer the ‘Tinkerman’, he is the happy-go-lucky genius, a wizard almost, who has conjured a title out of thin air for a previously relegation-scrapping team with all of his man-management tricks and media spells. In golfing terms, he has pulled off an albatross, or even a condor, in a situation where they should’ve struggled to get a par of mid-table.
So how have Leicester achieved the unbelievable? Well, it has taken all of their mental strength and physical capabilities to see out the season, with a bit of luck thrown into the mix. Sports like football are all about stamina and consistency, and that is what Leicester have managed to align this season, only losing three of their (so far) 36 games in the league, scraping plenty of 1-0 wins in games that could’ve gone either way, and that is what has made them champions. The old adage that ‘the mark of champions is that they can win games despite not being at their best’ has been proven right yet again by this indomitable blue-and-white side. Another aspect which has played into their hands is the lack of injuries and the well-versed discipline that they have had over the course of the whole season. Eleven members of their squad have all made 28 or more appearances, with another two (Andy King and Jeffrey Schlupp) making 23 and 22 appearances respectively. This kind of stability has worked wonders for the side, especially defensively, as the combination of Kasper Schmeichel and Wes Morgan (both having started and finished every single game this season) with Robert Huth (who has only missed one) has held up their entire side. Any good team needs to have organisation and stability at the back, and that is what Leicester have got.
That is without even mentioning the heartbeat of any team and a cog that has been critical for them this season; the midfield. The partnership between box-to-box battler Danny Drinkwater and tireless workhorse N’Golo Kante has been outstanding; especially considering the latter was only signed last August, five days prior to the first game of the season. With only one season of Premier League experience between them (Drinkwater 2014/15), the two should’ve been struggling to adapt to the demands of the physical nature of top-level English football by logic, but have ended up putting in a truly title-winning series of performances. A big part of this quick gelling has been the tactical consistency and player loyalty of Ranieri, with the pair having only missed 3 games between them all season, giving them the assurances and faith required to imbed their styles into the team and to any success that they could’ve envisaged at the start of the season.
Another side to Leicester’s winning formula is in their wings, the trickery, pace and guile of Riyad Mahrez coupled with the old-fashioned hard running and pinpoint crossing abilities of Marc Albrighton and Jeffrey Schlupp. Mahrez has been a complete revelation this season, scoring 17 goals and assisting 11 goals from just 34 starts in the BPL and forming the deadliest partnership in the league with Jamie Vardy, arguably the prime factor in the team’s victory. That’s not to overshadow the importance of Albrighton and Schlupp, who have totalled 3 goals and 7 assists together, vital considering their goal difference is only +30, nine worse off than Spurs’ healthy total. Without any of the pieces that Ranieri has put in place this season, I highly doubt the outcome would’ve been the same.
The showpiece aspect of the side has certainly been up front, where a certain WKD-drinking, wrist-bandage-sporting non-league graduate has taken the world by storm by breaking not only a Premier League record for consecutive scoring, but also into the England team. His heart-on-the-sleeve performances have been rewarded with 22 goals and 6 assists, and his pacey, clinical style of play has won him plenty of fans across the world, only heightened by the discovery of his lookalike Lee Chapman this week. Yes, it’s the maverick man Jamie Vardy, the beacon of hope for millions of semi-professional footballers across the world. He has been invaluable to the growth in popularity and the rise up the table of the Foxes this season. The last cog in the side has been Vardy’s strike partner, usually Shinji Okazaki, but variably Leonardo Ulloa, who have both been highly underrated for their very useful performances this term. The workloads they put in, whether they are tracking back to win the ball for attacks (Okazaki) or finishing off numerous chances with imperious headers or tidy poaches (Ulloa), have been outstanding and game-winning. No member of the squad should go without praise for the work they have put in, dedication to the cause this season. What they have done should’ve been impossible, but they are the one in 5000, they are the incredible few. It is a once in a lifetime story.
When we talk about Leicester’s miracle of 2015/16, we must hold it in such a high prestige that we believe we won’t ever see anything like it ever again. Yes, Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League in 1994/95 in what is now seen as an upset, but they had the likes of Alan Shearer, Henning Berg, Graeme Le Saux and Chris Sutton, who were all regular internationals for their national teams (Berg for Norway, the rest for England) at the time. They played in a time in which money had not yet totally dominated the scene, with history still proving fruitful, considering Nottingham Forest (3rd) and Leeds United (5th) were still continental sides. Blackburn weren’t anywhere near as unlikely as Leicester to complete their win. Speaking of Forest, they certainly can count themselves as almost complete surprises to have won the English First Division back in 1977/78, their first season back in the top level since 1971/72 at the time. They were practically a second division quality squad with who would later become heralded as an international quality manager in Brian Clough. Granted, they did have top quality players in English internationals Peter Shilton and Viv Anderson, as well as top Scottish players Archie Gemmill and John McGovern, all of whom were parts of the European Cup winning squads of 1978/79 and 1979/80 (barring Gemmill for the latter squad). They were unbelievably dominant of those few years, but I think the importance of their world-class manager and top-level facilities (for the time) makes their rise seem a little less unlikely than Leicester’s, who certainly have a well-travelled, wise manager, but nowhere near the class of Clough.
Considering this, surely Leicester are the most improbable and far-fetched champions in world professional football ever? In an era where we all expect to see the English top four consist of a choice of Man United, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool or Spurs, the fact that Leicester have conquered English football, and possibly world football depending on who you ask about which league is the best in the world, is amazing. We live in an age in the developed world where not just in football, but in daily life, cash is undisputedly king, and you can take whatever you like as long as you have the funds. Realistically, the likes of Chelsea and Man City should’ve have won the Premier League this season, but instead there has been an absolute miracle. You could call it luck, but in football, as in any part of life, you make your own luck, and that is what Leicester have been rewarded with.
Now surely this means we will never see anything like Leicester City FC 2015/16 ever again. I believe that with the introduction of Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte (maybe even Jose Mourinho); the Premier League in 2016/17 will become far more competitive and cut-throat. The unwillingness to spend on the level of these continentally competitive sides in the summer for Leicester is a brave yet very respectable decision, perhaps they realise that they cannot repeat their feats and they don’t want to raise expectations only to let their fans down. It would be very wise of them to do so. They would rather cherish this memory and be granted stability at a Premier League level for years to come rather than go the way of Portsmouth, who rapidly fell down to League 2 after chasing their European dream. With this kind of mind set, Leicester definitely know the magnitude of what they have achieved, that us fans are unlikely to see anything quite like this possibly again in our lifetimes. Financial Fair Play has undoubtedly had its effect on the spending power of the top sides, opening some doors slightly wider for teams with the pedigree of Leicester, but it should never have seen what has happened right in front of our eyes. This should be a wake-up call to the top sides for the future, get your acts together or face the backlash of your lower spending counterparts.
So, to answer the question posed by so many this week, I would have to admit I don’t see anything ever happening quite on this scale ever again during at least the next 50 years or even in my lifetime, unless something radical changes in the set-up of world football. It is probable that further rulings and restrictions will be added to the already major club biased structure of the top leagues across the world, particularly in the ones with brand names such as Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint Germain and Juventus. If these sides keep winning, it justifies the millions invested by global corporations, whereas if they don’t their sponsors can make massive losses, which dampens the reputation of the leagues for future financiers. These leagues will do anything to make sure their big names win, as it satisfies the money men who at the end of the day rule the footballing world. I know that isn’t the nice, optimistic story that people like to run in the papers, but it is the sad reality of the modern day footballing world. As this is looking like the future for the Premier League and the rest of Europe, we should all just celebrate what Leicester have done for as long as we can. They have made a significant breakthrough, let’s milk it for all it is worth. We never know when, or more likely if, it may ever happen again.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!