So, they have done it again; another weekend when
Leicester City have maintained, and even strengthened, their position at the
top of the Premiership.  What a story this is turning out to be; a team
which was 5000-1 to win the league at the start of the season is now within a
few matches of achieving the seemingly impossible.  Even the 12 people in
the entire country who took up those odds at the start of the season, no doubt
diehard Leicester fans, presumably expected to be throwing their money away for
the love of their club.  Some say that this would be the biggest sporting
upset of all time.

We all love sporting upsets.  I remember two particular
favourites from younger days.  In 1990, the seemingly unbeatable (and
certainly unbeaten) heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson, was knocked
out in the 10th round by Buster Douglas, a 42-1 outsider – remarkable odds for
a boxing match, even one which was assumed to be so one-sided that Tyson’s own
cornermen did not bother to bring an icepack with them to the fight.  For
three years, Tyson had not been taken past round 5, and he had knocked out
every opponent he had ever faced; at the time of the Douglas fight, he was,
without doubt, the most feared
boxer of all time.

In 1981, England took on Australia in the third cricket Test
at Headingly; England had been heavily outplayed that summer, their captain had
been sacked before the game, and they found themselves 7 wickets down in their
second innings, still 92 runs behind Australia’s first innings total, with the
bookmakers rating them at 500-1 outsiders to win the game.  These were
unprecedented odds in a two-horse race.  Two men won the game for England,
Ian Botham (with an extraordinary unbeaten 149) and Bob Willis (who took 8-43
in the second innings to bowl Australia out for 111, just 18 runs short of
their target). 

Most sporting upsets, like the two I have described, are
one-offs, brought about by amazing individuals.  Buster Douglas’ mother
had died just before the fight; he had extraordinary incentive; Tyson was too
arrogant, and ultimately a boxer always has a killer punch.  It was a
genuine one-off.   The cricket was won, in fact, by three
individuals: the two I have described and by some truly brilliant captaincy
from Mike Brearley, who told Botham as he went out to bat simply to have fun
(Botham later admitted that he slogged 149 not out); and then, when Brearley
realised England did have a chance of victory, he ordered his fastest and most
experienced bowler, Bob Willis, to bowl into a stiff wind, before taking him
off after three overs.  This wound up Willis so badly that when he was
reintroduced into the attack with the wind at his back, he demolished the
Aussies with the fiercest bowling of his career.

But the reason why Leicester City’s potential upset is so
amazing is that it has not been a one-off match, or even a cup run – they must
play 38 matches, home and away against all the best teams in the country, to
win the League.  Furthermore, they have not relied on brilliant
individuals – against Manchester City, Leicester’s entire team cost £18m
against an opposition assembled at the cost of £291m.  Leicester patently
does not have the best players in the League – in fact, on paper, they probably
have the worst. Indeed, at Christmas time last season, they were bottom of the
League altogether, which seems a far more likely place to find them – and yet
this year they have beaten all-comers, week in, week out, all season. 

The obvious question to ask is why?  How can they have
possibly done this?  To find some answers, one must seek out the words of
the manager himself, Claudio Ranieri, whose English occasionally needs some
deciphering, but whose philosophy seems clear enough.  Ostensibly, it
seems as if he bases his philosophy around fun; and this may be part of
it.  He clearly has a sense of humour: he realised quickly that his
players liked their food, so before the Stoke City match early in the season he
promised them that if they kept a clean sheet, he would buy them all
pizza.  Most of them earn £40-50,000 per week. They were not impressed, so
he upped it to pizza and a hot dog.  But more seriously, he has made a
group of players worth far more than its constituent parts – he has, in
summary, excelled in teamwork.  Here are a few of his quotes:

“Everyone feels like they are participating, so playing
badly means betraying the others.”

“They expect calm and respect in the dressing room, so if
you want to be a Prima Donna they won’t forgive you for it.”

“I have a player who comes every morning from Manchester;
one travels from London. It can be done because the team allows it. This is
what makes me proudest.”

“When they train, they always put the same effort in as a
match, I never had to once tell off someone for being lazy.”

And finally:

“Nobody at Leicester thinks they are working for a living.
It is like a group of friends who live together.”

Ranieri’s birthplace was Rome.  The ancient Romans used
to tell a story about a man who had six sons who always argued with each
other.  One day, this man called them all in.  He handed them a stick
each and asked them to break it; they did.  Then he handed them a bunch of
six sticks and asked them to break that; they could not break the bunch, bound
tightly together as they were.  The man simply said “now go off and work
together as a team; together you will be much stronger.”

The reason that people are loving Leicester City’s season so
much is that they seem to give hope to everyone; however, what is more
important is that everyone can learn how Ranieri has done it.


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