It’s November and Leicester City are top of the Premier League. It’s weird and it’s very easy to be cynical about it, especially if you’re really cynical. Like me.
After Jamie Vardy plundered his tenth goal in ten games and helped his side sink our bosom buddies comfortably, attention turned to their fixture with Manchester United this weekend.
It was an instant reminder of our time at the top. That might be over stretching it. It was fleeting, enjoyable and it happened twice. Sure, we weren’t league leaders but we did have a chance to lead the league going into the new millennium. I recall a late Trevor Sinclair equaliser at West Ham denied us the opportunity – I could be wrong. I haven’t researched any of this, memories are often kinder than cold, hard facts.
In 1999 we faced Manchester United in December, it was a genuine top of the table encounter. Having just been promoted, it was shocking and enjoyable in equal measure. We’d given Chelsea a good tonking, Kevin Phillips was goal radge, Quinny was bantering off top defenders left right and centre. It was unreal. We were mint.
We were two up in no time at all, Gavin McCann and Niall Quinn the scorers. Then Roy Keane took control and got United back into it. Nicky Butt grabbed a late equaliser following a free kick won by Ole Gunnar Solksjaer; the referee conned by a dive as convincing as the Norwegian’s managerial credentials. It finished 2-2 and it felt like we’d chucked it, but we were still enjoying it. It was only a few years on from the Butcher and Buxton days.
Christmas came and went. We didn’t win a game for three months. We finished 7th and infuriatingly declined an Intertoto Cup entry. We’d missed the boat, but it was still an incredible season. Roll on six months and we were in familiar territory.
Another night game as we edged towards winter, Manchester United came to the SoL and did us 0-1, courtesy of a dodgy Andy Cole goal. We ended up down to nine men, Rae and Gray both sent off. Cole also went for scrapping with the latter. Stan Varga was absolutely immense and ran the game from centre half.
Christmas came and went. We didn’t win a game for three months. We finished 7th and infuriatingly declined an Intertoto Cup entry…
It felt different this time though. We’d missed the boat and it was really, really annoying. We built a north stand extension when really we should have been buying players. Quality players. We needed to capitalise on that position. It was at a time when teams like Sunderland could attract top players. The Premier League was still a bairn and everybody wanted a hold. People would come from all over the world to tickle its chin and share in the joy.
15 years on and the bairn is a sulky, unappealing teenage son of a mate that you have to be polite to when really you’d rather give him a clip. For a club like Sunderland it is, anyway. Logically, that should be the case of Leicester too.
I’ve watched them a few times this year and they do take me back to those times in the late nineties. A striker that’s come up through the leagues and is scoring goals left, right and centre against all the odds. A team of players that have pace and movement, that work for each other, that want to score. Wingers swinging balls into the box at will. They’re going to places and demolishing teams.
They’ve got a tough run of fixtures to come and the cynic in me suggests the bubble will burst. But I wonder if the transfer window might help them out a little. The money is there to spend and they need to spend it. They need to sustain their top 6 challenge. Not just for their sake, but for ours and all other clubs of our level.
They haven’t had a blue print like Southampton or Swansea, they’ve just played their way out of ‘it’ and then right into ‘it’. We need to find a way to do that too, critically the former.
They give us hope; if they can’t do it then why can’t we? I mean, aye. There’s loads of reasons at the moment. The crapness to start. Having said that, seven months ago Leicester were bottom of the table with 18 points and seemingly no hope. Now they have more than hope. They’re 4 points clear of 5th and they might just surprise a few sides in the next 6-8 games. They might get mullered and we can go back to the monotony of realistic expectation. I really hope they don’t.