Wednesday evening’s European football results proved broadly dispiriting for us neutrals who cling to the old-fashioned notion that genuine competition is a good thing. We saw Real Madrid take a step closer to winning the Spanish League title as part of their pursuit of a double, while Juventus had few problems easing past Lazio to win the Coppa Italia en route to a possible treble.
No disrespect to either of these undoubtedly impressive teams, but unless you’re a supporter then it’s hard to get remotely excited about the annexation of yet another piece of silverware by clubs who have a mastery over the art of winning.
Leicester City carry a lot of responsibility here. Since their once-in-a-million Premier League success in 2016 single-handedly reinvigorated the extinct notion that major trophies could be won by those from outside a small cabal of super clubs, I’ve been plaintively hoping that we can see other minnows from around the continent take up the mantle and disrupt the serene progression to conveyor belt trophy acquisition we see from Bayern Munich, Benfica, Olympiakos, Celtic and others.
If the big wins aren’t attainable then let us celebrate even the small victories; Wednesday night at least providing us with some minor underdog successes if you’re prepared to be flexible with your definitions – Monaco winning the Ligue 1 title for example. Now Monaco don’t fit the usual template of an underdog, what with their eight national titles, Russian billionaire owner and tax-haven glamour, but who amongst us cannot admire the wonderfully thrilling young side their manager Leonardo Jardim assembled almost overnight? More pertinently, who ever thought that France would see a different champion from PSG thanks to their absurdly large financial advantage?
Monaco’s first title win since 2000 comes on the back of Feyenoord securing at the weekend their first Dutch title since 1999 at the weekend – as a story it was battling for coverage with the Y2K bug. Again, it’s hard to cast the historic Rotterdam club as any sort of outsiders, and their success doesn’t carry nearly the weight of improbability as the titles won by AZ and FC Twente some years back, but boy is it a welcome break from the tedious Ajax and PSV Eindhoven duopoly.
Last night’s other reason for polite applause by us advocates of the underdogs came in Yorkshire as Huddersfield Town defeated Sheffield Wednesday on penalties to advance a step closer to Premier League football. If you wonder why Huddersfield Town are the supposed plucky outsiders in a play-off field that also featured Wednesday, Fulham and Reading then the answer is simply time away. Fulham and Reading have been top flight regulars in recent years; Sheffield Wednesday have been waiting 17 seasons to return to a division many of their fans think is their spiritual home anyway; however you have to go all the way back to 1970 – almost to black and white times – for the last time the Terriers graced the old First Division.
What neutral wouldn’t prefer to see an uncommon club get to enjoy the experience and the financial boost that comes with Premier League football? What football romantic wasn’t more captivated by the gallop to automatic promotion of Brighton after 34 years away from the top flight than the return of Newcastle after just a single season.
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We may likely never see another underdog triumph of the magnitude of Leicester City in our lifetimes, but the least you do is join me in lending your temporary support to any club that manoeuvres itself into a position to disrupt the increasingly regimented troops acquisition status quo. It does at the very least offer up a little hark back to times before the money came, times when predicting the likely trophy winners at the start of the season was glorious guesswork rather than the processional affair it is in the contemporary game.