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Is Leicester City's Premier League Title Challenge Really an Underdog Story?

Graham Ruthven@@grahamruthvenFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2016

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 03: Scarves reading Leicester City Premiership Champions are sold prior the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Southampton at The King Power Stadium on April 3, 2016 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images)
Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

The only thing predictable about this season in the Premier League has been its unpredictability. In another sense, however, a common thread has woven through the 2015/16 campaign. With Leicester City leading the title race, West Ham pushing hard to reach Europe and Bournemouth staying up, this season has been the season of the underdog.

The underdog is the embodiment of English football’s spirit. The tale of its triumph is a narrative almost inherently cultivated in the country’s sporting conscience, imploring its subscribers to always believe the impossible can be achieved. It’s a worthy sentiment, but does the underdog story exist any longer in the Premier League?

Rui Vieira/Associated Press

A Leicester City title victory would be hailed as the greatest underdog tale of modern times, with Claudio Ranieri’s side upsetting the odds to lift the trophy they weren’t meant to get anywhere near. Indeed, their triumph would make for a compelling story that would be told for generations to come; rightfully so.

But is it really an underdog story, as such? The Foxes might have a squad worth a fraction of Manchester City’s, Manchester United’s or Chelsea’s, but they are still the plaything of a Thai billionaire, providing a front for Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s King Power empire. He arrives at home matches in a helicopter, landing on the pitch. It’s hardly Roy of the Rovers stuff.

The same goes for Bournemouth. Their rise through the leagues under Eddie Howe has been sensational, with the Cherries playing their first Premier League season. What’s more, having reached 41 points, the south coast team are on course to avoid relegation back to the Championship.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 03: Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha waves as he heads towards his helicopter on the pitch after the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Southampton at The King Power Stadium on April 3, 2016 in
Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

But they too, like Leicester City at the top of the Premier League table, aren’t quite the pure epitome of the archetypal underdog. Bournemouth are owned by Russian businessman Maxim Demin, who became a 50 percent stakeholder in the Cherries in 2011. Since then, the club have gone from League Two to the Premier League, where they will stay for at least one season more.

Not much is known about Demin, with the Russian a reserved and largely hidden figure at Dean Court—even over the course of their most triumphant season to date. However, his impression on the south coast club has been profound, even if he doesn’t grab attention as a public figure.

It’s true that Bournemouth are a small club, averaging crowds of just 11,173 this season, but their transfer market exploits are not exactly befitting of an underdog. The Cherries splurged no less than £41 million on signings ahead of their maiden Premier League season, with Benik Afobe costing £10 million and Lewis Grabban £7 million. 

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: The training ground and centre at AFC Bournemouth before the Barclays Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Manchester City at Vitality Stadium on April 2, 2016 in Bournemouth, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill
Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

Leicester City also opened something of a war chest in the summer, spending close to £38 million on Shinji Okazaki, N’Golo Kante, Yohan Benalouane, Gokhan Inler, Daniel Amartey, Demarai Gray and Robert Huth. The summer before saw them sign Esteban Cambiasso, and no true underdog can ever count a former Champions League winner among their midst. 

Even West Ham United, who are admittedly of a traditionally better and bigger stock than Leicester City and Bournemouth, are a warped manifestation of the term "underdog." Their challenge for a Champions League place might have been unexpected and will ultimately fall short, but they are moving into the 60,000-seater Olympic Stadium for the start of the 2016/17 season. Little guys they are not.

It’s therefore difficult to hail this season as the season of the underdog when that word has lost its definition in the context of the modern game. When clubs are receiving around £165 million each per season from bumper broadcast and commercial revenue streams, does the underdog really exist anymore?

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - APRIL 09: Eddie Howe manager / head coach of Bournemouth celebrates at full time after the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Villa Park (Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images)
James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

Of course, just because they are rich doesn’t mean Leicester and Bournemouth’s owners aren’t good owners. Going beyond fundamental results on the pitch, Srivaddhanaprabha in particular has been nothing but good news for the Foxes since he took over as majority shareholder in 2013.

Since then, the Thai billionaire has written off the club’s £103 million debt, invested in the training ground and stadium, and even bought a capacity crowd of 30,000 supporters beer and donuts to celebrate his birthday earlier this month. Demin, too, is well-thought-of by his own supporters. 

Perhaps this is just the modern interpretation of the underdog in football—specifically the Premier League. It’s all relative, of course, because while Bournemouth spent £41 million over the course of the entire transfer window last summer, Manchester City spent that amount or more on two different players—Raheem Sterling (£47 million) and Kevin De Bruyne (£55.5 million). 

In comparative terms, Bournemouth and Leicester City are still underdogs of the Premier League. The latter certainly shouldn’t be anywhere near the title on their budget, as inflated as that may be in the modern era. Their achievements still warrant heralding.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 03:  Goalscorer Wes Morgan of Leicester City celebrates with his team mates Danny Simpson, Kasper Schmeichel, Christian Fuchs and Nathan Dyer of Leicester City at the end of the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester Ci
Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

However, it’s still somewhat difficult to accept them as underdogs when such money is swirling around both clubs and the division in general. The term is no longer fit for purpose, and with its disappearance, a part of English football’s idiosyncratic identity disappears with it. Leicester and Bournemouth’s success might come at a cost.

Nevertheless, this season should be enjoyed for what it has been—utterly crazy and stupendous. The 2015/16 campaign won’t just go down in the history books, but instead it will be lodged in the collective memory of the sport as the season that wasn’t supposed to happen. Nothing has gone as it was meant to. 

But maybe we should stop short of describing it a fairy tale. The Little Mermaid never had millions of Thai cash behind her efforts to become a human, after all. Hansel and Gretel were never broken out of the gingerbread house by a Russian businessman riding to their rescue. David and Goliath tussles still exist in the Premier League—it’s just that David is afforded a rather hefty, expensive weapon too.