This has gone beyond one of the early-season surges by a smaller team that sometimes happens. This is a bona fide title challenge. And once that possibility is raised, it prompted the question of just how unlikely it would be.
There is still a third of the season to go, and there is a history of underdogs seizing up during the run-in, but if they do it, would Leicester be the most improbable champions English football has ever known?
Skim down the list of recent champions, and it details the familiar: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. It is indicative of how much a small group of sides has dominated the Premier League that Liverpool’s run at the title two seasons ago was regarded as a tale of implausible romance.
To modern eyes, perhaps the name of Blackburn Rovers in 1995 leaps out, but they had enjoyed huge investment from Jack Walker, and they had finished second in 1994.
I'm beginning to think Jamie Vardy is Leicester's equivalent of Blackburn Rover's Alan Shearer pic.twitter.com/ljIDsQ5Dbo— IDontLikeSpurs (@IDontLikeSpurs) February 4, 2016
Leeds United’s 1992 triumph is perhaps undervalued as a shock, coming as it did just two seasons after promotion, but they’d been fourth in 1991. Besides, that was an era of upheaval in English football as the Liverpool empire crumbled and others jockeyed to take advantage of the increased financial rewards the Premier League would offer.
Newcastle United, third in 1994, sixth in 1995 and second in 1996 and 1997, could easily have achieved what Blackburn or Leeds did.
Aston Villa’s title in 1981, with the side of Jimmy Rimmer, Dennis Mortimer, Tony Morley, Gary Shaw and Peter Withe, was improbable, not least because Ron Saunders used only 14 players. It was based in part on a significant dip by Liverpool, who finished fifth, but Villa had at least been a top-eight side in each of the previous four seasons.
Which brings us to Nottingham Forest in 1978. The problem here is familiarity. We know what they went on to achieve. We know about the two European Cups and the 15 years in the top flight. We know about the genius of Brian Clough. Later success somehow makes what went before seem less impressive, as though their rise were inevitable.
But Forest had sneaked promotion, coming up as the third-best team in the Second Division with the fifth-lowest points total ever to be promoted. Even when they won 3-1 at Everton, who were widely regarded as title challengers, on the opening day of the season, there was scepticism.
“Brian Clough is quite a subdued fellow these days," said a report in the Guardian. It continued:
The Nottingham Forest manager did not get carried away by his team's demonstration of their abilities on their return to the First Division after five years, and neither should anyone else. One cannot go overboard yet...they have the element of surprise at the moment. However, the skills of players such as Tony Woodcock and John Robertson are quickly going to be recognised by more competent defenders than those on display at Goodison Park. When that happens, Forest should be prepared for hard times.
But the hard times never came, and Forest took the only title in their history, passing unbeaten through their final 26 games of the season.
Like Leicester, they were more than the sum of their parts. The likes of Peter Shilton and Woodcock were obvious greats, but many of that side, familiar as their names became, never enjoyed great success away from Forest and Clough: the likes of Robertson, John McGovern, Kenny Burns and Ian Bowyer.
Cycle back a little further, and you get to another middling provincial club Clough inspired: Derby County. But their success in 1972, remarkable as it was, came after fourth- and ninth-placed finishes.
Go back before that and you’re entering a different world. Between 1959 and 1972, there were 12 different champions.
It's significant that after Derby were promoted in 1969, journalist George Edwards of the Derby Evening Telegraph (via the Guardian) warned fans not to expect too much from the following season. “The days when a promoted team could race straight to the championship have gone since the super league within Division 1 formed with Liverpool and Leeds at the spearhead,” he wrote.
Before that, there was a distinct sense it was possible, that momentum could carry a side. By definition, then, surprise champions in the 1960s weren’t that surprising. Yet even within that context, the achievement of Ipswich Town in 1962 bears consideration.
The Portman Road side had been in the Third Division South when Alf Ramsey became manager in 1955. They won promotion in 1957 and again in 1961.
Few expected much of their first season in the top flight, but Ramsey’s tactic of pulling the left-winger Jimmy Leadbetter deep, creating space for centre-forward Ray Crawford to move into befuddled the top sides, and they took the title by three points from Burnley.
Once opponents had worked out the trick, Ipswich collapsed; they lost 5-1 to Tottenham Hotspur in the following season’s Charity Shield and had won just two of 15 games when Ramsey was named England manager at the end of the October.
Those two appear as the most improbable post-war champions. Should Leicester go on to claim the title, they would immediately join that group. They were, after all, bottom of the table as recently as April 17, 2015.
They were 5,000-1 to win the title at the start of the season. Their squad cost in the region of £55 million; the (reasonable) theory this season has seen the rise of the Premier League’s middle class, buoyed by enormous television revenues, doesn’t apply to them.
Would they be more unlikely champions? It feels invidious to have to choose. Ipswich’s proponents will point out they had never even been in the top flight before. Forest’s will argue they had to beat a great Liverpool. And it is true all of the elite sides have significantly underperformed this season.
But context is important. Ipswich’s feat came when the league was turbulent, when sides rose and fell. Forest’s came when an elite had been established but shocks were still possible; there had been two Second Division winners of the FA Cup in the five years before their title, and there would be another two years later.
Leicester, if they win the league, will have done so in an age in which, for 12 years, the Champions League slots have gone to the four richest sides with only four exceptions: Everton, Tottenham twice and Liverpool, who previously were one of those clubs before being surpassed by Manchester City.
It’s less to diminish the miracles of Ipswich or Forest than to lament the predictability of modern football to say that Leicester, if they do it, would be the most unexpected champions England has ever known.
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