Sunday’s trip to Sunderland taught me something…‘football doesn’t build character, it reveals character’. This was illustrated by the emotion demonstrated by Claudio Ranieri at the final whistle of Leicester City’s 2-0 win on Wearside and another step they’ve taken towards everlasting veneration.
Ranieri revealed what that victory meant to him in one fleeting moment, when he let down his guard and exposed the impassioned football man he is. He wants this title as much as the fans do. He wants it…you could see it in those tear filled eyes - blowing out his cheeks trying to keep his emotions in check – that temporary moment of vulnerability exposed in a poignant and significant unveiling of his character and what this title push means to him.
And, I love him for it.
I love that we got to see that element of his persona. It made me emotional. It made me realize he is one of us…a fan too. A kindred spirit, a family member, a Leicester City brother; who wants to win a football match as much because he is a fan and not just because it is his job as the football team manager.
For me the long, emotional, exhausting day started at 4am. In all honesty no sleep was achieved as the adrenaline had started its unwelcome invasion of my veins long before I attempted to sleep. This kept me awake and wired with a racing mind most of the night. The trip by road from London to Sunderland is 281 miles, a five-hour drive. All along the route north, overtaking and being overtaken by cars filled with fans, families, different generations dressed in blue and scarves and flags proudly displaying their allegiance.
The journey left plenty of time for thinking. The whole drive up to Sunderland on a gloriously sunny, spring day was one of reflection. For me, this time, when I allow my mind to wander, is when the seeds of doubt tend to germinate. After all, I’m a Leicester City supporter and we don’t win Premier League titles. I’m constantly in a state of when will the normal status quo resume? Asking questions in my head like…‘is it this game, the banana skin, which the experts have predicted when normal order will resume?’ The prospect of ‘doing a Liverpool’ when they blew their title challenge a few years ago with the infamous Steven Gerrard slip letting in Chelsea to steal the title away. Liverpool had a five-point lead that season with only three games to go…the prospect of something like that happening to Leicester City is what gives me sleepless nights.
However, arriving at Sunderland late morning for the early afternoon kick off in the north east sunshine woke me from my negative thoughts. The smiling, happy faces of thousands of Leicester City supporters and the many ‘characters’ that you see at every game, already a little merry, and the cold north east wind blowing in from the north sea allowed objectivity to return to my thoughts. We beat Sunderland on the opening day of the season, they are struggling in the bottom three of the league table and we are leading the group. We will win this match!
I should perhaps stop reading the overwhelming media coverage of Leicester City. The London-based sports journalists are constantly extolling the qualities of Spurs and Arsenal and I guess I’ve allowed these acclaims to penetrate my Leicester City armor. I’ve allowed myself to believe that Tottenham Hotspur FC could win the league. For these real fears to be dispelled I need to witness Leicester City quell any challenge like they have done all season.
Sunderland versus Leicester City was another example of the better team winning a competitive encounter. The dominance of N’Golo Kante, Jamie Vardy, Danny Drinkwater, Marc Albrighton, Robert Huth, Wes Morgan and Danny Simpson was evident throughout. Riyad Mahrez was largely redundant in this game as he was comprehensively marked out of the game which made his attacking prowess ineffective and quite honestly he made life difficult for Danny Simpson as his contribution to defending was inept, hence his early departure for Demarai Gray. Vardy’s brace was expertly taken and put him back in the hunt for the Premier League’s Golden Boot award. He became the first Leicester City player to score 20 goals in a season since our famous Gary Lineker in his final year at the club in 1984/85.
The final whistle at Sunderland brought overwhelming emotion. High in the stadium, behind Kasper Schmeichel’s goal, the roar was deafening. Everyone began hugging their neighbor, grown men in tears all around as the significance of the result struck home. Leicester City FC atop the Premier League by a margin of 10 points (at least for a few hours) with 5 games left to play. Incredible.
The fans stayed in the stadium, chanting and singing… ‘we are going to win the league…’ for what felt like ages after the final whistle. I had tears rolling down my face. Like Ranieri, I couldn’t control my emotions and an overwhelming feeling of pride overcame me. Ranieri has subsequently quoted that ‘he has a public role and he tries to be levelheaded. He has to give clear signals to his team and he can’t get carried away by emotion…’ This is true, but the moment that I will always remember, that fleeting moment when he became one of us and just let it go, let the emotion of being a fan overwhelm him is precious to me, and I thank him for his passion and enthusiasm. I hope we can celebrate his and our first ever top flight title together in May.