This season’s novelty shows little sign of dissipating, with both Leicester City and Tottenham still in contention for the Premier League title. One of those stories possesses more romantic appeal than the other, being that Spurs are a big club who have spent the modern era underachieving, but both sides are unlikely champions and their success would bring a freshness that the division clearly needs.
Leicester are the real fairytale. Their 3-1 win over Manchester City at the weekend suggested that they will be in this race until the end and that, though they may continue, the doubts over their credentials are becoming rather artificial. This isn’t an anomaly anymore, Leicester are just a very good football team.
In situations such as these, the temptation - rightly - is to focus only on the prospective achievement rather than its consequences. The prospect of Leicester - or Tottenham - winning the league comes replete with images of jubilant players, open-top bus parades and warm May weather, but what would happen in the days, months and years after that?
Someone has to be a spoilsport and say this: 2015/16 is not likely to be repeated. As enjoyable as the new age of competitiveness is, it’s clearly premature to proclaim it as the beginning of something long-term. Come the Summer, the well-monied underachievers will spend mightily in a bid to quash the revolution and, in all probability, that familiar hegemony will lumber tediously back into the Super Sunday timeslots.
The hope is to be wrong, of course, but logic implies that the traditional hierarchy will soon return.
So if an underdog was to win the title this year, what might that do to its fanbase?
For civilian football fans - those who haven’t grown up as Manchester United or Chelsea supporters - their entire existence is based on a strange aspiration and of hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Leicester City’s ambitions over the past few decades have involved avoiding relegation, reaching domestic cup finals and achieving promotion from the Football League. Tottenham, on a slightly different scale, have spent much of the new Millennium gazing longingly at the top-four and at the Champions League’s alluring atrium; big club though they may be, at no point during the Premier League’s twenty-four year lifespan has winning the competition actually been a realistic objective.
This really concerns the age-old wondering as whether it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Given the choice, would fans prefer to drink the nectar now and then never again or would it be healthier for them to spend their days simply imagining how it must taste?
Superficially, that’s a redundant question: what kind of fan wouldn’t want to experience a championship at least once in their lifetime?
Very true, but there’s a hidden detail within that choice. On the basis that neither a Tottenham nor a Leicester victory this season would lead to long-term dynastic success, how would the satiating of their ambition effect either club? Being a fan is really about longing and day-dreaming of what the impossible must feel like, so experiencing that for real would inevitably have some repercussions. When Chelsea ascended into the English game’s stratosphere, they were assured of their long-term place by Roman Abramovich’s money. Sheik Mansour’s wealth affords Manchester City a similar protection and Manchester United’s domination of the landscape in the 1990s was so total that anything other the silverware constituted failure.
Those clubs have all won league titles, but there was nothing improbable in the way they did it - they were just better than the other teams and had successful exploited a technical or financial advantage. There was no miracle aspect to it, no “season from heaven” quality which made any of those respective campaigns seem unique.
But what’s it like to be a Blackburn supporter now? How does it actually feel to have loved and lost and to know, in all likelihood, that your club will be an also-ran for the rest of your days? The aspiration is gone, because the dream has been lived and - so - what would be left other than memories and fading glory? Nothing is guaranteed in football and millionaire owners are, thanks to the loopholes in the Fit and Proper Persons Test, only an act of money-laundering away, but apply the probabilities: we’re potentially witnesses - or participants - in a once in a generation story this season. The smart money says that neither Leicester nor Tottenham will get this close to the end of the rainbow next year, or the year after, or maybe ever again.
It makes this year special, but also slightly terrifying. It’s like climbing Everest: the ascent is always assumed to be the difficult part and a neat realisation point, but going down is hardly a quick toboggan ride. How would it feel, in football terms, to walk away from the summit while knowing that you were never likely to return to that rarefied air.
Maybe there’s nothing to fear? Maybe this is the most wonderful thing that a fan can be blessed with and that, after watching your captain lift a league title, the rest of your football-watching life feels like a never-ending post-coital cigarette?
But maybe not. Maybe it’s actually like dating a long-standing fancy or drinking the first coffee of a day. Are you, thereafter, condemned to chase that elusive dragon for the rest of your days?
Nobody can know what Narnia is truly like until they’ve pushed aside the coats and gone through the back of the wardrobe. How, therefore, can you really know whether it’s better to have actually been there yourself or just to imagine what it feels like to walk in that snow.