Alan Shearer says he knew exactly when it was time to leave Blackburn Rovers. It was the summer after they won the league. The club made two signings in that period. Adam Reed, a £200,000 central defender from Darlington, and West Ham midfielder Matty Holmes for £1.2million.
A couple of others arrived through the season, but nobody who indicated that Blackburn were taking their status as champions seriously. Kenny Dalglish, the manager, became director of football — one presumes because he could see the direction in which the club was headed, too.
They had done enough. They had done what no one thought possible. Blackburn Rovers had won the league. And they were happy with that, Shearer believed.
It was as if the work was over. Jack Walker, Blackburn’s benefactor, had realised a lifelong dream, and now the club would start thinking like, well, Blackburn again.
Shearer remained another year — indeed he finished top scorer once more with 31 Premier League goals — but he was already convinced his future lay elsewhere. Blackburn finished seventh and the following summer he joined Newcastle for £15m.
Ray Harford succeeded Dalglish as Blackburn’s manager. His first problem was what to do about the left wing, where Jason Wilcox had suffered a serious injury after 27 games of the title-winning season. He was unlikely to play for at least half of the following campaign, too, and wide play was vital to Blackburn’s style.
Harford asked more than once for the funds to replace Wilcox, even short-term. Each time he was refused. Walker wanted to remain loyal to a player who came through Blackburn’s youth system.
It was a noble attitude, but no use to a team trying to defend its title and entering the Champions League for the first time in its history. Blackburn lost four of their first five group games in that tournament, and did not win until the final dead rubber with Rosenborg at home, on December 6.
And although the polite thing to do would be to let Leicester have their homecoming party against Everton on Saturday before thinking about the future, football is not a polite business.
Other clubs are already making plans and formulating policy. By the time the cleaners have been through Jamie Vardy’s place, Leicester have to know what they want to be.
Not Blackburn, that is for certain. Within a year of winning the title, Blackburn were on a downward trajectory that has proved irreversible in any meaningful way since.
By the end of the 1998-99 season they had been relegated, and although they have returned to the Premier League subsequently, it has never been to contest the title or even the top four places.
They are 15th in the Championship, and looking for a manager who will be their 14th since Dalglish’s departure. And, without care, Leicester could go the same way. Claudio Ranieri, ever the realist, talks of trying to stay in the top half of the table next season.
No matter the fight in the dog, Leicester are a small club. What they have achieved this year is little short of miraculous.
Elite teams with every financial advantage are right now licking their wounds and regrouping to make sure this never happens again.
And there are plenty of them: Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, all thinking they should be good enough to win the league.
Below that band, West Ham, Everton, Southampton, all believing they could be the next Leicester. That’s close to a top half right there. Sit still to drink it all in, and Leicester could be back where they started. And all this before they factor in the colossal commitment of the Champions League.
A short while ago, Emile Heskey, one of the club’s famous sons — it’s not a limitless supply, so they’re getting quite a lot of work, these lads — was asked whether the club needed to spend big next season.
‘Not really,’ he said. ‘It’s difficult because if they bring in marquee signings, they risk hurting the philosophy Ranieri has put in place. He has a good set-up. If he starts chopping and changing with personnel who don’t really fit, he’s going to start causing trouble.’
Yet if he doesn’t, Leicester are sunk. Nobody is expecting a second title challenge. The 5,000-1 price offered at the start of this season would be almost as valid for the next campaign, and for the same reasons. The stellar names, the vast budgets, the cutting-edge coaches, all will be lined up against Leicester, just as they were this season.
Then there is the possibility that players such as N’Golo Kante receive tempting offers from elsewhere. So Leicester improve, or this is a fleeting moment in time. Just to maintain that top-half position, they will have to make changes.
Not a Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Leicester don’t have to spend £300,000 a week on wages, or ditch what has made them great for superstars eyeing the last big cheque before a move to China. Yet there must be more to it than Darlington’s player of the year.
The same scouting acumen that recruited Kante and saw the potential in Riyad Mahrez must be at work shaping a squad for a whole new raft of challenges.
At the very least, European football requires additional personnel. Ranieri won’t get away with unchanged starting XIs next season. He will have to be a tinkerman again, have to find a way of doing without the odd stalwart when Burnley come to town, if the following Tuesday brings a trip to Moscow.
Mike Ashley has plenty of regrets about his time at Newcastle, but his biggest is that the year they came fifth in the league, 2012, he chose not to improve the squad.
Ashley adhered to the old line about not fixing what isn’t broken, and thought a group of players good enough to qualify for Europe would benefit from the experience and be even better the following year. Newcastle finished 16th and were fighting relegation for much of the season.
It is a myth that a football club stands still if it doesn’t invest. It goes backwards, because the clubs around it get better.
And, yes, perhaps it is inevitable that Leicester fall back after such an incredible campaign. The bigger question is how far would constitute a palatable fall?
They wouldn’t want to be Blackburn. Nobody would want to be Blackburn. At the risk of shutting down the music at a very good party, Leicester cannot afford to drink this in for too long.
With thanks and apologies to Martin Samuel Daily Mail