Once upon a time, there was a tribe from the Midlands named Leicester. Emblazoned with the mark of a fox, these brave men fought all in their path with no trace of wrongdoing or wealth in sight, and their devil-may-care approach universally won the hearts and minds of the Gods who had previously looked upon them less than favourably. These honest, honourable yet fearsome warriors set out on a quest to dominate all in their path with no regard for stature or prosperity, and will not stop until they live happily ever after.
If you’ve been keeping up with any British sports media outlet, the above underdog story will appear mightily familiar to you. It might even remind you of some sort of fairy tale. But while the press may perpetuate the notion that Leicester City’s meteoric rise is straight out of Aesop’s Fables, closer inspection of the truth reveals that it’s no fairy tale. In fact one might argue that it’s closer to a myth.
I’d like to preface the following by saying that I’m not attempting to discredit Leicester or anything they’ve achieved. On the contrary, the manner in which they’ve defied managers, fans and bookmakers alike this season probably represents the greatest shock in this country’s footballing history. Should they win the league, it’ll be deserved and I’d be the first to say it’s probably for the greater good of the game. But here’s the rub – by winning the league, as now they surely must with a seven point lead with five to play, Leicester will rightfully enter the pantheon of Premier League deism. So wouldn’t you say it seems only right that they should be treated the same way as their Premier League peers?
Now, I’m not talking about fellow teams. Indeed, anyone rushing to say that Leicester aren’t yet a big club need only look at the change in the way their top-flight contemporaries have begun to play against them: the approach is respectful. They’ve seen how capably Claudio Ranieri’s men can punish a blasé attitude, so in recent weeks teams have sat back, attempting to stifle the Foxes’ penchant for counter-attacking at pace. And while those in blue have remained as triumphant as before, it’s noticeably been more difficult now they’re bona fide title challengers and not a flash in the pan. So if not their rivals, who is it that so desperately need to change their tune vis a vis Leicester City?
Simply put, it’s the media. Their job is to report the who, what, where, when and why of the Premier League and they have, in fairness, been doing that. But it’s almost impressive how they’ve contrived to frame a narrative of Leicester as true underdogs; in the world of the press, the league leaders are untarnished by football’s evils, battling adversity every which way it confronts them. It’s a clever ruse, it has to be said.
But there’s a staggering amount about Leicester which does not get the coverage it would do were they part of the Premier League establishment. Hark back to the days when figures in the media would sneer at every Fergie Time goal or Old Trafford decision. Compare the derision and disbelief that met every contentious decision in those days of yore to the egging on of these brave Foxes which the media are largely guilty of this season.
The good people over at Hypothetical Premier League have done sterling work all season to depict a Premier League where every refereeing call is made correctly and, to cut a long story short, Leicester’s lead would be cut to just 2 points. That is, if Arsenal didn’t win their game in hand. So the current leaders would potentially not only be in a more hotly-contested title race, they would be playing catch-up. I think it’s fair to say that’s a relatively big influence the officiating has had on their state of affairs. Have Leicester got lucky with these decisions? Clearly yes. Not for the media though. “Stuff of champions, that” say the chief sports writers and ex-pro columnists.
And even when decisions are made against Leicester, the punditry is of staggering partiality. Danny Murphy practically had to analyse through the tears as he gave his angle on the Danny Simpson red card against Arsenal. “It ruined the game” said the former Fulham and Liverpool midfielder. Well, Danny, it depends what you mean by ruined. If you mean it forced Arsenal to push for the win, setting up a dramatic finale then yes, it ruined the game. But the sense you get when a pundit claims something has ‘ended the game as a spectacle’ or words to that effect is that what they really mean is ‘the underdog didn’t win’. That particular match proved a microcosm of the shameless partisanship which Leicester have benefited from this season.
But the treatment of them on the pitch doesn’t hold a candle to what we’ve seen off it. In particular, the darling-isation of Jamie Vardy is one of the most perplexing phenomenons I’ve ever seen in the British sports media.
Admittedly for the most part, Vardy is extremely conducive to the ‘Roy of the Rovers’ treatment that the likes of Rickie Lambert have experienced before; humble beginnings? Tick. Figurehead for their team? Tick. Converted club form to international stage, earning universal acclaim? Tick. Of course what the Jamie Vardy Story has over all others is a chapter containing explicit racial abuse of a Japanese casino-goer. But you might not have heard much about that considering it happened before plucky Leicester defied the odds to take the Premier League by storm.
In the past, the media have been more than willing to relentlessly cover players from bigger teams, having rightly chastised the likes of John Terry and Luis Suárez for accusations of racial abuse. What’s more, many outlets seem content to lay into Jack Wilshere again and again for a lot less than what his peers have done. But remarkably, Vardy’s own transparent past of explicit racism has been lost to the sands of time. Or, to put it more accurately, overshadowed by his goalscoring record. So well done him.
Any defence of Vardy is perplexing in the extreme – the media cannot get enough of the other stories of racial abuse and lesser misconduct, so why has the England forward escaped scot-free? It’s not his nationality – that didn’t save Wilshere or Terry. It’s certainly not his pedigree – Suárez and the Chelsea captain are two of the best in their position in Premier League history, and they still got their just desserts. Has he repented? Of course, he apologised. But only for the offence he caused. Not the repugnant comments themselves. So why has he been given a virtually free ride?
It can only be his club. Leicester are the common denominator in every instance of media treatment disparity, despite being equally culpable of the same things that other teams get lambasted for or tags that teams get branded with. Leicester, it seems, are a journalist’s dream; a nice, friendly and thoroughly likeable manager guiding a team of spirited underdogs against the forces of the cash-rich Premier League elite. But who can really blame the press for cultivating this fairy tale?
After all, it’s far too good to tarnish with the truth.