Great sporting shocks: Leicester City, Joe Johnson and Headingley in 1981

Ian Botham in action during the Ashes Test Match at Headingley, Leeds, in 1981. (PA).
Ian Botham in action during the Ashes Test Match at Headingley, Leeds, in 1981. (PA).
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Leicester City’s astonishing Premier League title win has got the whole country talking. But where, Chris Bond asks, does it rank in the history of great sporting shocks?

Thirty years ago when Joe Johnson won the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible after beating Steve Davis in the final, he did so against all the odds.

A Leicester City fan carries a huge flag in the centre of Leicester. (PA)

A Leicester City fan carries a huge flag in the centre of Leicester. (PA)

Not only did the Bradford-born father-of-six start the tournament in Sheffield as a 150-1 outsider, but he hadn’t won a single tournament in his seven years as a professional.

“I had never won a match at the Crucible, so winning it in 1986 never came into my mind,” he told The Yorkshire Post in an interview last month. “It wasn’t until I potted the last red in the final, that left Steve Davis needing snookers, that, truthfully, I allowed winning the title to enter my mind.” But win the former gas board labourer did, capping one of the greatest surprise sporting stories of the 1980s.

Seasoned sports fans will, of course, be well accustomed to the gods throwing up the occasional shock. Take Goran Ivanisevic. In 2001, he was ranked 125th in the world and only qualified for Wimbledon as a wildcard. But the Croatian became the lowest-ranked player and the first wildcard entry to win Wimbledon after slugging it out with reigning US Open champion Pat Rafter to win an epic five-set thriller.

It’s not just individuals who have sent shockwaves through the sporting 
world by ripping up the form book. Greece were 150-1 outsiders to win the Euro 2004 but stunned Europe’s footballing elite by beating the holders France and then the hosts, and overwhelming favourites, Portugal in the final.

Joe Johnson was a 150-1 outside to win the World Snooker Champion in 1986.

Joe Johnson was a 150-1 outside to win the World Snooker Champion in 1986.

At 500-1, the Minnesota Twins were given practically no chance of winning baseball’s 1987 World Series. But yes, you guessed it, they did. However, these long odds pale into insignificance next to those slapped on Leicester City by the bookmakers last summer.

Having escaped relegation the previous season after winning six of their last eight matches to complete one of the most remarkable comebacks in living memory, the bookies, pundits and even some fans predicted another relegation battle.

So when the East Midlands club were given odds of 5,000-1 to win the Premier League title last August nobody seemed to bat an eyelid. But over the past nine months this plucky, unfashionable team has defied the experts and the odds to become the league’s most unexpected title winners and shock the world of football in the process.

These are the same odds you would get today on Jeremy Clarkson becoming the next Prime Minister and Elvis being confirmed alive. That’s the scale of Leicester City’s achievement.

This is a team of cast-offs and bargain buys, led by a manager who had been sacked in five of his previous jobs. Some of these players are well known to fans in Yorkshire. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was sold to Leicester five years ago by Leeds United, while midfield star Danny Drinkwater, now an England international, made his professional debut for Huddersfield Town in 2009.

Then there’s star striker Jamie Vardy, whose story reads like something straight out of a Hollywood script. Released by Sheffield Wednesday as a 16-year-old, he then plied his trade at Stocksbridge Park Steels and Halifax Town before getting his chance on the big stage.

Leicester’s success has been built around a team ethos and vindicates those who believe a great team will always triumph over a team of great individuals. It has all been orchestrated by manager Claudio Ranieri, whose calm, dignified manner has been a feature of this remarkable season and ought to be a template for all Premier League managers.

But where does their title win rank in the pantheon of great sporting achievements? The club’s former striker, Gary Lineker, called it the “biggest sporting shock” of his lifetime, and many will agree with the Match of the Day presenter.

The history of sport, however, is littered with great surprises. The 1981 Ashes Test between England and Australia at Headingley was one such occasion. The drama started with the visitors on the verge of going 2-0 up in the series.

But the Australians hadn’t reckoned with Ian Botham, whose swashbuckling 149 made Australia bat again. With the seeds of doubt now well and truly sown an inspired Bob Willis swept through their line-up, claiming eight wickets for just 43 runs. It sealed a remarkable 18-run win and turned the series, which England went on to win 3-1, on its head.

England’s unbelievable victory defied all logic. As did John Daly’s win at the PGA Championship in 1991. Not only was he an unfancied outsider, he wasn’t even due to take part. It was only when several players dropped out that he got the chance to play.

With his blond mullet, loud shirts and even louder trousers he looked like he’d just stepped off the set of some dreadful B-Movie. But while he looked the unlikeliest of golfers he could hit the ball harder and further than anyone else and his prodigious driving, which was matched only by his relentless cigarette smoking, helped him win one of the biggest prizes in golf.

Daly’s success was all the more remarkable for the fact that he came out on top having gone through four rounds of 18 holes, against the best golfers in the world.

Equally, winning a league title over 38 games holds greater importance than even the biggest one-off upsets in cup competitions. In this vein, some might argue that the achievements of Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest side, who were crowned champions of England the year after being promoted, equal those of Leicester City. But Clough’s success, brilliant as it was, came in the days before the top tier of English football was awash with money.

Howard Wilkinson, who led Leeds United to the old First Division title in 1992, is fulsome in his praise of what the Leicester team has done. “I think it’s fantastic. Some people might say it’s a one-off and maybe it is, but I hope it isn’t. It shows what can be done if you are brave, if you are innovative and if you are prepared to be different.”

Wilkinson says Leicester’s success has been achieved by playing a brand of football that harks back to another era. “They’ve won by rolling their sleeves up and putting the team first and I hope this shows other people what they can do if they have the willingness to work together and the courage to stick to a plan.”

Leicester City had never won the league title before, the closest being when they came second 87 years ago, yet now they can look forward to playing in the Champions League alongside the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

So is Leicester’s title win the greatest ever sporting shock? Yes, it almost certainly is. Not only this but it will inspire others to dare to dream and that, as any fan will tell you, is what sport is all about.

Winning against all the odds

Here are odds quoted by bookmakers Coral for other shocks over the years:

American golfer Ben Curtis was 300/1 to win The Open Championship in 2013 before his success at Muirfield.

Goran Ivanisevic could be backed at 250/1 to win Wimbledon in 2001, which he did so as a qualifier.

Greece were at 150/1 to win Euro 2004.

Jeremy Corbyn was 100/1 to win the Labour leadership contest last year.

Japan’s famous victory over South Africa in the Rugby World Cup in 2015 could have been backed at 66/1.

Boxer Buster Douglas was 42/1 in 1990 to beat Mike Tyson for the world heavyweight titles.

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