LEICESTER — The City of Leicester is home to the British National Space Center, it is where King Richard III is buried and soon it could be home to the Premier League champions.
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A city of just over 330,000 (think Pittsburgh, PA in size) in the Midlands, Leicester has a rich sporting heritage with the rugby, cricket and basketball teams in the city all winning major titles over the last few decades.
The Foxes were the odd ones out. Until this season.
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It has been well documented that Leicester were odds of 5,000-1 to win the Premier League at the start of the 2015-16 season. They were among the favorites for relegation after battling the drop successfully at the end of last season but then replacing popular manager Nigel Pearson with Claudio Ranieri over the summer.
Led by the creativity of Riyad Marez and the sublime finishing of Jamie Vardy, Leicester is now six games away from immortality. They lead the Premier League by seven points after clinching a fourth-straight 1-0 win, this time against Southampton on Sunday, as they made the most of Tottenham drawing on Saturday.
Only five teams have won the Premier League during its 23-year existence. Manchester United. Blackburn Rovers. Arsenal. Chelsea. Manchester City. Leicester look set to soon add their name to that list.
In a city which holds one of the biggest celebration of Diwali outside of India they are readying themselves for a party which could eclipse that annual celebration. A “Vardy Party” if you will…
Walking from the train station to the stadium in Leicester, even on a Sunday morning, the excitement was palpable among fans.
As soon as I stepped out of the train station this greeted me.
That’s right, a man selling scarves proclaiming Leicester as “Premier League Champions” despite their being seven games to go before kick off today. Of course, he was looking to make a quick buck, but I get the feeling he will be ordering, and selling, plenty more of those scarves in the coming days.
In pubs, cafes and at bus stops everyone was talking about the same thing: “We have a Championship team basically” said one fan. “It is just unbelievable,” said another.
Chatting to Southampton fans on the street outside the stadium, they told me they’d love Leicester to win the title and that view is echoed by pretty much every other PL club.
“It gives us all hope, really,” headteacher Kelvin Geary, a Saints fans, told me. “It gives us hope that if you’re a little club then you can go on to achieve great things. That is what is so exciting about it.”
Leicester’s fans are pinching themselves with many walking around with a huge smile on their face and the fans I spoke to were almost in a state of shock.
“Loving every minute of it,” said Martin Inwood, a project manager who is lifelong Leicester fan, before the game. “The last few weeks have been very nerve-wracking because as we get closer to it, most Leicester fans who have been supporting us for years know that we have a habit of throwing things away and making it difficult for ourselves.”
The King Power Stadium was primed and ready — free doughnuts and beer for every home fan courtesy of the Thai owners to celebrate the birthday of the chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, certainly helped generate even more of a party atmosphere — on a brilliantly sunny spring day in England’s East Midlands.
I spoke to former players in the stadium, who shared their disbelief. A choir outside added in “Go Vardy!” and “Come on Leicester!” to their songs and the KP was bouncing pregame as they knew a win would be the biggest step yet towards winning the title. Before the first kick the song of choice was: “We’re going to win the league!” and the fans, unlike in previous weeks, really believed it.
The game itself was a nerve-shredding encounter for Leicester’s fans.
They started brightly but faded as Southampton should’ve had a penalty kick and went close on three occasions but then captain Wes Morgan rose highest to power home a header in the 38th minute. Relief was the overriding emotion in the King Power as the place erupted. Morgan, 32, has been with Leicester for five years and the fact that the journeyman captain — who has played year-round due to his involvement in both the Copa America and Gold Cup last summer with Jamaica — headed home the winner summed it all up.
Leicester were denied insurance goals by the brilliant Fraser Forster in the second half, but Saints played their part as they piled on the pressure but couldn’t break through.
At the final whistle cries of “We’re going to win the league!” returned and now, on this day, Sunday April 3, 2016, it seems more likely than ever that the Foxes will seal one of the greatest Cinderella stories in sporting history.
“We saw the [Tottenham] game yesterday was a draw and wanted to make the most of our opportunity,” match-winner Morgan said. “We really wanted it today.”
The entire City of Leicester wants this, as huge cheers of delight could be heard in and around the KP long after the crowds had disappeared.
“The fans understood our difficulties and they pushed a lot,” manager Claudio Ranieri told me afterwards. “They were not nervous, they understood our momentum and they are pushing with us. It is a fantastic link. It is unbelievable. They are very, very close with us. They understand when we need support or when I asked for support… but I didn’t even ask today. They started early to help us.”
When we look back at this season, we will likely look back on today as the defining moment in Leicester’s title win. If they’d lost, they would’ve been just four points clear of Spurs with six games left. Now it’s seven and the whole of Leicester is in heaven.
Fans of the Foxes can smell the Premier League title and their season-long party is going to have a fitting finale.