IT’S been eight long years since Leicester City shook the world.
Since Jamie Vardy was having a party, N’Golo Kante was covering 30 per cent of the world’s surface and manager Claudio Ranieri was ringing his imaginary bell, while babbling ‘dilly ding, dilly dong’.
Happier times, those. Before the pandemic, Brexit, the European Super League plot and the Saudi invasion of elite sport. And pretty much all of us loved Leicester back then.
John McGinn celebrates his winner vs ArsenalCredit: Getty
Unai Emery celebrates getting one over his old clubCredit: Getty
Because Ranieri’s miracle men took the impossible dreams of every football supporter who didn’t support a filthy-rich club and played out the ultimate fantasy of winning the Premier League.
These days, the Foxes are in the Championship, Ranieri is next to bottom in Serie A with Cagliari, while Kante and Riyad Mahrez are taking Saudi dosh and Vardy is a bit-part character in the Wagatha Christie drama.
Good times are fleeting, but we’ll always have 2016.
Not just Leicester fans, but all of us who enjoyed the journey from Nigel Pearson’s ostrich rant to Andrea Bocelli singing Nessun Dorma when they dished out the big silver pot.
In the past seven seasons, there has been no true outsider with a sniff of winning the Premier League crown at any advanced stage of the season.
Not until the emergence of Unai Emery’s Aston Villa.
Do I think Villa will win the title? No. If Rodri plays every game for the rest of the season, Manchester City should do it.
If not, Liverpool are grinding out undeserved wins like the champions of cliche.
And if not them, then Arsenal went close last term and have improved since.
Those clubs could stage a three-horse title race right down to the wire but, while us lot in the media would obsess about it, most neutrals wouldn’t really care all that much who won.
City, Liverpool and Arsenal are breakaway Super League ‘snakes’, who sought to smash English football’s pyramid system and thought they were too good to play teams like Villa, Everton, Bournemouth and Fulham — probably the Premier League’s four most in-form teams.
Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham showed that same arrogance and they cannot be reminded of it often enough.
Sure, Newcastle disrupted the Big Six last season and will continue to do so but the oil-rich human-rights abusers who fund Geordie Arabia will never win the nation’s affections.
Villa’s back-to-back victories over City and Arsenal — the first one impressively dominant, the second more fortuitous — leaves them two points off the top with the season almost halfway through.
Even if Villa won the league, it would be no Leicester-style miracle. They have more history, money and quality than those 2016 Foxes.
Ranieri’s men were relegation favourites, with their 5,000-1 price so fanciful that no bookie will ever offer such odds against anyone winning anything ever again.
Ranieri’s Leicester made everyone believers for a while after their shock title winCredit: PA WIRE
Villa are former European champions, who finished seventh last season, under a serial trophy-winner in Emery.
But they are still the closest thing to Leicester since Leicester.
And if they continue to be a part of the title argument, Villa would be a team for the nation — except for supporters of their immediate West Midlands rivals — to coalesce around.
It’s easy to find things to like about Villa — from the atmosphere of their stately home ground, to an amiable manager who was wronged by plenty of us during his doomed spell at Arsenal.
John McGinn — man of the match against City and scorer of the winning goal against Arsenal — is one of those rare current Premier League footballers you could imagine enjoying a couple of pints with.
Ollie Watkins is not only an impressive striker but also a thoroughly decent bloke who has worked his way up through all four divisions at Exeter and Brentford.
Along with Ezri Konsa, he’s a man from the pyramid Villa’s title rivals had hoped to destroy.
Leon Bailey is a wonderful watch and a perma-smiled dude who seems to cherish his work.
And Argentinian World Cup-winning keeper Emi Martinez is a lovable rascal who, when questioned about Villa’s title credentials by a Match of the Day interviewer, replied ‘I’m a believer, mate’, in something resembling a Cockney accent.
Not many outside the Villa squad are believers just yet — their away record is patchy and their squad lacks a little depth.
But Emery’s team are a force for good in a league too often dominated by sheer wealth.
And, thanks to Leicester, none of us should ever again completely rule out anything.
Martinez is a believer tooCredit: gETTY