In theory, a simple flip of a coin can create a parallel universe, one where the world is exactly the same for all intents and purposes but an alternative outcome prevails. The initial act may seem largely insignificant, perhaps heads decides you do your shopping at Aldi rather than Sainsbury’s this week, but the resulting consequences could be huge; in another universe where your hand grasps the coin tails-up, for example, you go on to meet the love of your life in the vegetables aisle at Sainsbury’s.
Then again, perhaps the love of your life makes an inviting pun about parsnips and your response is polite yet dismissive – the romance fails to blossom and another parallel universe is forged. It’s all sliding doors with infinite possibilities, created by delicate moments in the tapestry of time that could have swung either way. Who knows how many alternative timelines are out there; who knows which one is the original; and who knows which one we belong to.
In the context of the Premier League’s rich 25-year history of title charges, two stories run eerily parallel with polarising outcomes; Newcastle’s much-fabled failed march under Kevin Keegan in 1995/96 and Leicester City’s miraculous clinching of the English crown, even more eerily, exactly two decades later.
Prior to their respective title bids, the two clubs had won just a single top-flight honour between them post-World War 2 and both were in the second division just a matter of years previously – in fact, the Foxes even spent one campaign in League One. They were both amongst the unlikeliest of candidates to threaten the established Premier League order, yet found themselves doing precisely that – albeit one eventually more successfully than the other.
1994/95 winners Blackburn Rovers fall into that category as well, but unfortunately blur this particular narrative. Perhaps in a parallel universe, a more capable writer has created an allegory that comfortably fits all three.
Of course, there are huge differences between Keegan’s Newcastle and the Leicester side Claudio Ranieri created after inheriting a team of relegation survivors from Nigel Pearson, but that’s exactly what makes them opposite sides of the same coin.
Heads; a Magpies team built on the idea of turning every football match into a shootout with goals provided from all over the pitch, devout in the belief their attacking principles would prevail. Tails; the counter-attacking Foxes throwing back to the era of 4-4-2, combining grit, determination, organisation and dark defensive arts with sheer explosivity and potency on the break. Two teams created by philosophies at opposing ends of the spectrum, taking on the same challenge and leading to differing outcomes.
Which begs the question of who is the coin itself rather than the two contrasting faces – a role that falls upon the doorstep of Liverpool. Indeed, amid two campaigns two decades apart, it was the Reds who served as the deciding factor, in one instance ending the dreams of thousands of Newcastle fans and in the other, inadvertently lifting Leicester to an unprecedented level of belief in their own abilities that the rest of Premier League failed to bring them down from.
Liverpool and Newcastle faced each other in the top flight this weekend and as is always the case when these two sides meet, the fixture reminds us all of arguably the greatest game in Premier League history, an incredible ninety minutes at Anfield made all the more iconic by Keegan’s infamous rant in the build-up juxtaposed by the image of him collapsed over the advertising hoardings as Stan Collymore’s stoppage-time winner essentially eliminated the Magpies from the title race. A seven-goal thriller containing fascinating football, intoxicating subplots and the most dramatic end possible, it’s a game that epitomises everything we like to think the Premier League stands for.
Liverpool’s role in Leicester’s season perhaps isn’t so obvious, but that doesn’t mean it was any less significant. When the Foxes beat the Reds 2-0 at the King Power Stadium, they were still four months and 13 games away from winning the title, requiring a further 27 points to get over the line – not to mention Chelsea holding the next best the Premier League had to offer that season, Tottenham Hotspur, to a draw in a foul-tempered title decider at Stamford Bridge.
That too could have panned out incredibly differently; in a parallel universe, it could be Tottenham’s season that becomes discussed as the defining fairy tale of the Premier League era, albeit a considerably less miraculous one.
But until that point, the only members of the big six Leicester had actually beaten were a down-and-out Chelsea, whose defeat lead to Jose Mourinho’s dismissal, and Tottenham Hotspur in a 1-0 victory that hinged on a rear-guard display and a late winner afrom Robert Huth. The 2-0 win over Liverpool was a different category altogether, not least because it required an incredibly special goal from Jamie Vardy, latching onto a Riyad Mahrez through ball and hitting a rasping shot on the half-volley that lobbed a helpless Simon Mignolet.
Leicester may have already spent ten matchdays at the top by that point, but the result confirmed their rise was more than simply an extended honeymoon period under Ranieri. It announced them as not only title contenders but amid a season in which the Premier League’s biggest clubs were all caught in their own individual disarrays, also the title favourites. The confidence the win provided became truly clear in the next fixture, when Leicester went to the Etihad Stadium and claimed a 3-1 victory over Manchester City. Barring a last-minute 2-1 defeat to Arsenal after going down to ten men, the rest of Leicester’s season went without hiccup.
Liverpool played an integral part in that, equally as integral as their influence on ending Newcastle’s title hopes; just as one flip of the coin resulted in the Magpies falling short, the consequence of the other was putting Leicester into the ascendency. And in many ways, that role makes sense for Liverpool; as the biggest and most successful club not to win a Premier League title, they’ve almost become the gate-keepers of that honour during the past 25 years. If you can beat the Reds in a title-chasing campaign, you’ve got a pretty good chance of claiming the crown. Leicester could and Newcastle couldn’t.
Yet, in another parallel universe, the outcomes could easily be reversed. Newcastle would still have been lagging behind Manchester United in the table with just a handful of games still to go, but had it not been for Collymore’s late winner, they may have just done enough to shift the pressure back onto the Red Devils. United’s dominance of the English game for the next 15 years may never have happened.
Likewise, for all the deadliness Leicester showed against Liverpool twenty years later, it was a match that saw them have just 36% possession and score two goals that firstly required a once-in-a-lifetime strike from Vardy and then a moment of good fortune as Shinji Okazaki’s slip inadvertently put the ball into the path of the onrushing England international for his second. The game could have just as easily ended scoreless or even in defeat; just like the result against Newcastle, that too would have changed the complexion of Leicester’s season. In fact, defeat would have seen them drop to second place behind Manchester City on goal difference. The dynamics of the title race would have significantly altered.
Should such a thing truly exist, it’s impossible to imagine how many parallel universes the Premier League has created, such as been the unpredictability of the top flight over the past 25 years. But the tales of Newcastle and Leicester feel so interlinked, it’s as if they do represent opposing faces of the same coin – negative reflections of each other, with Liverpool providing the line of symmetry.
Had a more competent Reds turned up against Leicester, and had a less competent Liverpool failed to find a last-minute winner against Newcastle, their fortunes could be reversed.
Perhaps in a parallel universe, that’s exactly how it went down.