Leicester City: half a world away
Most Leicester City supporters were devastated when 48 games worth of hard labour did not result in a trip to Wembley last May.
I understood the relative grief, of course. This was a young team that appeared to deserve a shot at glory, supported by fans that had endured several years of sculling around the lower reaches of the second tier. It was the night when everything looked to be going right. Until it went horribly wrong.
Leicester had lost the first leg to a single Peter Whittingham free-kick. There was outrage at the way Whittingham placed the ball yards from where the offence took place, followed by grudging admiration for the sheer skill of his delivery. The ball flew into the net at Chris Weale’s near post and the Welsh side took their advantage back home for the second encounter.
In driving rain, Cardiff extended their overall lead early in the game through Michael Chopra’s clever run and acute finish. The dream looked all but over. Three Leicester goals turned the tide, however. The first, scored by Matty Fryatt, inspired hope and provoked a sense of defiance from the travelling supporters. The second, an unfortunate own goal, sent the Leicester fans into raptures. Game on. I was with them, as I had been all season, and I felt it too. First hope, then ecstasy.
In the second half, Paul Gallagher’s right-wing cross was headed past David Marshall by Leicester’s Welsh international Andy King to give the visitors the lead for the first time in the tie. First hope, then ecstasy, now what?
I looked around me as the ball dropped into the net at the other end of the ground. People who had previously been gripping their faces with nerves were now jumping all over each other. Ecstasy doesn’t adequately describe what I saw around me in that moment. This was something far, far beyond.
It was just a goal. It was just a man using his head to divert a ball over a white line.
After hope and ecstasy came pride. When you spend thousands of pounds and days of your lives following a football team, you are essentially just waiting for moments like these to come along. I enjoyed that moment but I also savoured it. I looked around me in astonishment and, all the time, I knew we would not win.
I kept telling myself over and over. If they don’t score, we go to Wembley. If they don’t score, we go to Wembley. They scored. They went to Wembley. They lost. My cousin cried. I sat in the park and felt nothing.
What I had felt when King scored that goal, what I had felt when Richie Wellens, barely able to walk properly through injury and fatigue, scampered across the pitch and hurled himself into a vital tackle deep into extra time, what I had felt when Martyn Waghorn threw himself to the turf in tears, that was what I wanted from my football club.
The emotion of it all, regardless of scores, results, changes in division. Through it all, players and managers I could identify with and who felt the same as me about everything that happened on the pitch.
We had it. I enjoyed it. I knew it would not last.
Football is a business. We hear this relentlessly, dashing our hopes and dreams before they have a chance to blossom. It has been a business for a very long time but it is overwhelmingly true now. It is such a business that it ceases to feel like the same game I fell in love with twenty years ago. This is a common complaint but, before we make this heard, we must appreciate times when our football club reflects our passion.
It never lasts.
Outsiders have reacted knowingly to the news of Paulo Sousa’s sacking this morning. Equally, most Leicester fans have. This is the reputation that Milan Mandaric carries, magnified by the mysterious hand of a Thai consortium whose takeover is still yet to be fully ratified by the Football League.
Previous manager Nigel Pearson was popular with the fans and the circumstances of his surprise departure to Hull City will never be revealed. The widely accepted thought among Leicester supporters is that Mandaric wanted a more glamorous name to attach to the club, in order to make it more appealing to prospective investors. When Hull learned of the apparent availability of Pearson, Mandaric did not seem to fight tooth-and-nail to hang onto the man who had achieved so much in such a short space of time. Paulo Sousa was his replacement.
Sousa was onto a loser from the start. Broadly speaking, the fans were disappointed at Pearson’s exit. When a new manager comes into a club, the spectre of a successful predecessor must be banished as soon as possible. The problem was that Pearson had assembled a fine squad of players, among whom the spirit was good and a winning mentality appeared to come easily.
There have been underground rumbles of discontent from the players ever since Sousa’s arrival. Key men were deeply appreciative of Pearson’s methods and the faith he showed in them. In came Portuguese players, Miguel Vitor on loan from Benfica and Moreno on a permanent basis from Vitoria Guimaraes, the Dutchman Michael Lamey, the Slovenian forward Leon Crncic and the Japanese international Yuki Abe.
I have mulled this over in my head in recent weeks. A player’s nationality should not matter, but Leicester fans could not shake off a creeping feeling of unease at the way Pearson’s careful approach to squad-building had been abandoned under the new man in charge. It reminded us of the time before Pearson, a season in which various managers battled in vain to steer the club away from relegation to League One. Martin Allen was the first to go, at an even earlier stage of the season than Sousa’s departure in the current campaign. His successor Gary Megson jilted the club in favour of Bolton Wanderers.
The final failure was that of Ian Holloway, the man who Pearson would have stood toe-to-toe with at Wembley had that penalty shootout in Cardiff happened slightly differently.
And when Andy King scored the goal that hauled Leicester into the lead from a two-goal deficit that night, the season of misery and shame that sent us spiralling into the third division in the first place was put to bed.
Now, the nightmare is back.
Next Saturday, with the majority of the Championship re-charging its batteries ahead of a heavy winter schedule, Leicester City travel to Thailand to play Bryan Robson’s Thai national team in a friendly.
The pride that swelled in Leicester chests on that unforgettable night in Cardiff, as it did when the league was won a year earlier in Southend, as it has so many times in a proud past full of success against the odds, came from the players and the way their efforts on the pitch reflected the passion our supporters all feel ourselves.
The important thing is to feel the same as they do, regardless of the outcome of matches which can so often hinge on the smallest of decisions or events.
That feels half a world away at the current moment in time, just as our players will be next weekend.
And when they come back, the hope is that it will return with them.