Leicester City are the champions of England. That sentence would be moderately silly even if it weren't true; that it is, is completely nonsensical. Perhaps even more nonsensical is that this hasn't been a fluke, or the eventual consequence of a massive scandal. They've been the best team over the 36 games that have mattered this season; they've taken the Premier League, sized it up and won the thing.
There will probably be films. There will certainly be books. Whether or not this qualifies as a fairy tale, this is certainly a sporting achievement of exceptional scope; one that will take years to fully digest, contextualise and appreciate. Until then, here's a (probably incomplete) list of all the reasons that Leicester City shouldn't have been able to win the league. All (or at least, some of) the ways in which the universe was arrayed against them. The obstacles that Riyad Mahrez shimmied past with a drop of the shoulder, Wes Morgan headed miles clear and Claudio Ranieri shooed away with a twinkle and a smile.
Winning the league is a monstrously tricky business. As this season began, only 23 teams had ever finished a season as title winners — that's since Preston North End won the first, way back in 1888-89 — and only five had won the Premier League since the Premier League became a thing. And until yesterday, English football hadn't had a first-time title winner since Nottingham Forest in 1978. (Some other leagues, for comparison: Dundee United, Scotland, 1983; Sampdoria, Italy, 1991; Deportivo la Coruna, Spain, 2000; Wolfsburg, Germany, 2009.)
Which is to say that, for a nation which often prides itself on the exciting volatility of its footballing competitions, the very top of the pyramid is an exclusive club that has — or at any rate had — been getting more exclusive. Even members of the aristocracy have struggled to compete at times: Manchester United went 26 years between Busby's last and Ferguson's first, and Liverpool haven't won the title since 1990. It's hard, being the best. And it's even harder if you've never been the best before.
Tempting as it is to run through Leicester City's first XI in comedically disparaging terms — A goalkeeper that wasn't good enough for Manchester City even when they weren't any good! A striker who once played for teams so small they don't actually exist! Danny Simpson! — to do so would, that cake-having-and-eating interjection aside, be a trifle unfair. For Leicester's squad at the beginning of the season looked like most of the squads in the Premier League: A mish-mash of competent (if largely unspectacular) professionals, familiar and unfamiliar, who have by various means earned themselves a place in the Premier League and might, if they put their minds to it, manage to stay in the Premier League.
However, it is generally accepted that a mish-mash of various competent (if largely unspectacular) professionals is not what a title-winning squad looks like. Title-winning squads look sexy. Title-winning squads look dangerous. Above all, title-winning squads look expensive — according to those employed to count such things, the Premier League title, in all its post-1992 glory, has never been won by a side "outside the top five wage spenders," and for the last 17 years has only been won by teams within the top three. Leicester? Somewhere in the bottom five, apparently.
Since we're on the subject, and with due deference to the fact that this is a little oversimplistic and doesn't, fella, incorporate net spend, here are some more numbers. Erik Lamela, currently in second place, cost £30M. Mesut Ozil (third) cost £38.2M. Kevin du Bruyne (fourth) cost £55M. Anthony Martial (fifth) cost £36M possibly rising to £57.6M.
Leicester's entire squad, meanwhile, was put together for a Walker's multipack, a 500 baht note and a couple of buttons that Claudio Ranieri found in a drawer that didn't seem to match any of his shirts. Cheese and onion, since you ask, thanks Gary.
If you were to sit down and attempt to put together a strategy for winning the league, it would presumably begin well before the season itself. It would encompass all aspects of preparation: getting the right players together; ensuring that the manager and staff were happy; building up fitness and morale; forging a squad identity. It probably wouldn't, however, hinge on the suggestion: "Have three reserve players, one of them the manager's son, make a racist sex tape while on a goodwill tour to Thailand. Then, once it leaks, dismiss them all, and then have to dismiss the manager as well after the relationship between him and the board deteriorates completely."
Because, you know, that would be really weird.
Of course, that masterstroke of preparation will only come to fruition if the manager's replacement fits the required bill. And again, if you were to jot down the requirements for a title-winning manager, it's unlikely you'd come up with Ranieri's CV. Finished second with Chelsea and messed up a Champions League semi-final; sacked in favour of José Mourinho. Finished second with Roma after blowing a lead in the league and losing a cup final; resigned the following season after results collapsed. Sacked by Valencia, sacked by Inter and sacked, most notably and most recently, by Greece, after losing a Euro 2016 qualifying match to the Faroe Islands.
The Faroe Islands.
The Faroe Islands.
Of course, this is rather beside the point. Leicester weren't trying to appoint a manager to win the league; they were trying to find someone to build on the previous season's excellent late run of form and take the next step towards establishing the club in the top flight. As such, one of the requirements for any incoming manager was that they retain the services of most of Pearson's backroom staff. Apparently this put several candidates off the position. But the bloke who lost to the Faroe Islands — the Faroe Islands! — couldn't afford to be so picky ...
Leicester ended the 2014-15 season as perhaps the best defensive team in the country, sealing their remarkable escape from relegation with a run of five clean sheets in seven games. So it was something of a surprise when they began this season as a buccaneering 'we're going to score one more than you' outfit, charging to the top of the table before Christmas by scoring 37 goals, more than any other side in the league, but conceding 24, more than any other team in the top eight.
Whether we'd be where we are now if this had carried on is up for debate. It's possible that they'd have managed to swagger their way to the title, but the suspicion is that they'd have eventually tripped over themselves and come crashing to a stop in a noble, entertaining heap. Something, in other words, had to be done. And that something might look a lot like: 12 clean sheets after Christmas, including four 1-0 wins in a row.
The squad, part two
Modern football is a squad game. This is one of those things that is generally accepted to be true. And on the face of it, Leicester have respected this maxim: They've used 23 players in the league this season.
However. Of those 23, five haven't started a single game, and six more have started fewer than 10. And though there are a few regular options from the bench — Nathan Dyer has made 12 substitute appearances, Andy King has made 15 and Leonardo Ulloa a remarkable 21 — this is a triumph built around a well-defined and well-established first-team. Or, perhaps, evidence that the squad was seriously lacking in depth, and fortunate not to have European football taking up their midweeks.
Most bookmakers went with either 2,000 or 2,500 to 1, one went as big as 5,000 to 1, and one, perhaps sensing that something special was brewing, only went to 1,000 to 1. But no matter. All of those are different ways of expressing the following: It ain't going to happen.
Since it has happened, of course, there have been a rash of comparisons with classics of the novelty bet genre as life in outer space (1,000/1), life in Elvis (2,000/1) and big scaly dinosaur life in Loch Ness (500/1). Until it happened, it was quite sad that the idea of a team from outside the usual suspects winning the league was, effectively, in the same bracket as a series of jokes and oddities. Now that it has, it is very, very funny.
Incidentally, Burnley are available at 5,000/1 for next season ...
Part of the reason bookmakers feel able to offer such nonsensical odds on the Premier League's smaller teams is the nature of the competition. For something silly — properly silly; Leicester-ly silly — to happen at the top of the 2015-16 Premier League table, we didn't just need them to be brilliant. We also needed Chelsea to be astonishingly miserable, Manchester City to be distracted and wildly inconsistent, Arsenal to be more Arsenal than ever, Manchester United to carry on struggling with themselves, Tottenham to be good but not good enough, Liverpool to take a season off to stick a manager for the next few years, and so on and so forth.
Chaos, in other words. Chaos of a most delicious and tempting kind. But, sadly, completely impossible.