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What this club’s success means for everyone else

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If you’d had the nerve last year to place KShs 200,000 on Leicester City Football Club winning the English Premier League (EPL) last year, you’d be sitting on one billion shillings right now. That’s right, the odds being given by the sage bookmakers were 5,000 to one. Winning the EPL was regarded as a nonsense for Leicester. They were in fact prime candidates for relegation.

Fast forward to this month. Leicester City have won the EPL. They have done so in style, with games to spare. At the end of the race, they have had no serious rivals for the trophy. All the big names – Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham – are distant also-rans.

What happened here?

Did Leicester get themselves a top manager? No. Their new manager at the beginning of the season, Claudio Ranieri, had his appointment met with groans. He was thought to be the most likely to be fired early in the season; most pundits thought he would be a disastrous choice.

Did they have great players? When the season began, only their own supporters could name any of their players. Indeed, their entire team cost less then what leading clubs regularly splurge on a single player. Now, their top stars have become household names; but at the beginning of the season no one knew anything about them.

Did they deploy revolutionary new tactics and formations? Nope. Ranieri used an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation – only because it would make maximum use of the limited talent at his disposal. Leicester had no time for modern passing football – in fact they were in the bottom group for passes completed and passing accuracy. Ranieri relied on a very traditional approach from his home country, Italy: very tight defending, and high-speed counterattacks when opportunity offers itself. Nothing fresh or different – but it worked.

Wait, surely they have a billionaire owner? Yes they do – a Thai tycoon. But he’s not had to dig deep into his pockets at all. The club has won this title without any major outlay.

So what on earth happened here? Leicester began clocking the results early in the season – they never really left the top positions. Everyone regarded this as a fluke run, a bubble waiting to burst. But it never did. They just kept going and going, while every other club wilted before them. The English media, who had been dismissing Ranieri as a bumbling Italian all along, now began paying attention to his press conferences. Finally, the impossible happened. The little club from the sticks beat everyone and took the title.

You will struggle hard to find a magic potion here, a secret ingredient to this flabbergasting achievement. I heard the glimmer of one when one of the club’s more thoughtful players was asked the question during the celebrations. It’s the togetherness, he explained. The esprit de corps, in other words. They play together, they play united, they play for one another. A rag-tag bunch of players found a canny manager who worked out how to get the most out of them – and he got out of the way and let them do it. They partied as they went along. As simple as that.

Conventional wisdom in modern football says: success comes from spend. The clubs who consistently do well consistently spend more on players, wages, managers, stadia and marketing. Money breeds money, and there’s no other way to do it. That’s that. Well, Leicester just showed, just for this season: not always. A simple formula, inexpensively but expertly executed, can also reap rewards.

What this achievement means for all of us is this: all things are possible. Even in the most heavily dominated market, the outsider can still turn the tables. Since the EPL was founded in 1992, only 5 clubs had shared the 23 titles before Leicester’s crowning. It was an oligopoly based on money. Well, sometimes the simpler things do kick in. Take hope, no matter how many ‘owners’ your market or industry or occupation has. A different approach, designed with intelligence and executed with zest, can still turn the tables.

Perhaps Leicester will be a one-season phenomenon. Perhaps they, too, will now be forced to spend big to keep their players. Perhaps. For now, let us all applaud the season when a nonentity barged into the private dining room and kicked the top table over.

(Sunday Nation, 15 May 2016)

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