Leicester City has won the English Premier League this season. It has never won the league before. This time, though,it had Claudio Ranieri as its manager, and he has developed some very good players - Vardy, Mahrez, Schmeichel, and others. Not every team has this sort of quality.
For that matter, not every team has featured in a novel by Julian Barnes. Leicester has. The novel is The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, in which Barnes's narrator wakes up in heaven, in which everyone gets exactly what they want. Now, it turns out that what this narrator wants is that Leicester City wins the FA Cup final. Later, this turns into a desire actually to play - and to score the winning goal - for Leicester in the Cup final.
Why not a desire that Leicester win the league? Perhaps this points to a lack of imagination on the part of Barnes's narrator. There is another explanation. TheHistory was published in 1989, before the formation of the EPL. At that time, the FA Cup was still considered extremely prestigious. It is no longer so. Now only the smaller clubs - such as Crystal Palace - care about the cup. The bigger clubs' main focus is the league. What has happened?
Well, I watch English football from the outside, from afar and on a screen, so my view has gaps in it. Nonetheless, it is easy to see that, since the advent of the EPL, the large sums of money paid for TV rights have meant that football has become part of big media. The money has also led to high wages being demanded by the top players. At the same time, the TV money has tended to flow unevenly to the clubs themselves, rewarding those teams that do better each season. One implication of this structure is that clubs cannot afford to put resources into the FA Cup, thereby increasing the prestige of the EPL. Another implication is that only a small circle of elite clubs can afford the best players, thereby reinforcing the status quo.
This financial advantage reveals itself in the league table. Since the formation of the EPL, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City have between them won over 90 per cent of the league titles (Manchester United themselves have won over half of them). This is not exactly a dynamic, unpredictable state of affairs. This is the usual suspects.
This season, though, has been different.Leicester Citywere 5000 to 1 with bookmakers at the beginning of the season. Is it possible to have a Leicester City every season, to see an EPL that is more evenly matched, exciting and unpredictable? The media logic of the EPL makes such change hard to believe in.
Yet this view is challenged by Thomas Hastings's 'Behind the unpredictable Premier League year that put Leicester top of the pile' in The Conversation. Hastings argues that 'the potential for such seasons to emerge again should remain intact.' Hastings discerns a trend towards a more even distribution of quality players across the teams in the top flight. To explain this, Hastings points to recent initiatives such as the Elite Player Performance Plan, which gives clubs an incentive to scout for local players, and to practices such as Moneyball-style statistical techniques, whereby clubs have acquired the ability to uncover talented new players. If Hastings's claims are correct, then the EPL of the future could well be a more evenly matched competition that is thrilling and unpredictable.
To Hastings's claims, we can add another. Andy Ruddock's Youth and Media contains an argument for the importance of E.P. Thompson's work, particularly The Making of the English Working Class, in understanding today's media. Thompson's treatment of the Methodist church during the Industrial Revolution is particularly salient.
Methodism promoted the idea of accepting one's lot in life by teaching people from a young age that they were sinners and therefore deserved it. Likewise, since its establishment in the 1990s, theEPL has represented a stable football order in which any change seems very remote indeed. We all have to accept our lot in life, at least as far as football is concerned, perhaps in other aspects of life as well. The EPL is a kind of sporting Methodism. And it is not only the EPL. Football was staid, ordered and predictable in the years of the First Division, and I suspect that was one reason that BSkyB bought the broadcast rights. The flow of broadcast funds has entrenched this order.
Back to Thompson. In Thompson's view, an unintentional byproduct of Methodism's strict approach was to create a space where people could come together and discuss their situations. As Andy Ruddock puts it, Methodists were not only exploited, they also had 'a medium to express that exploitation in a way that demanded radical reform'.
For Thompson, then, Methodism unintentionally engendered a political movement. I think that in the EPL, as in Methodism, change is possible. My analogy is not along the political dimension of Thompson so much as along another dimension of social change, another measure of personal and collective worth. In the case of the EPL, I think, a space exists in clubs in which fans can develop in new and experimental ways, and can produce change.
Here are two examples.