Culture

Leicester City And Me: How Football’s Greatest Fairytale Transcends Sport

That’s my team that they’re all talking about. That’s me.

I was 25 when I first heard a voice from Leicester on the TV. I was watching Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes and all of a sudden there were people in a movie that spoke with an East Midlands accent, just like me and my family.

I’d never seen us like that before. We didn’t exist outside the patch of turf that sits up a bit and to the right of Birmingham. Popular culture in the UK found its stories in the North and the South and glossed over the nondescript bit in the middle where people spoke with oddly drawn out vowels and abrasive consonants.

Up until about 24 hours ago, you probably would have struggled to find us on a map of England. London is easy, so is Birmingham and Manchester and Liverpool. But Leicester? Most people can’t pronounce it let alone find it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the city’s geography, chances are you’ll have no idea about its soccer team. Leicester City F.C. are an unremarkable club, with an unremarkable history. The club has traditionally sat in the long shadow of big teams like Chelsea and Manchester Utd. Even if you don’t know your offside from your back-pass, you’ll have an idea that Man Utd are something special.

Leicester City aren’t special. They have no super stars and little money. By and large the players are nothing more than solid and reliable. The manager, Claudio Ranieri, was once a major name but before his appointment to Leicester his reputation was in tatters after leading the Greek national team to defeat against the Faroe Islands (population: 50,000).

It’s no surprise that in 2015, Leicester City started the season as one of the favourites to be relegated from the Premier League, England’s top tier of football. But against the run of pundits’ predictions, Leicester started to win games. Lots of them.

‘The Club Was Tightly Bound To Our Identity’

As kids my brother and I would spend summer holidays at our Nan and Grandad’s. They lived in sprawling housing complex in Leicester called New Parks. The estate was a maze of small red brick houses and pocked marked roads. It was always clean, and the homes were neat and proud. Still, most locals referred to it as ‘a rough estate’.

We often hung around outside our Nan’s house on the pointless semi-circle of grass that would most certainly now be given over to more red brick houses. We’d play long games of soccer with the neighbours’ kids. Games ran from morning till night and we only stopped for plates of cheap white bread and thick cordial that ran luminous orange into plastic highballs.

Back then, in 1982, all the kids wore cheap, imitation Liverpool FC or Man Utd shirts. Wearing a Leicester City shirt would have been embarrassing. It was a slog being a Leicester fan. That season the club achieved its perennial status as relegation-favourites relatively early thanks to six successive defeats. We wanted better.

We’d seen how supporting Leicester City was like a curse; that the trajectory of our club would mirror the trajectory of our lives.

We wanted the swing and swagger of Arsenal’s crimson kit. Or the riotous success that Manchester Utd enjoyed week in, week out. We wanted to follow Liverpool as they won title after title with effortless ease. We planned to aspire to something, to be something. Popular, happy people with good lives and lots of money followed successful clubs. They didn’t follow Leicester City. They didn’t live in New Parks.

We’d seen how supporting Leicester City was like a curse; that the trajectory of our club would mirror the trajectory of our lives. We’d seen our parents’ failures and the club’s failures and drawn the conclusion that poor life experiences were a choice. Our lives would be different. We would choose something bright and hopeful.

Except we never really had a choice. Our dalliance with glamorous clubs was tolerated for a while and then the family quietly replaced our Liverpool shirts with Leicester’s. We didn’t complain. By that point we knew the club was tightly bound to our identity. Our genes determined our eye colour, our height and our commitment to the blue and white of Leicester City F.C.

My brother and I accepted our fate surprisingly well given we were destined for a lifetime of mild achievement and bitter disappointment (mostly bitter disappointment). We realised that, to paraphrase an old saying, you can choose your friends but your can’t choose your soccer team.

And so the years rolled by. We developed an unwavering, unconditional love for Leicester City. We followed them everywhere, from Sheffield Wednesday’s frigid terraces to Southampton’s seaside home. We were like a couple of dogs that still adore their owner despite routinely getting kicked in the guts.

We didn’t really care about the results though, certainly not enough to jettison our team. Life would push us around, but Leicester City were a constant. The one immovable and secure thing that would never leave.

Why Sport Is ‘Not Just A Game’

I get that it’s sometimes hard for non-sport fans to understand why people care so much about a certain team, particularly when that team makes you so miserable or angry. ‘It’s just a game’ is the eye-roll of choice for many.  It’s not just a game though. It’s who you are, where you come from. If someone insults your team they may as well punch your dad in the face for good measure.

In 2002 I moved to Australia. Leaving Leicester City was hard. The weekly ritual of pre-match pints and post-match dissection was now hard-wired into me. I muddled through on Australia’s sunny coastline thanks to 2am games shown on Foxtel and a developing fondness for Sydney FC. I missed my team though. Missed sharing the sour taste of defeat with fellow Leicester die-hards on wet Saturday afternoons.

A few months ago I booked flights back. Leicester were turning in amazing results. Our season was starting to look like something we’d never seen before. A pivotal victory against Manchester City back in February this year was putting talk of Leicester’s title hopes into the mouths of people who should know better. I needed to be a part of whatever story was unfolding there. Because it wasn’t just the team’s story, it was my story too.

You’ll know by now how that story ended. The Greatest Sporting Fairytale Ever. Rags to riches. The triumph of the underdogs. The team whose odds of winning the Premier League were way longer than Kim Kardashian running for the US presidency.

You’ll have read about the players who were picked up for next to nothing because our scouts knew they had magic in their boots. You may have seen how super star NFL player Tom Brady made a video to send to Leicester’s goalkeeper. Or how this morning Shane Warne tweeted us a congratulatory message.

That’s my team that they’re all talking about. That’s me. That’s my family. It’s my city. I’ve never ever seen us like this. The world has fallen madly in love with us. We’re right there on the map. It’s something I’d never bothered to dream about because what was the point. It wouldn’t happen for a club like us. People like us. Would it?

Victoria Birch is a writer from Sydney. She’s written for Good Weekend, SMH and Fasterlouder. Tweets about football and music @victoria_birch.

Feature image by Laurence Griffiths/Getty.