The underdog (once an endangered species in sport) is making a welcome and sensational comeback. Witness Leicester’s City’s remarkable triumph as Premier League winners as cast-iron proof that supposedly impossible dreams sometimes come true. All season long, we all wondered when Claudio Ranieri’s trailblazing side would come off the rails, but to the Italian’s eternal credit he managed to get unfashionable, ordinary Leicester over the finishing line. Leicester’s title win is an incredible feat, a victory borne from tenacious endurance and an indefatigable spirit. In an era of grim hyperbole, Ranieri’s achievement is the real deal, a truly remarkable feat that will be cherished for decades to come.
The Foxes’ victory would be worthy of celebration in any era, but coming as it does in the context of billionaire sugar daddies and astronomical TV deals, Leicester’s title is nothing short of miraculous. It must also be immensely satisfying for the genial Ranieri on a personal level. The former Chelsea boss was once vilified and castigated as a well-meaning eccentric, a talented manager whose undoubted potential was curtailed by erratic team selections. How times have changed! Such unfair characterisation has been permanently cast aside, as Ranieri’s charges romped home with composed, ruthless determination. What makes Leicester’s achievement so incredible is that it has been crafted with comparatively meagre resources. The champions of 2016 simply haven’t got the financial or political clout to justify a title challenge in the modern game, let alone a win. To outflank their more illustrious rivals in such emphatic fashion ranks as one of the greatest sporting achievements in recent times. From Tinker man to managerial genius. It has been quite a journey.
It hasn’t generated as many column inches, but another fantastic and wondrous underdog story is happening on this side of the Irish Sea. Pat Lam’s Connacht haven’t won anything tangible (not yet anyway) but their Pro12 achievement stands alongside that of Leicester’s footballers in terms of historical significance. The western province has led the way throughout the regular Pro12 standings, playing a style of rugby that is enterprising and innovative. Creativity practically oozes from the Galway men these days, and a regularly jam packed Sportsground is testament to their attractiveness for supporters. What makes Connacht’s feat genuinely remarkable as it it has come out of what can only be described as sporting oblivion. Traditionally labelled the “Cinderella province”, it is easy to forget that just over a decade ago, Connacht were threatened with professional extinction. The IRFU considered disbanding Ireland’s fourth professional franchise, only to have a last minute change of heart, partly inspired by a popular outcry against the decision. Connacht’s revival, therefore, must be viewed in this context of uncertainty. One hopes the men in green finish the job, but regardless of their final league position, Lam has done phenomenal work at the Sportsground.
There is something about unexpected success that sparks the soul of sports fans. Such victories are as elusive as they are laudable, but I don’t believe that is the reason we eulogise underdog wins to such an extent. Winning against the odds (in any walk of life) inspires the romantic and idealistic within all of us. But such wins also scream possibility and hope. We all constrain ourselves with self-imposed limitations, but truly great things can be accomplished if sufficient belief is marshalled. For if Leicester and Connacht can do it, anyone can. All hail the underdog. Events as rare as hens’ teeth deserve to be celebrated for the miracles they are. Jamie Vardy has every right to have a party.