Toast of the town

LEICESTER – The sun was beating down on the city of Leicester on a day it will never forget.

On May 6, 2016, the city’s club, Leicester City FC, lifted the top-flight title for the first time in its 132-year history.

In the place where King Richard III’s remains were found in 2012 and reburied in 2015 amid huge headlines, there hasn’t been much else in the past which rivaled the spotlight that the club has  received over the past nine months.

The world now knows where the city of Leicester is, along with the local club’s players and manager who delivered the Premier League title. After facing 5000-to-1 odds to secure the title last summer, the group is now immortal.

This is the tale of the biggest party in the East Midlands city’s history and how this season will never, ever, be forgotten.

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Wandering around the streets on the morning of Leicester City’s final home game against Everton, after which they would receive the Premier League trophy, the party was already in full flow. It had been brewing for quite a few days.

The club’s flag was flapping from the flagpole at the city’s famous cathedral. Shop windows were dressed in blue and white with the messages mostly stating, simply, #backingtheblues. Pictures of the players and manager Claudio Ranieri were hanging from lampposts across the main streets in the city.

A huge band of Italian fans were rampaging around the streets singing songs about Ranieri and Co. Many had arrived in England that morning from all over Italy as they wore shirts of every Italian club imaginable. They had flown over simply to celebrate the Italian manager’s achievements and their presence certainly added something special to the occasion.

The global appeal of the Foxes’ story has been remarkable. Over the past few months, during multiple trips to Leicester, I’d heard tales about Foxes fandom from the U.S. to Thailand, Iceland to Australia and many other places as the bandwagon rattled along. Locals were amazed by becoming headline news around the globe.

Pubs were packed in the city way before noon. Down the cobbled side streets, which led from the already bustling market, the local taverns enticed fans in – they didn’t have to try hard. As evidenced below, the waterholes often paid tribute to the club’s stars for advertisements.

One group of fans let off blue flares and chanted “Championes, Championes, ole, ole, ole!” as camera crews descended on Leicester’s already-bustling side streets. There was still over five hours until kickoff.

To try and explain the atmosphere, think of teams from the same North American city winning the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup on the same night, then about the celebrations which would follow. You’d be about halfway to the mood and scenes here.

Outside The Globe pub, which has been around since 1720, one man stood on his own, in the local club’s shirt, holding a pint as he leaned against a lamppost. Groups of fans were laughing and joking and this one guy was just stood there taking it all in.

His name was John Reading, and the 64-year-old man was overcome with emotion when asked about his feelings.

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“It is just a dream. I’ve not stopped pinching myself, because nobody expected this. I’ve seen them lose four FA Cup finals, knocked out of the playoffs. And this is, it’s not… it’s not real. It is not real,” Reading said, shaking his head as his voice quivered. “I know how this story is going all over the world which is amazing. I’m getting choked up thinking about it.”

Reading then wiped his eyes. A grown man in his 60s was moved to tears just at the thought of what his club has achieved this season. That shows you just how much it means to the local supporters.

It is a city with a proper representation of England’s multicultural past and present. It has a diverse population and is the first city in England to have less than 50 percent of its population identify itself as “white British.”

Members of the local Sikh community handed out free samosas to fans before the game. Drummers roamed in and among the crowds outside the stadium playing traditional music. It is a city which may have had issues with different communities clashing in the past but according to the many citizens I spoke to, this title success has brought everyone together.

Outside King Power Stadium before the game, Dips Patel, his sister and his two cousins celebrated in the streets.

Dips, 32, was born just around the corner at the Leicester infirmary. He was living out the greatest day in the club’s history like he never wanted it to end.

“Unbelievable. In my lifetime, I’m almost 33, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Patel said. “I was born and bred here, we all were, and I’ve been supporting Leicester since I was a little kid. I was born in the infirmary around the corner.

“We are on the map. The whole world knows small, little Leicester City. Three hundred thousand is our population. All cultures, all communities, all ages, all races… it has brought the city together. You can see it. It has done what the Olympics in 2012 did for London. This is the same, if not bigger and better. It has put us on the map.”

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Now that the city and its club are on the map, the expectation levels will, inevitably, increase. However, among Leicester’s fans there is an acceptance that it was somewhat of a perfect storm which saw them win the title this season.

Yes, Riyad Mahrez has been magic, Jamie Vardy has been clinical and N’Golo Kante has been everywhere, but the perennial giants (Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and last year’s champions Chelsea) all having a down year at the same time certainly played a big part in their success.

With that in mind, where can Leicester finish in the PL next season with Champions League qualification causing somewhat of a distraction?

“It doesn’t matter. The only thing is, as long as we don’t get relegated. Which is a possibility because it has just been such an unknown season,” Reading said.

Sitting down with two lads in a pub – someone was ringing a bell, an ode to Ranieri and his now famous “Dilly-ding, dilly-dong” comments — in the heart of the celebrations around midday before the Everton game, friends Joe Longhurst and Jamie Stott, both 23 years old, couldn’t stop smiling.

They are season-ticket holders in the East Stand and chatting with their friend (who couldn’t get a ticket to the game) over yet another celebratory pint, they admitted that this season feels like a one-off.

“I think it is a one-off,” Stott said. “Next season, we will stay up, be mid-table, but this is a day we will tell our grandchildren about. We definitely won’t see this again.”

Stott is from Melton Mowbray, the town where star striker Vardy lives and where the players celebrated the title success last Monday following Tottenham’s draw at Chelsea that sealed it. The fact that club secured the title before the game against Everton meant the day of celebration could be savored that much more.

“It was crazy to be honest. I went up to Vardy’s house and the celebrations were outside his house in the street, people everywhere,” Stott said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Longhurst, grinning like a Cheshire cat, admitted that he hasn’t be able to stop smiling since his team wrapped up the title.

He also agreed with Stott and was serious when he said the Foxes must first focus on surviving in the PL before they get ahead of themselves, while also discussing the likelihood of star players leaving in the summer.

“Leicester needs to find consistency and be a Premier League team. That’s all we need, Premier League football,” Longhurst said. “We need to stay in the Premier League, that’s all we want. This is a one-off. Definitely.”

If the Foxes were relegated next season, would it sour this season’s incredible achievement?

“It doesn’t matter. I said from the start that if we get relegated, I’m fine with that,” Patel added. “But why can’t we repeat this? Dream big and be fearless. I put a bet on today, 100-1, that we win the Champions League.”

Hey, after this season, why can’t it win the Champions League next season? It’s surprising that the odds weren’t greater.

One Ladbrokes bookmaker across from the market had a sign in the window stating “Congratulations Leicester City, we’ve paid out over £3 million!” So bettors probably won’t be getting value for money out of the bookies when it comes to betting on Leicester for quite some time.

Patel has some family coming over from New Jersey next week and he’s already given them memorabilia as the word about this fairytale continues to spread.

“In America, you can get better odds on Kim Kardashian becoming the next president. We were 5000-1. That says it all. What we have done, I never thought I’d witness it in my lifetime,” Patel said. “The highlight of me being a Leicester City fan was in 1997 and 2000 when we won the League Cup and we built a statue in the town center and this is just massive.”

He added, “(Claudio) Ranieri, I had my doubts. We had the great escape with Nigel Pearson but I love him. I’d marry him. He is a god. He is unbelievable. He is a humble, down-to-earth character. Mr. Nice Guy and they say that nice people never win. He’s come second with Roma, Monaco, Chelsea. He is 64, going on 65. What a man, a true legend.”

The term “legend” gets thrown around a lot in the sporting world, but this team will become that. They are living legends.

Each player is set to get a street in the city named after them and there’s also talk of statues and even knighthoods for each of them from the Queen of England. When Wes Morgan and Ranieri lifted the trophy together, the KP stadium shook with a huge, victorious roar. This was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for the supporters to witness.

Still, many locals are worried about relegation in the 2016-17 season, which shows you just how out of the blue this season has been.

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I turned around on the platform at St. Pancras International station in London last Saturday morning and there he was, my friend from Finland, fellow journalist Eero Laurila. Over the past few months, we’ve gotten to know each other well — usually on early morning trains from London to Leicester. We smiled, laughed and joked about how the city has become our second home and in truth, it has become that way for most of the world’s soccer media.

As our train rattled through the English Midlands, he thumbed through the latest edition of the magazine for which he writes. In Finland, like everywhere, the Foxes’ success is big news. His nine-page special in the edition a few weeks back says as much.

Laurila was also in Leicester last Monday night, in the pubs watching Tottenham’s game at Chelsea with the fans. One lady won £10,000 after putting on a bet at the start of the season. The celebrations were intense last Monday, too.

“The next morning, I got the train back to London at 7 a.m. and there was an announcement, the train driver hadn’t turned up for work because he was still out celebrating the win!” Laurila said.

Since Monday night’s celebrations, the media has descended on this city. Local market sellers have become its mouthpiece to the world and Richard III’s statue has been bombarded with photos as visitors also head in town.

In the past few days, champagne has become a popular addition to breakfast, pubs have been working overtime to stock up for the weekend’s celebrations and, as the sun beat down on the city on the day the trophy arrived, it felt like this was meant to be. Everything had come together. Free beer, special edition packets of Walkers crisps were handed out to celebrate the win and free pizza was also flying around. It was everything you’d expect, and more.

“Party all day today, sleep it off tomorrow and then back to work on Monday,” Reading said of his plan. “Today is the day. Everybody is going to be partying. We’ve got a famous singer coming to sing. It is going to be amazing.”

That famous singer was world renowned tenor Andrea Bocelli. And it was amazing. Bocelli had promised his fellow Italian Ranieri that he would perform if they won the title. As he stood on the center spot with Ranieri before the game, wearing a Leicester City shirt belting out “Nessun Dorma” and “Con te Partiro,” it was like a dream. How has this happened?

“We are the center of the universe,” Patel said, laughing as he held his beer into the air triumphantly. “Forget the headlines news on the EU referendum, forget the NHS, forget the Mayor of London. This is Leicester. We are No. 1. We are all celebrating, we are all partying, the police are onboard, entire families, wives… everyone.”

Not everyone could get into the stadium, though. Dips and his family watched in the bar at the packed hotel across from the KP stadium, while thousands of others roamed around the streets watching in pubs. Others had more inventive ways of getting in.

Graham Illife, 68 years old, is a lifelong fan of the team, but his only way in to the KP rested on the goodwill of the visiting fans.

“The idea was that when the Everton fans arrived on the buses, I would say, ‘Look, I’ve supported Leicester for 60 years, you can have these programs and 60 quid. That’s all I’ve got. I’m retired,’” explained Illife.

“This old Everton fan came over and I told him and he said ‘here you are mate, it says 40 quid on it, give me 40 quid.’ And I said here’s my programs and he said don’t worry about it. Then I shook his hand like I’ve never shook a hand before. It just shows you how football fans can be.”

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The friendliness of fans was portrayed in that story, but it hasn’t always been like that. Before this season, my only two visits to this city were as a fan many years ago.

I experienced hooliganism on both occasions.

The club I grew up supporting, Southampton, was a second-tier team, like Leicester, and after each game at the King Power Stadium I experienced violence. First, as my bus rolled through the city streets, it was pelted with bricks, some fans opened the doors underneath the bus and ripped up the front door and punched the driver in the face. Our bus drove into the back of another and I honestly thought I was going to get ambushed.

I remember a guy in front of me on the bus saying “get your coat, let’s go and sort them out!” and I just looked at him like he had two heads. By now, there was a baying mob outside our bus as we were stuck in traffic in the heart of Leicester. It was not good. I had no interest in leaving the bus.

Eventually, due to police intervention, we escaped and made it home, but police investigations followed.

On my second trip to this city a few years later, a lot of the same team we’re seeing now were playing for the Foxes. They beat Southampton 3-2, and on my way out of the stadium, one fan jumped in my face, tried to headbutt me and pushed others as Leicester fans piled into the away supporters.

As you can imagine, I tried not to let my view of this city become skewed by those previous trips. It hasn’t. Like many of the provincial cities in the United Kingdom, the locals are hugely passionate and protective of their team. Leicester have a huge rivalry with other East Midlands clubs such as Nottingham Forest and Derby County, while Chelsea and others have historic rivalries which go way back. I’ve heard legendary tales of fans running the daunting gauntlet of the streets in and around the club’s old Filbert Road stadium.

But there was a different atmosphere in the streets Saturday.

“After the game, we were outside the stadium for a few hours. Singing, dancing, having fun. Not a single ounce of trouble even though lots of booze had been consumed,” Patel reflected. “On the way in to town you couldn’t get hold of a cab. On the 15-minute walk we continued on partying. Car horns going, shouting, chanting. A sea of flags in blue and scarves. Unbelievable scenes. After 12 hours of partying, drinking, shouting, loads of emotions, tiredness, we simply carried on into the night… as our team has done all season.”

As I walked over a mile from the KP back toward the center of town, it was like walking along the Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro or Las Ramblas in Barcelona after a big win for their respective teams.

Fans weaved in and out of traffic. Cars honked their horns incessantly as fans hung out of windows, waving flags. The party had been building to this moment all day.

Is this the biggest party Leicester has ever seen? Speaking to Illife and his son, Chris, 32 years old, who had traveled down from Scotland just to be in the city, they agreed it was.

“Yes, this is the biggest party by far,” Graham said. “Nothing comes close to it.”

“It was an amazing day, the atmosphere was special and it was great to just see everyone smiling and chanting,” Longhurst said. “The whole of Leicester was buzzing until the early hours. I woke up on Sunday with no voice!”

The bars were rammed on Saturday night. Everywhere you looked, people sung and drunk in the streets. One man was somehow hanging upside down with his legs around his friend’s head as they stumbled around. “We’ve F***** won the league!” he screamed, repeatedly. Predictably, Leicester infirmary reported twice as many casualties as a usual Saturday night. The people of the city went for it. Big time.

This party is far from over, too.

On May 16, an open-top bus will parade through the streets of Leicester with the biggest crowds in the city’s history expected as Ranieri and his players show off the trophy.

On May 28, rock band Kasabian, who hail from Leicester, will perform a one-off concert at King Power Stadium.

Kasabian are huge fans of their local club. A few years back when they were touring in the U.S., a friend of mine arranged for us to go and see them play at Terminal 5 in New York City.

After the concert, we had a connection to go and meet the band back stage. We had drinks with the lads after they’d just blown the crowd away, but the first thing Serge, the lead guitarist and songwriter, asked when he found out I was English, was “who is your team?” We then discussed Leicester’s chances of getting back into the Premier League as the Foxes were a second-tier outfit at the time. The passion lives within.

Ranieri has spoken about his love and passion for Kasabian’s song, Fire, and how it plays after every goal they score at the KP stadium. Now, the local lads will give their city another huge party to close out the season in style.

After living through one of the finest periods in the city’s history, it may never stop celebrating this incredible season.

No matter what happens in the future, a toast to the boys of 2015-16 will always be appropriate.

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