What the Dickens is going on with A Tale of Two Cities in the Premier League
‘It was the best of times for Leicester City, it was the worst of times for Newcastle United’ – a 21st century take on a classic
Many classics have been given a modern twist. Think 10 Things I Hate About You, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew relocated to modern Seattle suburbia; Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness recast as the Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now; Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility rejigged in Prada to Nada; and Homer’s The Odyssey re-enacted on the streets of Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Time, then for a 21st century take on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, set against the backdrop of the English Premier League and two of its football-mad citadels, Newcastle and Leicester.
A morality yarn for our immoral era, it would remind audiences present and future of the trials and tribulations of two similar clubs beset by duality, revolution, resurrection, mistrust and loyalty – parallel stories of success in one camp, failure in the other; competence v ineptitude, greed v respect, love of the game v the boardroom’s bottom line.
Literary license is granted to butcher the opening lines of Dickens’ historical fiction to suit our Tinsel Town pretension.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin ...
“It was the best of times for Leicester City, it was the worst of times for Newcastle United. It was the age of wisdom at the King Power Stadium, it was the age of foolishness at St James’ Park.
“It was the epoch of belief among Claudio Ranieri’s men, it was the epoch of incredulity for the sorry squad of [now sacked] Steve McClaren.
“It was the season of light for the Foxes, it was the season of darkness for the Magpies; it was the spring of hope among Leicester fans, who believed in the purity and strength of teamwork, allegiance and modesty to trump big money ... it was another season of despair for the Toon Army, oppressed by blundering owner Mike Ashley”.
And so on.
Monday will offer a sizzling teaser chapter of this epic fable. Table-toppers Leicester take on basement dwellers Newcastle, who, with McClaren axed, will probably be coached by former Real Madrid coach Rafa Benitez.
On show at the King Power Stadium will be two clubs with very different outcomes from the tombola of billionaire ownership.
When Thai businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha bought Leicester in 2010 there were understandable fears that here was another foreign billionaire seeking an English football club play-cum-asset leveraging thing.
An out-of-depth UHNWI (aka ultra high-net-worth individual) would more likely than not lord over an omnishambles by trying to change a culture he did not understand – a punt to make a quick mint in the money-soaked EPL, running up huge debts and engineering relegation to boot: Birmingham, Hull and Cardiff are cases in point.
But Vichai dared to be different. Rather than change the team’s colour or rename the club, he handed over a relatively modest £180 million (HK$2 billion) war chest in 2014 to secure a top-five finish within three years.
This time last year, Leicester were relegation contenders. Now they are on course to make history, reshaping the league’s balance of power.
Vichai and his family-run firm have transformed Leicester, investing in the squad, training ground and stadium.
Leicester’s story is one of good decisions by a passionate owner who understands the value of a club’s soul and culture; he respects and rewards the curators of these assets, the supporters with subsidised prices, the odd free beer and addictive, competitive football.
Newcastle’s tale is one of a grim procession to the dark side of billionaire ownership, a catalogue of bad moves by a plutocrat seemingly hell-bent on turning an iconic football club and community’s heart into a crass extension of his business empire.
Ashley, who owns the budget sports apparel behemoth Sports Direct, bought Newcastle in 2007. His plan was to use the club to brand his cheap goods for the masses in Asia and emulate the EPL’s big boys cashing in on globalisation.
He has instead succeeded in turning one of the noisiest sporting arenas into a factitious corporate space befitting of his trite marketing mix. He wishes only for the celebration of Sports Direct and consumer culture, not for a noble football club built on tradition and communal glory.
St James’ Park is peppered with Sports Direct advertising, the ubiquitous logos an irritating, unwanted rash – a symptom of Ashley’s downmarket retail thinking. He has hijacked emotion and polluted the club’s culture, preferring fans to claim brand loyalty cards ahead of cherished season tickets.
Players and supporters are treated as mere advertising apparatus , conduits for brand exposure. Little wonder players display so little passion and hunger on the pitch while more and more fans fume and consider the unthinkable.
Monday night’s game between these two football cities will be a classic because of their contrasting fates.
If three precious points go wanting, the Toon Army might find cold comfort in another line in Dickens’ famous novel: “There is prodigious strength in sorrow and despair.”