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Orville Higgins: Leicester inspire underdog in all of us

Published:Friday | May 6, 2016 | 12:07 AMOrville Higgins

 

Leicester City's title-winning heroics in England have already triggered talk of being the biggest upset in the history of sports. There have been some stunning upsets in sports, but usually those were one-off incidents. Kenya beating the West Indies in the 1990s, and Muhammad Ali beating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, are prime examples.

Putting together such a sustained run of brilliance for nine months, as a complete underdog, however, sets Leicester City's achievement on a completely different level. There can be no talk about this being a fluke, or about catching their opponents on a bad night. This was just unbelievable.

Prior to Leicester's unrelenting march to the crown, every other champion had finished in the top three the previous season. In contrast, Leicester finished 14th last season, and were at one point fighting hard to avoid relegation. This was literally out of absolutely nowhere. Experts have been left baffled.

Many who had pronounced that it was impossible for the Foxes to go all the way now have egg on their faces. Leicester's victory has demonstrated that titles don't have to be won by big-spending teams with world-class players. Leicester's average starting line-up only cost 23 million pounds to assemble. That's less than Raheem Sterling's transfer fee from Liverpool to Manchester City! It was an unimpressive combination of unfulfilled potential that weren't doing too well or bought at peppercorn rate elsewhere because nobody else wanted them. To borrow a famous English expression, this was little more than a motley group of waifs and strays.

All of us who love sports enjoy the display of tenacity and grit, that unwavering will to win. The English champions have shown all that and more. No wonder they were everybody's second favourite team, and may well be the most popular English Premier League winners of all time.

They didn't do it the traditional way either. No other English champions enjoyed less possession of the ball throughout a game. Their aim was never to outpossess or outpass an opposition. They probably don't have the quality to do that anyway. They relied on steely defence and punting it up front for the pace and panache of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez to do the rest. These two scored 39 goals between them, and in the process became the most unheralded two-man punch to win a league title in the history of modern football.

Their coach, Claudio Ranieri, reinvented himself in the process. He was nicknamed the 'Tinkerman' during his days with Chelsea between 2000 and 2004, when he was constantly changing his starting line-up. He made just 27 changes to his starting line-up all season. That may not sound like anything special to the average man, but when you think that the average change to the starting line up for previous premier league champions is 95.4 a season, then what Ranieri was doing looks even more awesome.

What is even more interesting is how Ranieri changed his approach during the season. From the start of the season until December, Leicester had scored the joint most goals, but also had conceded more than any other team in the top flight. They were playing open attractive football where they were either scoring or were being scored on, and they didn't seem to care.

At that point, it was almost like a team just going out to have fun, like us country boys used to do on a Sunday afternoon. As it became apparent that they were in with a chance, their approach became more solid. They conceded 25 times in their first 19 matches of the season. They allowed in only nine in their next 17.

From the end of February onwards, they scored five 1-0 wins in six games, which is a true reflection of their altered style. They didn't set out to dominate opponents with fancy play and flurries of magic; they simply set out to win. With two games still to go, they have won 14 games by a one-goal margin. For other premier league winners, that figure drops dramatically to an average of 10.9. They were the epitome of quiet efficiency as opposed to aesthetic pizzazz.

Leicester's win, therefore, must be seen for what it is: The thing is bigger than football. Sport is a microcosm of life, and their win is a triumph for the underprivileged and the disenfranchised. Humans love the underdog because most of us love the story of people triumphing against all odds. It gives hope to all of us that we can do the same, whatever our circumstances. Leicester's win should be a lesson to all of us.

- Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.