I never write about soccer, or as the English call it, football. In fact, I don’t even follow it, not really. If I write about sports at all in these pages it will likely be about baseball, which isn’t really a sport, but life itself played out on a perfect diamond-shaped patch of green.
However, a piece on soccer is in order, because yesterday the Leicester City Foxes of the English Premier League achieved the most improbable and astounding victory in the history of sports since David slew Goliath with a stone propelled from his slingshot. The Foxes won the championship of perhaps the best league in all of soccer, defying both belief and description. Impossible. Shocking. The long-shot of long-shots. Incredible. Gob-smacking. A paper clip propelled by an elastic band, landing on the moon. That the Foxes did so without even taking the field only adds to the jaw-dropping improbability of the story.
Second-place Tottenham Hotspur, whose symbol is some sort of fowl (get it? – foxes against hens!) needed a victory yesterday against Chelsea to keep alive their hopes of overtaking Leicester for the championship. Many consider the Spurs the better team, as they’ve scored more goals and allowed fewer than the Foxes. And Chelsea, a perennial power and last year’s champion, have slid to tenth in the league, so the task seemed an easy one for the Spurs. Tottenham went up 2-0 in the early going, but Chelsea scored a goal in close off a free kick. Then late in the game, Chelsea’s striker blasted a brilliant shot from thirty yards out that curled into the upper right corner of the net, and the game ended in a 2-2 draw. The Spurs garnered one point from the match instead of the needed three, championship to Leicester. Pandemonium and glee in the Midlands and in the world of football at large.
Before going any further, perhaps a couple of explanatory notes are in order for those who follow football even less than I do, and for those mystified by the linguistic oddities of the soggy, claustrophobic island known as Great Britain.
First of all, let’s get the pronunciation of Leicester, the Midlands city of 330,000 which hosts he Foxes, out of the way. The English language, as conceived of and spoken by its inventors, is surely the least logical and most bizarre in the world. And yet, it “won”, it’s spoken more universally than any other tongue. For starters, it’s full of many words with a bewildering variety of meanings. Even the small ones, like “cast”, for example. Ponder its many meanings and get back to me in an hour or two. Hell, take a couple of days.
Then there are the words that don’t look anything alike, but rhyme, like “right” and “spite” and “height”. Or ones that look very similar, but are pronounced entirely differently, like “through” and “trough”. Sure…..makes perfect sense.
But English really outdoes itself on this front when it comes to geographical names. The word “reading”, as in books, is pronounced “reeding”, but the town of Reading is pronounced “Redding”, as in Otis. Huh?
Or take Gloucestershire. Please. Any sane person with a sense of phonetics would say it “Giow-sess-ter-shyer”. But no, the Brits say it “Glosster-sheer”. And when referring to the town, rather than the county, they drop the “shire” and it becomes plain old “Glosster”. Or sometimes “Glouster”. Who the hell knows?
Even better is Worcestershire, both the place and the sauce. “War-sester-shyer” would seem to be right, but it’s pronounced “Wooster-sheer”, or just plain “Wooster” in the case of the town and the sauce. “I say, pass the Wooster, Bertie, also the Branston Pickle and Marmite while you’re at it. There’s a good chap.”
To say Leicester properly, simply eliminate the “ice” from the middle and you’ll about have it. Yes, appearances to the contrary, it’s pronounced like the first name of the jazz saxophonist famous for his pork-pie hats, for holding his tenor aloft at a forty-five degree angle, for the countless magic solos he played on his own records and those of Count Basie and Billie Holiday. Yes, I’m speaking of Leicester …….er, sorry, make that Lester, Young.
Henceforth in this piece, I’ll write Leicester as Lester. Partly to “take the piss” as the English would say, and partly because it’s just way easier. Let’s write the bloody thing the way it sounds, shall we?
Secondly, some understanding about the workings of the English Premier League would help. This is actually much easier than understanding English itself. As its name suggests, the Premier League consists of the top twenty teams in English Football, which play each other twice in a 38-game schedule. Three points are awarded for a win and one for a draw, and the team that finishes with the most points wins the league. And presumably a wad of cash, a trophy, and bragging – not to say brawling – rights for the next year. The three worst teams are banished to the second-tier league, akin to falling into a black hole because it receives absolutely zero coverage. On their way down, the bottom-feeders encounter the three best teams of the lower league on their way up, promoted to the Premier League to provide new blood, as it were. Thus does the league keep itself freshly populated and fluid. This process of being sent down is known with some dread as “relegation”, one of the pithy buzz-phrases of the English football scene, along with such gems as “own goal”, “oh, a useful ball, that!”, “simulation” (faking injury), “brilliant!”, “transfer fees” and “Crikey, what was he thinking?”
In 2014-15, the Lester City Foxes were promoted to the EPL for the first time in ten years and narrowly avoided relegation by winning seven of their final nine matches to finish in fourteenth place, less than mediocre. Such a strong finishing push may have promised better things to come, but the odds-makers certainly didn’t think so. The Foxes entered this season as 5,000-to-1 long-shots to win the league. I can’t remember ever seeing such long odds, but those who reckon these things know what they’re doing in actuarial terms, such seemingly lopsided numbers aren’t just pulled out of a hat. After all, there’s a lot of money involved: anyone insane or brave enough to have bet £1,000 on the Foxes would be richer by £5 million today.
Still, it’s an absurd number, one which roughly translates to “forget it mate, you’d stand a better chance of swimming The Pacific Ocean with one arm tied behind your back.” It’s almost impossible to put such long odds in perspective, but I’ll try. The Toronto Maple Leafs have been abysmal for some time now. In a rebuild mode, they knew they were going to be really horrible this year and advertised as much to their fans, living up – or rather, down – to this by finishing dead-last in the NHL. If memory serves, hockey odds-makers put them at 500-to-1 to win the Stanley Cup before this season began. Imagine the profound disbelief, not to mention widespread jubilation, if the Leafs won the Cup next year. Think about that for a few seconds and multiply it by a factor of ten, and you’ll have some idea of the enormity of what the Foxes pulled off here.
And remember, dismal as the Leafs have been of late, they have a storied past, winning numerous Cups in their history dating back a century or so. In stark contrast, this is the first ever championship in the 132-year history of the Lester City Foxes. Keep in mind too, that the past 20 EPL Championships have been won by the same four wealthy teams. Two from London – Arsenal and Chelsea – and two from Manchester – Man United and Man City. These four achieved their dynasties the new-fangled way: by purchasing them. They have in common lavish payrolls, star-studded rosters with big egos, and supporters numbering in the millions worldwide. Lester is a small town and a small club with a middling payroll, an underdog if ever there was one.
To put these long odds in baseball terms…….In 2004, the Boston Red Sox were down 0-3 to the New York Yankees in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series. At that point, the boys from Vegas made the Sox 120-to-1 long-shots to win the ALCS, as no team in baseball had ever come back from down 0-3. Almost impossibly, the Sox took the next four games to become the first and only baseball team to ever accomplish this. But beating 120-to-1 pales in comparison to defying 5,000-to-1, which is akin to a miracle. The mind boggles.
There have been other noted long-shots in baseball history. The 1906 Chicago White Sox, with an offense so anemic they were known as “The Hitless Wonders”, rode great pitching to win the World Series over their crosstown rivals, the powerhouse Cubs. And just a few years later, the “Miracle” Boston Braves, led by Dick Rudolph, used a similar recipe of stout pitching to sweep the vaunted Philadelphia A’s in the 1914 Series. In more recent years, the enchanted baseball underdog has been personified by the 1969 “Miracle” Mets, who also used once-in-a-generation pitching to defeat a seemingly superior foe, the Baltimore Orioles. What the Foxes have accomplished though, would be more like the Mets taking it all in just their second season of existence, after their all-time futile mark of 42-120 in 1962.
So, an unbelievable feel-good story that nobody saw coming, but is it important? Well, no, not in the oft-cited “grand scheme of things”, whatever that might be. Lester’s singular accomplishment will not realign the stars, cure cancer or AIDS, solve poverty or famine or climate change. But it does show that every once in a long while, the sun will reach even the darkest crevice and brighten it, that flowers sometimes grow from rocks, that the little guy can once in a blue moon defy all the odds and beat the big boys, putting a smile on our faces in the process. Life holds so many unpleasant surprises – unwelcome visits from relatives, tax audits, terminal disease and terrorist bombings – who are we to look a gift horse like Lester’s miracle in the mouth? A little bolt out of the blue like this brings us joy and delight and makes us believe that strange and wonderful doings are still possible in a world that can seem so forbidding, confusing, and predictable. Nice surprises are not small things and when they come, they’re to be celebrated.
To aid in this celebration, here’s the original version of “Lester Leaps In” from 1939, by The Kansas City Seven (Buck Clayton – trumpet; Dickie Wells – trombone; Leicester Young - tenor saxophone; Count Basie – piano; Freddie Green – guitar; Walter Page – bass, and Jo Jones – drums.) It doesn’t get much better than this.
A Craven Disclaimer, Just In Case. Mindful that these posts sometimes reach as far as the British Isles, and that things I’ve written in the past have not always been received in the spirit in which they were intended – and then some – I’d like to make sure that my readers, English or otherwise, know that I’m kidding while poking fun at the English and their idiosyncratic language. I’m a huge cryptic crossword addict, and only a language as rich, complex and confusingly confused as English could have given birth to these maddening riddles. While I’m not quite the Anglophone that Bud Freeman was, God bless him, I’ve visited England a number of times and am a big fan of its people and cultural institutions. Such as, in no particular order: Wensleydale cheese, roast-beef-and-onion-flavoured crisps, London taxis, the town of Taunton and its wonderful cider (especially “Old Scrumpy”), the many great British jazz musicians, jazz fans, and jazz writers, Stilton, Hyde Park, every pub I’ve ever been in, Jeeves & Wooster, The Goons, Monty Python, the paintings of Turner and Constable, Angie Heale, Shropshire Blue, football, Baker Street, Morecambe, British Rail, the Tate Museum, getting pissed on G&Ts, Ronnie Scott’s, Jeffrey Bernard and many other great writers, Rumpole of the Bailey, real ale and CAMRA, the London Underground and above all English actors, who are quite clearly the best in the world. And that’s just a short list that springs to mind. The climate and cuisine leave something to be desired and the football yobbos are a drag, but otherwise, it’s a fantastic place full of marvelous oddities. More than anything, I love humorous English colloquialisms such as “taking the piss”, which is what I’ve mostly enjoyed doing here. I hope you’ve enjoyed it too.
I’ve got to run now and get some money down on the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves meeting in this year’s World Series. Now,·there’s.a long shot.
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