After the relative dreariness of the last two Premier League title races, in which Manchester City and Chelsea triumphed at such a canter respectively, it’s easy to forget that yes, Leicester City did in fact win the Premier League in 2016. It was not some glorious dream. Wes Morgan did lift the famous trophy aloft. Andrea Bocelli did serenade the team upon the turf of the King Power stadium. Claudio Ranieri did lead a club who had barely escaped the clutches of relegation the previous season to one of the most remarkable and dramatic victories sport has ever known.
As City and Chelsea subsequently quashed whatever misguided hope that the effects of financial clout had been over-exaggerated and overplayed, so football fans have come to regard Leicester’s victory as a mere blip. A glitch in the footballing matrix. A rare abnormal shift in the cosmos that caused all of the Premier League’s elite to falter in some way at the same time. It was the kind of footballing miracle that we were so blessed to see because it will never happen again.
But as the nascent weeks of the 18/19 Premier League season have stretched their legs and kicked once again, a similar thunder has been rumbling in Hertfordshire akin to that which gripped the East Midlands three years ago. Watford have exploded out of the traps, swatting teams aside to claim 13 points from their opening six league games and are 500/1 in Premier League winner odds, a far cry from their pre-league odds of 1000/1. While the much fancied Manchester City and Liverpool have made strong starts, the Hornets have almost matched them stride for stride. Could we see again what we all agreed we would never see again? Could Watford do a Leicester?
— Premier League (@premierleague) September 2, 2018
Of course, it seems foolish to make such a bold claim so soon, given that the season is just six rounds of fixtures old, but it must be said that there are certain similarities to be drawn between Ranieri’s all-conquering Foxes and Javi Gracia’s Hornets.
Watford’s starting eleven this campaign remains largely as it was last season. While the club is famed, and indeed mocked, for chopping and changing managers at the drop of a hat, there is a definite sense of purpose and continuity to the club this time around. Gracia has had the bedding in period of the second half of last season to get to know his team, and figure out a system and a style that extracts the best out of what is a rather eclectic assortment of players.
The same was also true of Leicester’s champions. Most of the players had fought and bled to avoid the drop the previous season, and carried that hunger and momentum into the next campaign. Part of Ranieri’s masterclass was channeling that energy into something that few believed was possible, combining tactical shrewdness with the addictive euphoria of prior success.
Momentum is one of sport’s most mysterious phenomena. It is something that Gracia and his players are going to have to utilise if they are to mount a serious challenge to the Premier League’s top table this season. Momentum must be harnessed, channeled in the right ways, and balanced with realism and level-headedness.
Despite the palpable excitement that built up higher with every Leicester victory in the spring of 2016, the players and staff remained calm and measured throughout. Perhaps this is why Leicester were able to get over the line in the end where the likes of Liverpool in 2014 failed — through the ability to distance themselves from the cloud-like gathering hysteria.
If Watford do continue their good run, then this is something Gracia and his staff must be wary of. Hope, if it’s given cause to grow into expectation, can destroy a team as quickly as it builds them up. But Gracia always strikes as a very measured character, a chamomile tea in contrast to the fireball brandy which occupies many opposing dugouts. Such composure is a precious quality in this blood and thunder, all-on-the-line era of modern football management.
Similarly, Watford have leaders and experience on the pitch. Troy Deeney, the club’s longest-serving player by some margin, is the kind of captain and leader such unexpectedly successful seasons are built around. The return of Ben Foster too brings authority to the goalkeeping position — a fan favourite after his loan spell at the club in his youth.
But the most likely eventuality is that this run of good form is just that, and that it will peter out as autumn moves into winter. The main pretenders to the Premier League throne this season are far stronger than those of Leicester’s reign, and so Watford will more than likely settle back into their familiar pattern of mid-table mediocrity, which some say has already begun, following their 2-1 defeat at home to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United and subsequent 1-1 draw away to newly-promoted Fulham.
Then again, the beauty of triumphs like Leicester’s is that it reminds all football fans that it’s alright to dream every once in a while — to look back with jealousy at the joy of one club and one city and think, why not us?