Covering a team over the course of a soccer season is tough, in the sense that you see your team in a different way than a fan who attends the same games. Despite rules against cheering and journalistic standards that demand an air of neutrality when writing about the squad, you cannot help but grow closer to the players and staff as the long year continues. While you do not go through the same travails as a player, you see them at their best and at their worst. You see them after a fight with the girlfriend or the birth of a child, and so you can get to know them better than any fan whose interactions are limited to what they see on the pitch. Thus, it is these people’s perspectives that can be most enlightening after a miraculous championship, like Leicester City’s.
Unlike a national journalist who joined the coverage late, Rob Tanner has covered the Foxes since their promotion to the Premier League and was on the City beat from the preseason until the inexplicable end. His book, 5,000-1: The Leicester City Story, is his monthly account of the moments, players, and people who defined the improbable title run. Mixing new writing in with columns from the time, Tanner does not claim to have foreseen this outcome or even predicted that Leicester would surprise people. Instead, he takes his reader into the season through the lens of the betting odds, which started as the season as 5,000-1 and decreased as the season went along until bookmakers tried to cash out bets before losing too much money.
Tanner begins with a moment in which potentially the whole season turned: the hiring of Claudio Ranieri. His book does a good job describing the uncertainty around the hire as well as the pressure on the ownership group to get the right person for a club that had talent but barely stayed up the season before. Tanner immediately identifies the traits that would help Ranieri excel as the club’s manager and, while post-event editing could have helped make his perspective look better in hindsight, the author deserves a lot of credit for at least noticing that something was different and noteworthy in this hire.
As the book goes along the season, it does not delve deeply into the season or the players, but relies rather on stories told throughout the season to provide snapshots of how the team stood at that moment. Because of his time spent with the players prior to the season, you can tell Tanner received some insight and access other journalists could not get. But rather than go deep into different players and topics to try and discern how or why they were part of this miraculous season, he presents the players as they are. That is another way of saying this book is not an academic treatise or something in the realm of Soccernomics; it is simply a beat reporter gathering his season of facts and stories to weave an improbable narrative that even Hollywood would have troubles crafting.
Going back to the emotion, while Tanner is undoubtedly a professional, it is impossible not to read some of his own emotions in what he writes. It is subtle at times but there, and many times it comes through as he tells the stories of the players, many of whom are simply trying to keep playing at the highest level. There is an affinity for the characters in this story, and it is refreshing how it is shown without being insufferable or coming across as fake. And there is the key to why this is a interesting read: it’s a book that doesn’t try to Hollywood up a fairy tale. It lets the results speak for themselves and frames it in numbers that show how unlikely the result is, filling in the gaps with game stories and background on the key characters.
In the coming years, many books will be written about Leicester and their impact on soccer. This book does none of that but rather just puts into perspective the amazing season the Foxes had from the eyes of a person who, better than anyone, can appreciate the miracle.
5000-1: The Leicester City Story is available in paperback from Amazon and other fine booksellers.
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