Stupefied to a mutter by Sven

After more than four decades watching football, it’s delightful, if professionally inconvenient, to know that the game can still stupefy me.

How do you feel about having Sven as manager? It’s a question I get asked everyday. And I always mutter something non-committal under my breath because the truth is I don’t know.

This is in itself an alarming state of affairs for someone who has been writing about football for 16 years. As a football journalist, you’re paid to have opinions, even – or should that be especially? – when you don’t have one.

Milan Mandaric, Eriksson and Aiyawatt Raksriaksorn

But how I do feel about Sven? On hearing the news, I was flummoxed by the surrealism of it all. It is easily the strangest thing to happen to my beloved Foxes since Leicester Fosse – as they were then known – notoriously lost a penalty shoot-out to an elephant. In the 1890s, four players took on a jumbo-sized goalkeeper from Sangers Circus with an oversized ball: only one, William Keach, managed to score.

Part of me smelled a hoax. Leicester had inadvertently been embroiled in football farce before. In Joe McGinniss’s sublime The Miracle Of Castel di Sangro, the village team that has somehow reached the dizzying heights of Serie B signs a promising African striker who is said to have played for Leicester City but astounds McGinniss by vowing, at his first press conference, to sleep with all the players' wives. The ‘Leicester striker’ turns out to be an uninspired publicity stunt by the club’s demented owner.

Even when I realised Sven was no hoax, I couldn't shake the feeling that City had been press-ganged into playing a largely unrewarding cameo role in someone else’s sitcom. This worry was partly inspired by the fact that I – along with, I suspect, many other Britons – could no longer distinguish between the man himself and Alastair MacGowan’s doleful, hen-pecked, ineffectual Sven.

So the mere mention of Sven as City boss prompted visions of McGowan in the dug-out and Ronnie Ancona’s Nancy in the director’s box, secretly texting her roving other half a series of increasingly furious reprimands about his latest peccadillo.

The confusion sounds absurd and yet at the same time it has the ring of symbolic truth. The Sven who won Serie A with Lazio, became the first coach to win the league and cup double in three countries (Sweden, Portugal and Italy) and did a half-decent job at Manchester City seems to bear no relation to the Sven who turned up in the east Midlands as the figurehead of the tinpot regime that briefly gave Notts County fans ideas above their station.

So which Sven had Leicester City hired? And was his appointment – and the investment by Thai duty-free retailer King Power – merely just the cruellest of false dawns?

After the 1-1 draw against Hull (managed by Nigel Pearson, who left City in the summer – possibly in a row over transfer funds, in a move which will surely stymie his prospects of a minor Premier League job in the next year or two), neither of these questions has been answered.

If I couldn’t decide how I felt about Sven I should, at least, be able to construct the kind of pithy riposte with which such enquiries are usually greeted in the workplace. But even that seemed beyond me.

My next thought was that I’d rather have Jimmy Bloomfield but he is sadly unavailable on account of having died of cancer in 1983 at the shockingly young age of 48. In the early 1970s, Bloomfield’s City – studded with such geniuses as Frank Worthington, Keith Weller, Alan Birchenall, Peter Shilton, David Nish, Jon Sammels and Len Glover – made me gasp as well as cheer.

In Julian Barnes’s seminal novel A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, the narrator ascends to heaven where his beloved Leicester City win the FA Cup every year. (Note that even in a fantasy of paradise, Leicester only win the FA Cup – not the Premier League, let alone the European Cup. It’s as if the most inventive British novelist of his generation had decided that, even in a fictional utopia, to suggest that City would win the European Cup was just too outlandish.)

When I reread the book – something I do every other year – the City side I envisage monopolising the FA Cup is the one I first saw with uncle Ron and cousin Mick in the early 1970s in which the magnificent seven – Shilton, Nish, Weller, Sammels, Worthington, Birchenall and Glover – were ably supported by the likes of Dennis Rofe, Steve Whitworth, Graham Cross and Rodney Fern, who revealed in his Shoot! questionnaire that the person he’d most like to meet was Lester Piggott.

As I write this, I’m becoming accustomed to the idea of Sven. The real Sven. That’s partly because even the briefest scrutiny of the list of Leicester City managers confirms just how dire Paulo Sousa’s replacement could have been. Mark McGhee? Craig Levein, latterly famed as the pioneer of the new, shortlived 4-2-4-0 formation? The second coming of Gary ‘Suitcase’ Megson?

So my stupefaction is over. Sven will do. He’s a darn sight more encouraging than the return of Megson and not quite as bizarre as a penalty shoot-out with an elephant. (Mind you, if City’s new Thai backers are as hungry for publicity as some suggest, why not restage this classic conflict between player and pachyderm?)

But if you pinched me tomorrow and told me that Sven of the Foxes had been a dream, a hoax or a new Radio 4 satire like Lenin of the Rovers, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.