By Sam Diss
06 Apr 2016
As we file down Whitehorse Lane towards Selhurst Park today, something strange is happening. At odds with the venom usually reserved for rival supporters, the Crystal Palace fans are cheering the visiting Leicester City fans.
The home team may be at the opposite end of the league table to today’s opponents and are in desperate need of a win, but as the fans all mix together outside the ground, chatting animatedly and eating cheesy chips, the mood is one of collective optimism and jubilance.
As I’m talking to Dave, a Leicester City fan of 60 years, clad in his team’s royal blue, we’re interrupted by a middle-aged West Indian man in a Crystal Palace shirt.
“Win the league for us, yeah?” he beams. “Don’t win today. But win the league for us.”
We cheer as he goes on down the road to the ground. Close by, Palace stewards in fluoro-orange vests laugh and sing along with the drunken chants of two young Leicester fans: “Jamie Vardy’s having a party! Jamie Vardy’s having a party!”
“ Win the league for us, yeah? Don’t win today. But win the league for us! ”
The reason for the strange but wonderful atmosphere today – an atmosphere that is following Leicester City around wherever they go at present – is, of course, down to the fact that Dave’s team of perpetually mid-table, relatively unmonied underdogs might genuinely be about to win the Premier League. And it’s not just the Foxes’ fans who want them to do it.
“The kudos and love flowing our way at the moment is overwhelming,” says Derek Hammond, Leicester fan and co-author of cult football books Got, Not Got and The Lost World Of Football. “Everyone who isn’t a Spurs or an Arsenal fan or a special kind of intransigent ‘Big Five’ fan is touched by the possibility of witnessing the biggest upset in the history of football. I think this will have a lasting effect.”
The Giant Killers
Some context. At the start of the 2015/16 season, Leicester were 5,000/1 to win the Premier League. Had you put two hundred quid on them in August, you’d now potentially be a month away from your first million. But before they were top of the league at Christmas, before they went five points clear with seven games left in the most competitive league in the world, this was a very different club.
During the past 50 years, Leicester have been flung around the divisions with the wanton abandon of a drunk swinging a traffic cone. They enjoyed brief top-flight respite in the mid-to-late Nineties when their cultish team featured the young, bruising Emile Heskey, the shrew-eyed finisher Tony Cottee and the wild-eyed gusto of Neil Lennon. Managed by Martin O’Neill, they won a few cups and secured some decent league positions.
But it wouldn’t last. In May 2002, they were relegated from the Premier League just two months before they were due to open their new £37m stadium, then called The Walkers Stadium. When club legend Gary Lineker arrived in a Walkers crisps lorry to open the new ground with a customary snip of some ribbon, the club was about to enter a serious state of flux. Immediate promotion from Division One in the 2002-03 season was undone by relegation the next. The combination of the huge construction bill, the transfer window destroying the British transfer market, and ITV Digital (remember that?) turning into a black hole, the club went into receivership. While they would eventually regain their financial balance, they wouldn’t return to the top flight for another 11 years. For a decade they were just another forgotten club with a big, gleaming stadium languishing a few rungs down the footballing ladder.
“As far back as I can remember,” says Joe Perera, a student at Leeds and a lifelong Leicester fan, “we’ve always been crap.”
Rise of the Empire
Last season, Leicester’s first back in the top flight, success came only in fits and starts under the uneasy management of Nigel Pearson. His team were frequently exciting, but he was sacked in June 2015 after a violent touchline bust-up and a relationship with the board that was deemed “no longer viable”.
In came Claudio Ranieri. Formerly the manager of Chelsea, Ranieri arrived in Leicester off the back of a calamitous run managing the Greek national team. At the start of the 2015-16 season, league survival was top of the team’s agenda.
“I was really worried,” says Hugh O’Grady, another fan from Hinckley, Leicestershire. “I thought, ‘Here’s another big name manager without experience of the Premier League relegation dogfight.’ I thought it would be a disaster.”
To many fans, the signing had echoes of Sven-Göran Eriksson’s appointment as Foxes manager in 2010. The ex-England boss and one of the most successful managers of the modern football era was a glamorous A-list signing who was, sadly, doomed from the start. Nobody took it very seriously – least of all Sven, it seemed – and he was gone within the year.
“ If Leicester win the Premier League, how can we ever again, as a species, believe that anything is impossible? ”
But those fans were wrong to draw comparisons. Leicester have continued winning and winning, while playing with style, effectiveness and consistency. In Jamie Vardy they have the league’s most dynamic striker. In Riyad Mahrez they have the league’s most exciting dribbler. In Danny Drinkwater they have found a genuine deep-lying playmaker, the likes of which football critics thought long dead in this country.
Together they cost Leicester less than £2m. That equates to roughly two months of Wayne Rooney’s basic salary. With the addition of N’Golo Kanté (the league’s best defensive midfielder) and endlessly industrious Japanese international Shinji Okazaki, Leicester’s squad comprises largely the same players as last year – but what they’ve been doing this season has been truly extraordinary.
Having spent very little money by Premier League standards, the Foxes have ended up with a perfectly balanced side, which is too often taken for granted. In this climate of hideous wealth and Financial Fair Play loopholes, where hundreds of millions of pounds are thrown at problems in the hope they just go away, Leicester are pretty much reinventing the wheel.
Leicester’s journey is best encapsulated by Jamie Vardy. Just four years ago, he was playing non-league football for Fleetwood Town, staring part-time football in the face. Now he holds the record for scoring in the most consecutive Premier League games. This summer, injuries permitting, he’ll represent his country at Euro 2016. He’s had his lauded highs and equally headline-grabbing lows (“I don’t think Vardy is racist,” says Leicester fan Iqbal, referencing a particularly insensitive comment from Vardy to a Japanese tourist that was caught on video. “He’s just ignorant. He’s just a footballer – I guess as long as he plays well, and doesn’t do anything too bad…”), and his life story is likely to be made into a movie before too long.
Aged 29, this is probably Vardy’s final high in a tough career. He’s gone from playing for Stocksbridge Park Steels reserves for £30 a week to being a key member of Roy Hodgson’s England team in just eight seasons. That sort of ascent doesn’t come around very often, and has been helped by the perfect combination of tactics, teamwork and a manager who’s both patient and brave.
“ This season will never happen again… We have to accept that next season will be completely different. ”
And this is key: unusually for a sh*t-hot attacker, one of Vardy’s key strengths is that he is a team player. “Teams set up differently to prevent him scoring for fun,” says Gary Silke, the long-time editor of Leicester fanzine The Fox and the other half of the Got, Not Got team. “But he keeps ticking over and contributing assists. And his [being] double marked has just let others in. This shift has coincided with pundits realising there are several good players at City, not just one.”
And here is the simple truth: that this is a potential triumph born out of teamwork. For all the headline-grabbing attacking football, Leicester City have built a team that don’t look like conceding many goals either. Pulled together on a tight budget, comprised mostly of second-string players from “bigger” teams, they form the perfect base for the exciting players in front of them.
Once regarded as another player trading off a famous family name, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel has been constant and consistent, effective at shot-stopping and launching counterattacks that hit teams when they’re at their weakest. Centre-backs Robert Huth and Wes Morgan have gone from bench-warmer and lower-league stalwart respectively, to proving themselves to be among the most dependable pairings in English football’s top division.
“Vardy, Mahrez or Kanté could easily be voted the Premier League’s Player Of The Season,” says Silke. “And so could Morgan, Huth or Drinkwater… [but] it will probably have to go to a player in London or Manchester, though. We can’t have everything.”
Hoping and praying
Back amid the bustle outside Selhurst Park, if you dig deeper into the infectious optimism of the fans, you’ll also find a sense of realistic caution. “This season will never happen again,” says one supporter, Vish. “We have to accept that next season will be completely different.”
His friend Neil adds: “We just want top three, I don’t care what else. Let’s just enjoy all this now and enjoy the Champions League next year. Kanté and Mahrez could leave, and everything could change. I think we’ve shown that we deserve to be in this league, but we’re not going to be a ‘Top Five’ club very often.”
There’s a sense of collective breath being held, of: ‘Surely this can’t happen to us.’ When we tried to contact ardent Leicester fan and Kasabian guitarist Serge Pizzorno, he said he didn’t want to talk about this season at all for fear of jinxing the whole thing. It encapsulates the great chip on the shoulder of all those clubs outside the country’s traditional heavy-hitters: a sense of imposter syndrome. Fans know – or think they know – that at any point the wheels could fall off and the side they love will quickly retreat back into the footballing ghettos.
“Hopefully, Leicester City will earn enough from their heroics to strengthen, and hopefully they’ll continue to embarrass and humiliate the bigger clubs,” says UK football writer Iain Macintosh. “Much depends on the mentality of their players. Will they want to cash in on this one season? And much, of course, will depend on which players come in. You only have to look at what happened to Ipswich Town a few years ago to see how fickle and punishing football can be.”
Perhaps the diehard fans are right not to assume. But the rest of us? The rest of us just need to concentrate on willing the unthinkable into reality. Because as Macintosh also says, Leicester City pulling this off could change everything. “And not just the dynamic of the Premier League,” he says. “This could change the dynamic of humanity itself.”
“If Leicester win the Premier League, how can we ever again, as a species, believe that anything is impossible?”
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