I have always had a soft spot for Leicester City. Hard spots are reserved for those teams we are unable to shake off, having acquired them through birth, background, geography or emotions at an impressionable age. Hence I agonise with Carlisle United, my home town, and with Spurs, my fave team for 55 years, and also keep an eye out for Queen of the South, because we used to live in Dumfries. With soft clubs, you don’t agonise, because you don’t really care; you don’t suffer, just look for their results and hope they do well.
I went to Leicester on a quick visit in 1974, saw Jack Simmons, professor of history, an expert on railways. I was doing a biog of George Stephenson. He answered all my dopey questions and agreed to read my manuscript and correct the more stupid mistakes. I’ve followed Leicester City ever since.
I have an old friend, Jon Holmes, who is a Leicester supporter and keeps me up to date. A few years ago, he was chairman for a short period, having led a consortium to save the club when it went into administration. As a sports agent, Jon at one period represented all three England captains – Will Carling, rugby; Mike Atherton, cricket; and Gary Lineker, crisps.
I have enjoyed Leicester’s success this season, taking pleasure in their pleasure. I’ve felt hurt on their behalf when the London-dominated sports pages have been awfully patronising: it won’t last, you’ll see, gone by Xmas, how can a tinpot team that cost nothing, full of ex-non-leaguers, keep it up against the mighty Man United and the fabulous Chelsea. (OK, the not-so-fab Chelsea but Chelsea will be back, don’t you worry, not like the hicks from Leicester who will disappear early doors.)
But here we are, almost at Xmas, and Leicester are still up there, currently joint top. And Jamie Vardy, who only half an hour ago was not even a full-time professional, has scored in 11 consecutive games, beating the Prem record.
So, what has made the difference? Who knows? Vardy, aged 28, was unseen, unheralded in lower leagues for years, and scored very few for Leicester last season. Now he can’t stop. He had off-the-field problems earlier on, such as criminal assault, but now he has seen the light. Others will take credit for turning him round but, as ever, determination comes from within. The person who wakes you up is yourself.
They have new owners, from Thailand, but it’s hard to see the changes they have made – except in the streets. “Helicopters and fleets of Mercedes limousines,” says Jon Holmes, “now ship bands of Thai supporters who come up from the metropolis. They are even selling gourmet burgers on the Upperton Road bridge.” They changed the manager, which seemed a mistake. I did like Nigel Pearson, having followed his career since he managed CUFC. He did a great job keeping Leicester up last season, then got the push. They brought in an old European has-been, Claudio Ranieri. Many Leicester fans groaned, including the Blessed Lineker. It did seem a strange choice. Ranieri had failed as manager of the Greek national team. Perhaps he was cheap.
Me, I was pleased. We need more grandads in football. At 64 he’s a mere lad. I like his dozy, distracted, mad-professor, speccy four-eyes look. If his squad is much the same as the one he inherited, you have to say he done good.
Jon Holmes says there’s no great transformation. “Ranieri takes credit for keeping things going from last season’s great escape. He was shrewd enough to keep on Pearson’s coaching staff, especially the assistant manager and head of recruiting, Steve Walsh, who this summer added the excellent Kanté and Fuchs to his previous bargains Vardy, Mahrez and Albrighton. The entire Leicester team was put together for less than United paid for Mata. Claudio has been less Tinkerman than Thinkerman.”
No one, of course, expects Leicester to transform itself into one of the permanent Big Four, from Manchester and London. We all did think for a time that various other provincial clubs, such as Leeds, Norwich, Ipswich, Watford, would break into the magic circle, establish themselves as possibly a top-eight club. No chance. So, you Foxes, feast while you can.
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war