When the band Kasabian played a concert at Victoria Park in Leicester, England, in the summer of 2014, its singer and guitarist Serge Pizzorno came onto the stage sporting a T-shirt with “Les-Tah” written across it. Here, then, is the correct pronunciation of the city’s name; the East Midlands dialect loses a few letters, and the lazily clipped accent simplifies it perfectly.
Kasabian, formed in Leicester in 1997, represents the city’s musical claim to fame these days, although the 1970s crooner Engelbert Humperdinck was also from Leicester. Liverpool or Manchester it’s not. Aside from Richard III’s recent reappearance (his bones were discovered beneath a parking lot a few years ago) and the biggest potato chip factory in Europe, Leicester has very little to shout about.
Until Monday night, when the local soccer team, Leicester City Football Club, learned that it had clinched England’s Premier League title. It is impossible to exaggerate just how large — and improbable — a victory for an underdog this is, against world-famous clubs with megabucks budgets. By way of illustration: In just the last two seasons, Manchester United spent more buying players than Leicester City has in its entire 132-year history.
I have been a fan of the Foxes, as the Leicester team is known, for more than 40 years. I was born on July 30, 1966, a date that means an awful lot to any English football fan, though it is essentially meaningless anywhere else on the planet. But I’m reminded of its significance every time I call the bank, change my passport or rent a car: It was the day England won the World Cup.
It was seen as a sign by my father, who clearly thought I would be the next Bobby Charlton (Sir Bobby was a star midfielder for Manchester United). Unfortunately, I have two left feet, but in my father’s effort to lead me to my destiny, I was dragged to watch Leicester City play in the early 1970s.
And here’s the first lesson for the non-soccer fan: You can’t choose your team, your team chooses you. If we could choose, we’d all support winners like Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool, perhaps. And that was tempting, as they were all amazing in the ’70s. But, no, Leicester was my first game, so that was that.
In those days, football fandom was a gritty business. The air was thick with the smell of hot dogs and cigar smoke. The fans sang passionately, loved their team and nursed an utter hatred of the opposition. As experiences for little boys go, it was mind-boggling stuff. Obviously, Leicester lost, but I was stuck with the team.
Even then, Leicester was always second fiddle to one of the other Midlands clubs like Aston Villa or Nottingham Forest (and they, in turn, played second fiddle to the superclubs of Liverpool or Manchester United in the North West, Newcastle and Sunderland in the North East and the flurry of London teams).
We (that’s the fan’s “we”) would never challenge for the title, ever. In four F.A. Cup finals, we’ve never won, a record achievement. The last time was in 1969; we lost 1-0 to Manchester City. In short, Leicester was, at best, unlucky, but usually just not very good.
In Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s, Leicester was one of those places that most teenagers wanted to leave as soon as they could. But when I moved to London, one thing I missed was Filbert Street, Leicester’s shambolic old stadium (it was demolished in 2003). If the ball was punted too high, it could disappear over the low stand, and the kids who lived on the neighboring streets of modest Victorian rowhouses would have a souvenir.
When I was in Leicester, there was an old man called Bernard who summed up the city’s pointless struggle. He walked the 20-mile round trip from his house to every home game at Filbert Street, rain or shine. He never took a ride from anyone (this was probably a superstition). You could be on the bus and you’d see this tiny frail figure in a blue and white curly wig, tramping through the February sleet, to watch us lose 3-0 to Preston. It was that miserable.
Just as well that the club motto is “Foxes Never Quit.” And when we lose, the fans sing the Monty Python song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” On occasions that were rare until recently, you would also hear: “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way/Oh, what fun it is to sing when Leicester win away.”
How to explain Leicester’s sudden success? Somehow, everything aligned: the right mix of talent, a great manager, hard-working tactical intelligence and, perhaps, simply the belief that it could win.
Leicester today is very different from the place I grew up in. New arrivals have made the city wonderfully diverse, the most mixed in the Midlands. And the rebirth of the football team has really encouraged a sense of unity and pride in town: Even the local fish and chip shops have turned their batter blue, to match the team colors.
Perhaps today’s teenagers will want to stick around.
Guy Andrews, the founder of the cycling magazine Rouleur, is the author, most recently, of Magnum Cycling.