The Premier League's fascination with the 'hallmarks of champions'
Somewhere near the end of March seemed like the perfect moment for a familiar phrase in an unconventional season. "Leicester have all the hallmarks of Premier League champions," a Telegraph headline declared last week, under which writer Sam Wallace noted that "although they are not scoring freely, their defensive organisation, at the back and in midfield, makes them very had to break down."
Leicester's no-frills, all-hands-to-the-pump win at Crystal Palace last Saturday provoked a burst of talk about the "hallmark of champions" -- that is ... well, what is it?
Recent history suggests that it is a down-and-dirty 1-0 win away to an awkward opponent, serving to ruggedly prove a side's title-race staying power once and for all. It's enshrined in Premier League tradition. The rubber stamp of title worthiness, only available from the turn of spring, and only when a particular type of fixture is won in a particularly gritty way.
Fascination and anticipation has begun to turn into preemptive reflection as we wrestle with the idea of Leicester City as the kings of England. We asked if they might win it. Then if they could win it. Now, the consensus is that they should, with that all-important hallmark of champions safely secured.
A rubicon seemed to have been crossed at Selhurst Park. Michael Cox wrote for ESPN FC that their fourth 1-0 win in five games "was an impressively unfussy, controlled victory from a team now winning in the manner of champions," and the Press Association's Rob Harris also noted that "Leicester's defensive doggedness throughout the second half was the hallmark of champions."
The supposed late-season characteristics of title-winners-to-be are well-worn, to put it mildly. The oldest of old adages, that winning without playing well is the stuff of champions, breaks down into a muddy, bloody collection of habits, such as grinding out results, popping up with late goals and the odd slice of luck.
The origins of the "hallmark of champions" mantra are surprisingly recent. In 2005, Jose Mourinho's Chelsea 1.0 produced the 1-0 win that was perhaps the prototype for all future hallmark of champions endurance tests. A visit to blustery Ewood Park, to face Mark Hughes' combative Blackburn Rovers, only yielded three points when Petr Cech saved a penalty, goalscorer Arjen Robben was hacked out of the game and, finally, Mourinho instructed his players to throw their shirts to the travelling fans.
However, a cursory Google search suggests it took another three years for the media to coin the hallmark phrase, when United's Michael Carrick happily admitted that "it's not all about the nice 4-0 or 5-0 wins. I'll always take a 1-0 win ... they all count." In that 2007-08 season, Sir Alex Ferguson's side won a gruelling eight out of 11 league games by that most glamorous of scorelines during the mid-winter, and it had become accepted football wisdom to consider that as the dogged work of title-winners.
The single-goal win, rather than being a sign of nerves or a lack of killer instinct, has become a springtime badge of honour. "How many times have I said to you about 1-0? What does it mean? It means championship form," said Ferguson of his Manchester United side in March 2012, seven ominous weeks before Manchester City instead crossed almost every box of the Premier League winners' bingo card with some dramatic final-day heroics against QPR.
The title-race context appears to be crucial. These ostensibly champion-worthy "hallmarks" are rarely identified in the autumn or winter, when such battling qualities are arguably more important but when the dynamic of the run-in is yet to be fully formed. It's not how you start, after all, it's how you finish -- and Leicester's crossing of the finish line is the most eagerly anticipated in many a season. The verifiable hallmark of champions tends to kick in at the climax of a long campaign, where a forgettable 1-0 win becomes the acceptable means to an ever-closer end.
Just as Usain Bolt was equally impressive when coasting over the line for a world record as he was in accelerating there in the first place, there appears to be a special place in Premier League hearts for performances in the final stretch that simply do just enough.
Adam Hurrey analyses the language of football. You can follow him on Twitter: @FootballCliches.