Jean-Philippe Toussaint, in his recent book Football, observes that the sport is ‘measured and appreciated’ in the imagination. Toussaint, an intellectually fanatical supporter of the Belgian national team, is used to failure. Indeed, he is an acolyte of the view that football support is built on failure. After all, aren’t the grown men and women on the terraces of English stadia simply not good enough for a place on the pitch? Am I not, in writing passionately about football, merely replacing the frustration of not being the world-class midfielder that I was born to be?
Leicester City are living out the fever dream of a football fan, borne into the real world on a hysterical current of goodwill. Across the country, with the exception of a small pocket of North London, football fans are being told to celebrate Leicester’s title win because it is ‘good for football’.
What Leicester have achieved is the imagination made real. Over the course of 10 months, they have battled and stunned and kept on winning, so that, as Chelsea held Spurs to a draw last night, it provided a climax to an enormous feat of imagination. Except that it’s not imaginary, and, in its reality, it leaves nothing left to dream.
The last serious deviation from the Premier League script was in the 1994/5 season, when Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League. The previous season they had been runners-up, and, with Alan Shearer leading the line they edged past Manchester United on the final day of the season.
In their debut Champions League season, Rovers accrued 4 points, finishing behind Rosenborg, Legia Warsaw and Spartak Moscow. They exited Europe with the unceremonious grace of a balding Brexiteer. Things were hardly rosier on home turf: they finished 7th in 1995/6 and 13th in 1996/7. This season, Blackburn have flirted relentlessly with relegation to League One.
The problem isn’t winning. Winning is the best, as Leicester City have just discovered. The problem is expecting to win. Expectation is the most pernicious trend in football, but it has been isolated, like a cauterised wound, to a small number of clubs who consider success to be stability. Expectation used to be limited to the so-called Big Four, whose fans are entitled to the point of collective hysteria. Take, for example, Arsenal fans’ reaction to the horrifying prospect of finishing 3rd or 4th this season. They are not satisfied because the team is not meeting their expectations.
I watched Man United knock West Ham out of the FA Cup with the dull-eyed fury of a stuffed shark. I barely cared when Chelsea was awarded a late penalty after a foul outside the box. Failure is its own comforter; I can deal with it because it happens again and again. Success is the aberration, a distraction that feels fantastic in the moment but invites you to get hooked. The problem for Leicester isn’t everything that’s happened up until this moment; it’s everything that happens after.
And it’s not just Leicester that has a problem. It’s a trope of most dystopian fiction that a single voice against tyranny sows the seeds of rebellion. Leicester have lit the blue touch paper for fans of West Ham, Stoke, Southampton, Everton, Palace…who knows who else? Their fans didn’t expect to win the Premier League title, but they now expect it to be a possibility. They believe that the autocracy of the Big Four has been ended. But they’ve got the wrong enemy; the true tyrant is success. The small crumbs of victory offered by the footballing world cannot be spread across every team, that’s a simple fact. Yet every team will now be desperate to sup, as Leicester have supped, at the high table of the footballing gods.
The worst thing in football is expecting to win. At best, you can be satisfied, at worst made miserable. Conversely, when you expect to lose, life is torrentially optimistic. Next season, like all the haggard random successes of old, Leicester will anticipate victory not with the nail-biting tension of those on the brink of glory, but with the entitled belief of the zealots in Manchester and North London.
With all this in mind, I think that Leicester to be relegated is the connoisseur’s punt for next season. And it would be for the best.
Nick Hilton is a writer and West Ham fan