“Yer da”, for anyone new to the internet meme, is “your father”, and code for a certain kind of harmless grouch locked in a losing war with modernity. Yer da tuts at long hair on men and tattoos on anyone. Yer da’s culinary tastes are unswervingly cow-oriented. Yer da’s take on professional footballers is purest acid. Behold his histrionic pique at exorbitant salaries and pretty boy foreigners with their technique and their nutrition.
For yer da, the Premier League season of 2015-16 has been a prolonged vindication. The strutting overlords — Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal — have all tumbled or stalled, leaving scrappier clubs to flourish. One of them, Leicester City, narrow escapee from relegation last year, leads the league by five points with only seven games to play.
Everything about Leicester guarantees the support of a sentimental nation. An unaffected city some way from London. A striker, Jamie Vardy, scooped from the lower leagues. A utilitarian playing style performed by men with the stout yeoman names of Simpson and Drinkwater. A manager, Claudio Ranieri, known for falling short amiably.
More than a football sensation, the club has become a metaphor for primal values over modern fancies. Its success is ascribed to the kind of pluck and passion that elite players — cocooned by support staff, showered with motivation-sapping lavish contracts — are said to lack. Victory for Leicester is victory for romance, plainness and the old-fashioned way.
The danger is that anyone actually believes this mawkish guff. It is not a vanload of amateur enthusiasts that is cutting through the world’s richest league. Leicester is (or has become) a state of the art club. This season’s performance is a surprise but not, once you look at the systems and processes underlying it, a mystery.
Even before Leicester broke into the Premier League two seasons ago, the club was curious about the potential of sports science to eke out marginal gains in performance. Players had match data logged on their tablets, including footage of the 10 seconds before and the 10 seconds after each occasion they touched the ball. Attention to detail in physical conditioning equalled anything at the upper end of the sport. The youth academy was one of only six outside the top flight to be awarded category one status by England’s Football Association. This was a serious place whose Thai owners looked beyond the Premier League to participation in the Champions League, Europe’s highest competition.
Infrastructure, however space age, can only do so much, and Leicester was never going to take off without a few doses of extreme talent. With middling resources, the club relied on its vigilant scouts to spot underpriced players in relative backwaters. From France it plucked Riyad Mahrez, who will sweep the player-of-the-season prizes, and N’Golo Kanté, another contender for those honours. The combined transfer fee for the pair plus Vardy was about £8m, a rounding error at somewhere such as Manchester City. There is more going on here than luck — Arsenal, which has hired one of Leicester’s scouts, certainly thinks so.
Scouting is a system. The conditioning that has kept Leicester free of disruptive injuries is a system. Ranieri’s regime of two rest days a week, and only light training on a Monday, is a system. His style of play, with its defensive rigour and vicious counter-attacks, is a system. His players are not above gamesmanship and rotational fouling — taking it in turns to commit infractions so that no individual picks up yellow and red cards — and that is a system, too. Intelligence is at work here. Without intending to, the club’s neutral admirers sully its success by reducing everything to elbow grease and chivalric virtues. There is more of the Enlightenment than of romance about this story.
Foreign owners, a foreign coach, a polyglot squad, a laboratory of a training ground: far from mounting a stand against the modern world, Leicester is the modern world. Do not hold out against change, this season teaches us, absorb and master it. The lesson is not just for other clubs but also for modest cities adapting to globalisation and for individuals navigating an insecure world.
Some of England’s most go-ahead clubs are outside the cosmopolitan centres. Stoke City fields players as maverick as the Swiss-Kosovar Xherdan Shaqiri, who was stunned by the facilities at the club.
Southampton has for years used scouting and youth coaching to do what blunt cash does for bigger rivals. If you need not be Arsenal to have a globalised and scientific approach to football, maybe you need not be London to find a niche in the world economy. Leicester’s success is a parable — just not the one yer da thinks.