In the 31 years since the formation of the English Premier League, a breakaway project that became one of sport’s most powerful commercial juggernauts, it has had seven different champions.
Two are from London, two from Manchester and another pair from elsewhere in England’s north-west, Blackburn Rovers and Liverpool, whose sole Premier League titles interrupted long runs of Manchester supremacy.
Blackburn took on Manchester United’s 1990s might, and, over the last six years, Liverpool briefly paused Manchester City’s domination.
The other club who have called themselves the top team in the most globally popular, moneyed domestic league in the world are Leicester City, outsiders in every sense. In 2016, they diverted a prize that for two decades had shuttled only between London and Manchester proudly to the midlands.
Their capture of the title had authentic fairytales all the way through. Leicester’s leading scorer was not, like Blackburn’s Alan Shearer in 1995, or City’s Erling Haaland in 2023, a much-coveted star signing. He was Jamie Vardy, a late-developer who at 25 years old had still been playing for Fleetwood Town in English football’s fifth tier.
The manager was the engaging Claudio Ranieri, a late developer himself when it came to major titles. Ranieri’s long career in the top divisions of Italian, English, French and Spanish club football had been conspicuous for its third and second place finishes. He finally got his gold medal at the age of 64, achieving with Leicester what he could not at Chelsea, Juventus, Inter Milan, Roma, Atletico Madrid or Monaco.
Across Europe, the Leicester success was hailed as an inspiring example of how to break the mould, to challenge entrenched powerbases. ‘Doing a Leicester’ became a shorthand for use in motivational dressing-room speeches.
‘Doing a Leicester’ then became a handy inspirational slogan in English club football’s other popular brand, the FA Cup. The competition that likes to style itself the best knockout tournament in the world has started to look like the most stale.
Between 2014 and 2023, nine of its 10 winners will have been drawn from the same cartel - the Manchester duo, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool - that supplied all but one of the 21st century’s Premier League champions. The exception? Leicester, who in 2021 defeated Chelsea, that year’s European champions, to lift the FA Cup.
Yet just over two years on from that triumph at Wembley, Leicester confront a fixture every bit as weighty as a major final. They go into Sunday’s last matchday of the Premier League season in the relegation zone, two points shy of safety, and their hopes of escape dependent on Everton, in 17th place, dropping points if Leicester, who have a better goal difference, are to leapfrog them.
All three clubs at risk of filling the two open relegation places - Southampton are already down - carry heavy burdens of history into the weekend. Everton have never been outside the Premier League, and last knew life in a division that was not English football’s highest in 1954. But this is not their first nervy end of season battle against the drop.
Leeds United, 19th and below Leicester because of goal difference, were the last English champions before the Premier League came into being. After a wild spiral downwards, they spent 16 years in the lower divisions, returning to the top tier only in 2020.
For much of this century the phrase ‘Doing a Leeds’ was in common use. It was not flattering: it meant overspending, then being suffocated by accumulated debts and plunging down the hierarchy. If Leeds drop on Sunday, supporters will gloomily remember that three years after their last Premier League relegation, they fell all the way down into the third tier.
The weekend’s fixtures look toughest on Leeds, who host Tottenham Hotspur. Everton are also at home, against Bournemouth. Leicester face West Ham United. They can count on a home crowd at a King Power Stadium where the paraphernalia, the photos and the retail merchandise, celebrating the remarkable title of 2016 remains very visible. Vardy, now 36 and scorer of a mere three league goals all season, should lead the forward line.
“We’ve got to go out all guns blazing,” said Dean Smith, who replaced the sacked Brendan Rodgers in an interim manager’s role last month, “but we’ve got to find that balance between not going too open and adventurous.” Being too open has been Leicester’s damaging habit. Their goalless draw at Newcastle United on Monday was the first league clean sheet they have kept since November.
“Obviously I’d rather we had the [final] say in whether we stay up or not,” added Smith. “But we need to win - and hopefully put some added pressure on Everton.”