Alas poor Craig, we never really knew him that well at all. The world of football moves swiftly on and all eyes will now turn to Claude Puel as the next appointee to manage Leicester City Football Club. At least the new incumbent will be guaranteed clarity in his immediate target. Keep the club in the Premier League. For God’s sake, keep the club in the Premier League. If Leicester’s Premier League title win two seasons ago was unlikely, it’s difficult to know what to make of what has followed it. Last season saw the title-winning manager Claudio Ranieri sacked and replaced, and the team eventually scrambling clear of the relegation places to finish in twelfth place in the table at the end of last season. But now the man who kept the Foxes up last season has gone, and it’s starting to feel as though a rather familiar cycle may be starting to manifest itself at The King Power Stadium.
At the time of writing, Leicester are in fourteenth place in the Premier League table, a single, solitary point above the relegation places with almost a quarter of the season played. In theory, they should be able to stay up. There were several worse teams than they last time around and, on paper at least, there are at least three worse teams than they this time around as well. In theory. On paper. The truth is that Leicester have been labouring under the unexpected burden that comes with winning a league title since since the moment that their five thousand to one shot was put beyond all mathematical doubt in May 2016. If this season does end with this club dropping into the Football League Championship, however, such a fall from grace can hardly be considered to be completely unprecedented. Blackburn Rovers were relegated four years after winning the Premier League in 1995, whilst Derby County were the champions of England on two separate occasions during the 1970s but were relegated to the Second Division in May 1980, just five years after their last title win.
If we step a little further back in time, though, things get even less predictable. Ipswich Town, for example, were relegated from the First Division in 1964, just the two seasons after winning the First Division at the end of their first ever season in the top flight, a victory that came about in no small part on account of a fertile attacking partnership of Ray Crawford and Ted Philips, ably assisted by left-winger Jimmy Leadbetter. Once manager Alf Ramsey had been snaffled up by the England manager’s position and Ipswich’s tactical movements under his successor Jackie Milburn had been deciphered, though, Ipswich were easily rumbled and First Division football wouldn’t return to Portman Road until 1968. For something even more extreme than this, however, we need to go back a little further in time, to just before the start of the Second World War. Step forward, the Manchester City team of the 1937/38 season – currently the only club to end one season as the champions of England and to be relegated the following season.
Was that season been the most disastrous that the club could have experienced? Probably, but one might equally argue that, if we accept the idea that the universe is in balance, we have to accept that Manchester City’s 1937/38 relegation was merely balancing out what had happened the year before. The club had started the 1936/37 team off the back of a slightly underwhelming ninth placed finish the year before. Indeed, the team started the season very tepidly as well, winning just two of its first ten league matches, a run which included a three-two defeat at Old Trafford against Manchester United. As autumn turned to winter, however, Manchester City’s form suddenly kicked into gear. Starting with a four-one win against Everton in the middle of November, they won their next four matches and by the time of the next Manchester derby, on the second Saturday in January, United were rooted to the bottom of the table while City had climbed the table rapidly. Their one-nil win in that rematch turned out to be the fourth game into an unbeaten run that they would continue to the end of the season.
The team was carried home by a run of seven wins from their last eight matches, a run which included a five-one win against Liverpool, a six-two win at Brentwood, a five-two win at Preston North End, and a win against Arsenal that was watched by a season high Maine Road crowd of 75,000 people. They won the title by three points from Charlton Athletic under the two points for a win scoring system, winning fifteen and drawing five of their twenty-one home league matches, with their only home defeat being a four-two reversal against Sunderland in the match that marked the end of their mediocre run at the start of the season. And it was a team of talented players, such as goalkeeper Frank Swift, defender Billy Dale and forward Alec Herd. More on him, later. Manchester United, meanwhile, were relegated. They only won a further four more matches after losing at Maine Road in January, and ended the season in second from bottom place in the table above Sheffield Wednesday, on thirty points. Singing the blues, indeed.
The following season started with optimism. Manchester City might have finished the season before last in ninth place, but this wasn’t a seismic shock by the standards of the time – clubs were jostling for position after the abrupt end to Arsenal’s reign following the death of Herbert Chapman in January 1934. City had scored one hundred and seven goals, lifted the title with a little to spare and, in an era before the televising of matches, the results and newspaper reports, along with the occasional radio commentary, was all anybody had to go on. The new season, however, started badly. An opening day loss at Wolverhampton Wanderers was followed with two home wins against Everton and Leicester City, but two defeats followed this and it soon became apparent that this might even be a tricky season for the club. There were big wins – Six-one and seven-one against Derby County, for example – but there were also worrying snaps without wins, and the team’s captain told the Manchester Evening Chronicle that, having won the league, the team was going to focus on the FA Cup instead. Manchester City subsequently lost by three goals to two against Aston Villa in the quarter-finals of the competition.
The most significant factor behind the club’s relegation, however, was probably how congested the bottom of the First Division table at the very end of the season. City went into their final match of the season needing a point to guarantee their safety in a division in which anybody from twelfth place down – a total of ten clubs as this was, of course, a twenty-two team division – could still be relegated. However, they’d won their previous match against Leeds United by six goals to two. Three games prior to that, they’d beaten West Bromwich Albion by seven goals to one. They were the First Division’s top scorers, but on the last day of the season their shooting boots went firing blanks. Away to Huddersfield Town, they lost by a goal to nil, although there was some degree of controversy when a thirty-five yard shot from Alec Herd bounced out from the frame of the goal. City claimed that the ball hit the stanchion in the back of the goal and bounced back out, but the referee ruled that the ball had hit the crossbar. Shades of Clive Allen’s “goal that never was” for Crystal Palace against Coventry City a little over four decades later, but with considerably broader consequences.
None of this would have mattered had any of Grimsby Town, Portsmouth, Birmingham City or Stoke City lost. But they didn’t. They all won their matches and subsequently Manchester City, the previous year’s champions of England, that season’s First Division top scorers (they didn’t even concede the most, either – that particular ignominy fell upon Derby County, against whom City scored thirteen goals over the course of their two matches that season), became the first, and to date only, club to be the champions of England one year and relegated the next. The club couldn’t bounce back, either. The following season they finished in fifth place in the Second Division, six points behind the division winners Blackburn Rovers and five points behind Sheffield United. The outbreak of war in September 1939 curtailed the Football League season after just three matches. At that point, they, won, drawn and lost each of their games. They would return to the top flight in 1947.
There was a further sting in the tail for Manchester City, as well. Manchester United had been managed by Scott Duncan since 1932. Having won the team promotion from the Second Division in 1936 he was allowed a certain amount of slack, but a poor start to life back in the second tier saw United win just five of their first fourteen matches of the season. Following a goalless draw at home against Plymouth Argyle at the start of November 1937, Duncan resigned and joined Ipswich Town, then of the Southern League. He was replaced by Walter Crickmer. This was meant to be a stop-gap measure. Crickmer had already had one spell as the club’s caretaker-manager, six years before, a spell that had run its course without particular distinction, but under his management this time around the team was transformed.
They lost just two matches between the beginning of November and the end of March and, despite a late wobble which saw them lose three and draw two of their final eight matches, a win against Bury at Old Trafford on the last day of the season was enough for them to sneak past Sheffield Wednesday on goal average. Just as Manchester United were relegated as Manchester City were crowned the champions of England, so Manchester United were promoted back to the First Division as City became the first English champions to be relegated the following year.
In some respects, it might be argued that football at the top end has changed so much as to be virtually unrecognisable from the game that was played in 1938. With only the league and the FA Cup to play for, there was no talk of fixture congestion. Players at that time were little more than chattels, owned by their clubs, so the idea of the concept of a manager “losing the dressing room” would have been a completely alien concept at that time. And the pressure that modern players are under, with perpetual forensic examination of their every move, exists in a parallel universe to that experienced by the players of the 1930s.
Perhaps, though, there might be a lesson or two that can be learned by Leicester City as they try to arrest their post-title decline. A congested league table lends the feeling of playing pinball to the end of a season. It’s not quite complete chance, but life can catch up with you fast. And more importantly still, and just as relevantly today as eighty years ago, grandstanding in a few matches is worth little if the daily bread and butter of accumulating points in the league isn’t being taken care of, whether that be through Manchester City’s occasional big league wins and prioritisation of the FA Cup or Leicester City’s impressive run in the Champions League. Most importantly of all, though, what happened last season is ultimately worth nothing. What counts is what happens today, tomorrow and in the weeks after that. This last lesson is certainly one that both Claudio Ranieri and Craig Shakespeare ha learned in the hardest way possible over the last two seasons.
But how much of this is inevitable progress, and how much of this is our decision, as a football community? There is no question that professional football has changed beyond recognition over the course of the last eighty years, but we have broadly gone along these changes as they came along. Some of them were inevitable. There’s no way of viewing the resistance to the beginning of the widespread televising of football as having been something resembling King Canute trying to hold back the tide, for example. There are, however, certain truths that seem to be eternal within the world of professional football. Tightly congested league tables favour surprise results. Focusing on the wrong priorities is an easy mistake to make. And talented groups of players can go from being heroes to villains in a remarkably short period of time. So it was with Manchester City, the team of Frank Swift and Alec Herd, in 1938, and so it has been with Leicester City, the team of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, since they lofted the Premier League title in 2016.
What has changed is the culture in which Claudio Ranieri couldn’t survive last season despite the achievements of the season before, and which also did for Craig Shakespeare as summer turned to autumn this time around. Wilf Wild was the manager of Manchester City when they won the league in 1937, and he continued in his position after the team’s relegation the following year and remained the manager of Manchester City for the duration of the war, resigning his position in December 1946 to resume his job as the club secretary, a position that he held until his death four years later. And perhaps that’s where our problems rest. We still consider the managerial position at a football club to be a long-term, stable job, but the fact of the matter is that it ceased to be this a few years ago. Whether victims of their own success or their own failure, all football managers are just victims of the culture from which they emerge. And whether they’re relegated or not come the end of this season, this overarching point doesn’t seem likely to change in the foreseeable future.