The Foxes’ Premier League title victory is one of the greatest feel-good stories in the history of sport, but there is a dark side to their achievement that must not be ignoredใ
The world is currently gripped by Leicester City fever, and rightly so. An unlikely group of lads have just defied odds, logic and expectation by winning the Premier League against significantly richer clubs and superstar opponents.
It’s a footballing fairytale which renews a dying collective hope that money hasn’t ripped out the sport’s heart. With the exception of Tottenham fans, neutrals in England and beyond have rejoiced at this once-in-a-lifetime achievement.
Unfortunately the accomplishment is somewhat tainted. When you peel back the layer of gloss on the surface of Leicester’s title, the reality – like so many fairytales – is a lot darker. Some of our Leicester heroes aren’t as heroic as we may think.
In the aftermath of Leicester’s title win, Goal published a gallery which cast Hollywood superstars in a fictional biopic of a season which will surely be dramatised in film. One player is conspicuous in his absence – Danny Simpson. Should he be ‘played’ by Chris Brown who, like Simpson, has a conviction for domestic violence? Would such a comparison shed a light on the darker side of football or would it be jarringly offensive in an otherwise light-hearted article?
It was decided that Simpson’s past would be better analysed in serious comment on the often unsavoury personal conduct of footballers. This debate raises a number of important issues regarding the so-called Leicester fairytale. There has been constant self-censorship by the media in 2016 of any ugly Leicester stories.
Make no mistake about it, Simpson deserves to be criticised. The Leicester full-back was convicted of attempting to strangle an ex-girlfriend last May. His defence after being caught by police with his “hands around the throat” of former partner Steph Ward was absurd.
“I spent a lot of money on her Christmas present on shoes for her and I was saying I wanted them back,” he told the court. “I didn’t think she deserved those shoes. She was on the sofa and I was trying to get them off her.”
Ward had called the police after Simpson attacked her during a family gathering. PC Gareth Hughes, who was the first officer to arrive at the house, told the court: “I could hear screams and crying and then silence. I could then hear a choking sound.”
Manchester District Judge Alexandra Simmons sentenced Simpson to 300 hours of community service. The decision not to send the former Manchester United player to prison was condemned by campaign group Women’s Aid, which also criticised the BBC in March for inviting him on Match of the Day while he was still serving his sentence for domestic violence.
One year on from acquiring a criminal conviction for choking the mother of his child, Simpson is a Premier League champion. Just like Brown’s pop music career wasn’t greatly affected by his conviction for beating up Rihanna, Simpson has shown that lacking a moral compass isn’t a deal-breaker for success in life.
In fact, Leicester’s success this season can be traced back to a single, spectacularly stupid chapter in their recent history, just days after miraculously escaping relegation.
In May 2015, then Foxes’ manager Nigel Pearson took his team on a post-season trip to Thailand, homeland of billionaire owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. It was supposed to be a goodwill, PR-boosting visit. Instead it was a disaster.
A video surfaced of three Leicester players having sex with prostitutes, while taunting the women with racist and derogatory language. The trio were Tom Hopper, Adam Smith and Pearson’s son, James. All were kicked out of the club within the month. Coach Pearson – who had previously made headlines for altercations with a supporter and a reporter – was also sacked by Leicester and shortly afterwards Claudio Ranieri was brought on board, fresh from a miserable spell with the Greece national team.
Leicester icon Gary Lineker, always quick to pander to the public with a bandwagon tweet, said of Pearson’s sacking: “Those who run football never cease to amaze with their stupidity.” A year later, with the Foxes having just wrapped up the league title, Lineker will present BBC’s Match of the Day in his underpants this weekend, having vowed to strip down if they finished first.
The decision to axe Hopper, Smith and Pearson actually reflects well on Leicester. They had to act to protect the club’s image and they did so swiftly – employing one of the most likeable and PR-friendly managers in the game in the process.
But while it was an easy enough decision for Leicester to bin three youngsters and a prickly manager, when Jamie Vardy was caught being racist on camera several weeks later they were not so consistent with their response.
There was no escaping just how offensive the footage of Vardy in a Leicester casino was, as he spewed at a gambler of East Asian ethnicity: “Jap. Yo Jap. Walk on. Walk on… Oi, walk on. Yeah you… Jap. Walk on.”
‘Jap’ is a derogatory term for Japanese people, an abbreviation which became offensive after its pejorative use during World War II. There’s no doubting that Vardy knew what he was saying would cause offence.
So given the punishment dished out to Leicester’s three youth players, surely Vardy would receive an equally severe penalty from his employers? Wrong.
Vardy was a first-team player, an England international, and one of Leicester’s stars. The Sheffield-born striker issued a grovelling apology, claiming “it was a regrettable error in judgement”, and the club overlooked his indiscretion.
Vardy subsequently kicked off Leicester’s season in style, scoring in a record-breaking 11 consecutive league games. Soon, the furore surrounding his racist comments subsided as the fairytale narrative swept all before it. Vardy’s goal-of-the-season contender against Liverpool in February made it increasingly difficult to hate the penitent Leicester forward,whose rags-to-riches story is a rarity in modern football.
It would be disproportionate to claim Vardy and Simpson’s transgressions are fully comparable other than both having been under the influence of alcohol – a racist rant for which Vardy apologised is not the same as Simpson assaulting his partner.
After the club clinched the Premier League title on Monday, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, son of the Leicester owner, described Vardy’s rise from an alcoholic to FWA Player of the Year.
“When we extended his contract, the day we were promoted to the Premier League, I remember that he came to me,” Srivaddhanaprabha said. “He spoke sentimentally and said he would never forget how we invested in him… That he’ll do everything to bring success to the club, to get call ups for England. I asked him ‘What? England call-ups? Are you out of your mind?’ He said we’ll see. One day he’ll play for England.
“He’s an inspiration for kids, for footballers, for everyone participating in any sport. It’s a story of a man who fought through. You can do it if you really mean it. It’s an incredible story.”
And so is Leicester’s title win. It’s undoubtedly the most incredible story since the English top flight was re-branded as the Premier League in 1992.
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