The Leicester story seems like something from a football fans fairy tale, doesn’t it?
A team that had avoided relegation by a hair suddenly clicks into high gear under a new boss. Players who have never been exceptional suddenly find a new performance level. Guys who few have heard of rise above their own limitations to become superstars.
It’s almost magical, as if someone scattered fairy-dust down the training ground air conditioning system and remade every single one of them better.
Yet for all that, what we’ve witnessed over the course of the season in the EPL isn’t magic at all, not really.
It’s something else, an earthy thing, steeped in sweat, accomplished by hard graft and teamwork, an almost unbelievable, yet strangely grounded triumph.
Last night, one of the Leicester players, right back Danny Simpson, got to the heart of it, with few words, not all of them printable in a family newspaper.
And yet those words somehow say it all. I daresay that nobody does understand it, because to be in it must be a uniquely enveloping experience, one that kind of shuts you out a wee bit from the rest of the world.
But it’s all there just the same; the team spirit, the passion for the club, the desire to win, that feeling of being part of history.
It’s all in that tweet.
There was a lot of that same fighting spirit in the team that got to Seville.
On the night of the game, after the full-time whistle, Alan Hansen wrote this about our heroic efforts; “When you talk about the Celtic players and manager, you have to talk about grit, determination, resilience – but overall it’s about their character.”
I watched a documentary about Joe Cole last night, and in it he talked about why some players make it to the very top of the game and others don’t. It’s all about hunger and desire, and those who go in thinking of their wage slips and the car they drive tend not to reach the peak.
Oh some of them end up at big clubs, doing big things, but they are not the players we think of as icons, as those who dominate the game and can turn entire seasons on their head.
What happened at Leicester is partly to do with that, and how they caught bigger teams off guard because their mentality was right and those other clubs were filled with footballers who had become celebrities and were more interested in their wages than on filling their trophy cabinets.
When a hard working team comes up against a side full of Billy Big Time’s anything can happen, but when you consider what Leicester did over a season, that’s too simplistic an explanation. Oh it definitely factored in there … but it’s not the whole story.
Simpson’s tweet speaks to an almost spiritual bonding experience, the kind usually found in guys who’ve served together in the military, under fire.
And that’s a decent enough analogy for this, and for what’s happened here.
Over the course of a season that bond can be formed by the act of going to grounds like Anfield and The Emirates and getting big results, and slowly convincing yourselves that it can happen. It’s about making sure each man covers the guy to his left and his right, so that if they get into trouble it’s not necessarily fatal to the team.
Of course, in order for this to happen everyone has to be on the same page, fighting for the same goal, pulling in the same direction.
There can’t be dissent, disunity, arguments over the tactics or the style of play.
This could never have happened at Celtic, not under Ronny Deila, because too many people weren’t buying into the concept.
Those people are a big problem for whomever takes over as manager next and in hindsight the best thing that happened at Leicester this season was the decision to kick out of the club those players who disgraced it on the pre-season tour.
Their manager went too, and that, too, was a pretty good result overall.
Ironically, he’s now one of the guys linked with our job.
This appointment is the most important in our recent history, because Leicester has shown what happens when you get those appointments right. Celtic’s next boss has to be a guy with gravitas, with charisma, a natural leader, the sort of person who can command a dressing room right away. Ranieri is like that, but his charisma is a different sort from the stereotypical modern boss; think of Mourinho. The two could not be more different in approach and style.
As long as he can come in and own his own destiny, shipping out those players who disagree with his plans and keeping those he thinks can be moulded into a unit, then he’s got a chance and so do we. It means keeping a team together;’ that spirit can’t grow if the board is selling stars behind his back or players are thinking about their next career move. What our board allowed to happen with the team that beat Barcelona was scandalous.
It doesn’t require big money either.
Not every player in the Seville squad – as not every player in the Leicester squad – was bought for huge sums, but certain key areas needed the lavish treatment they got. But that aside, the right blend, the right characteristics, can take a team further than all the spending in the world can and although this wasn’t a secret before Leicester it had been forgotten, and in its place was a kind of assumption that football had changed too much for that and that squads built for hundreds of millions was the only way to win.
For the record; no Celtic fan I know has ever argued that our club should spend EPL style money on the team, not even the sort they spend on individual players.
When I think that Patrick Roberts went for over £11 million I imagine whether I’d rather have him, for all his promise, or see that cash spent on two or three footballers to improve the squad overall … it’s no contest at all.
In many ways what’s happened at Leicester is a football miracle, but the miracle isn’t that they won the EPL, it’s that it’s changed the way we all think about the global game.
It wasn’t a fluke; you don’t win a league title by luck, by a fluke.
It took blood, sweat and tears.
It took hard work.
It took team building and bonding.
It took an inspirational coach to raise his team above themselves – Martin O’Neill was famously good at the same, and he proved it at Leicester before coming to Celtic Park.
These are things fans can grasp; not airy concepts but taken straight from the street, the factory, the shipyard, the coalfield, the combat unit.
And therein lies our lesson; with the right man at the helm and that forging together, miracles can happen.
Football is still a place where the fairy-tale can come true.
What better club to next prove it than Celtic?
Our whole unbroken history is a fairy-tale, after all.
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