Simon Barnes

The fairytale factory

Rags to Riches, and other archetypal plots coming soon to a stadium near you

The fairytale factory
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It’s one of the oldest stories of them all, deeply embedded in our nature and our culture. In some ways it’s the story that defines our humanity and we have told it a thousand times in a thousand different ways.

It’s in the Bible with Joseph and his coat of many colours, it’s King Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, it’s the ugly duckling, Cinderella, Great Expectations, Moll Flanders and Jane Eyre. It’s Clark Kent becoming Superman, it’s Harry Potter leaving the cupboard under the stairs to become the greatest wizard of them all. It’s Rags to Riches. And it’s the tale of Leicester City.

Sport retells all our most ancient and archetype-crammed stories and does so again and again, providing us with a living mythology. It has brought us Rags to Riches times without number: once upon a time there was a little boy from Bowral in Australia. Day after day, he would hit a golf ball against the wall of his house with a cricket stump. His name: Don… Don Bradman.

The greater the odds against success, the greater the story. Rags to Riches is the daily stuff of sport, but no one thought that anything quite this ragged could aspire to — still less claim — such riches. The impossible truth is that Leicester City are on top of the Premier League, five points clear of Tottenham Hotspur in second with four games to go. So close! So far!

The Premier League, which began in 1992, is designed on the traditional rich-get-richer basis. It’s a competition in which a few clubs fight for victory while the rest try to avoid relegation: a carve-up in which oligarchs and sheikhs go chequebook to chequebook. Only five clubs have ever won it.

Could Leicester really make a sixth? Consider some of the obstacles that lie in their way. They went into administration in 2002, wiping out £50 million of debt including £6 million in tax. They would have been relegated last year but for a drastic late surge. Nigel Pearson, the manager who oversaw that escape, was sacked last summer after three players, including his son James, were involved in a filmed orgy in Bangkok. Pearson was replaced by Claudio Ranieri, formerly of Chelsea, an Italian who looked as if he were singing in I Pagliacci and had been sacked as manager of the Greek national team after they lost to the Faroe Islands.

Leicester’s leading scorer this season with 22 goals is Jamie Vardy, who has the mien of a parks footballer who got on the wrong bus; four year ago he was playing for Fleetwood Town. Their top midfielders are Riyad Mahrez, late of Le Havre reserves, and N’Golo Kante, who was with a Boulogne team slipping towards the French third division.

The three of them cost £7.1 million. Leicester’s annual wage bill is £57 million, about a quarter that of Manchester United, currently 17 points behind them. In Premier League terms Leicester are the raggediest of no-hopers, and were tipped for relegation this season. Their starting odds for the title were 5,000 to one, a price taken by a few people, mostly drunk or indulging a curiously English sense of humour.

Now they are four games from pulling it off, and this has led to a bafflement and joy that has burst the barriers of football. They picked a good season to find form, with all the leading clubs in transition or tortured by self-doubt. But just as importantly, Leicester have played in a glorious high-tempo one-for-all style in which the sum is genuinely greater than the parts. It’s been a curiously old-fashioned thing: all about team. Odds and ends of talent have been gathered together and found an implausible cohesion — all with the help of the ancient spirit of defiance. If you like, Leicester are the spirit of football past. Match after match, their approach has brought good results, and they have adopted a one-word motto. Fearless.

Ranieri, with an expression more normally seen on the white-faced clown, said that the real miracle was ‘We are safe.’ He meant safe from relegation to the league below. All season people have been waiting for Leicester to accept their proper position in the hierarchy and start failing as they should: a long-delayed but inevitable encounter with reality. The greater resources of their rivals must surely overwhelm them in the end. As racing people say, cheap horses know it.

And yet, astonishingly, that hasn’t happened. Yet. They haven’t lost since Valentine’s day — and so the world has got greedy. We don’t just want a tale of a pretender’s magic moment, a few weeks in the sun, a brief peasants’ revolt, a fleeting dreamtime in which we seemed for a second to hold the impossible in our hands.

No indeed. Now we want the full happily-ever-after. It would be a hideous disappointment to the world if Leicester failed to hang on and win the damn thing. The Wall Street Journal and Sports Illustrated from the United States have been covering the story; Leicester has been full of journalists from everywhere football is played, all mad to bring a miracle to their public.

Last weekend was desperate. Leicester suffered a sending-off and a penalty, and scraped a draw after a last-second penalty of their own. Winning is a skill in its own right and few Leicester players have mastered it. On Sunday they take on Swansea at home. They’re learning that fear of victory is harder to deal with than fear of defeat: a standard sporting paradox. They are learning that no one is fearless.

Leicester have not been lucky. They haven’t roughed up their opponents. They haven’t got anything they don’t deserve. They have been excellent: but it’s been a homely kind of excellence, the sport of rough-hewn excellence that makes us all brothers.

We are Leicester. We are all — well, most of us — people who do our best and get on with the job in hand and pursue unglamorous goals and deal with adversity and stick to our guns and make the most of what we’ve got. Leicester tell us that these can sometimes be the greatest virtues of them all.

Reader, she married him. The mild-mannered reporter emerges from the phone-booth in a cape and saves the world. The swan is admired by all. Arthur becomes king and the Boy Who Lived defeats He Who Must Not Be Named. Life should be like this — and in sport, sometimes it is.

Sports tells such tales again and again and again. Check out Christopher Booker’s ever-magnificent The Seven Basic Plots: along with Rags to Riches you’ll find Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Rebirth, Comedy and Tragedy. Every week sport retells all these tales: that’s why sport has such a hold over the world’s imagination.

These stories are always different and always the same. Semper eadem. The motto of the city of Leicester, as it happens.