Even though I’ve never set foot in England, I’m a Leicester City supporter for life. I wish I had a “meet cute” moment, a memorable anecdote describing the moment I first laid eyes on Filbert Street, but that’s not the truth of it. My brother-in-law is English, and, sometime back in 1996, I started going to an Irish bar in Dallas to see his beloved Liverpool team play. I knew so little about the sport that I was confused when matches ended in draws and the idea that most of the team played ninety minutes blew my mind.
Honestly, I probably should have been a Liverpool supporter. I’d actually heard of Liverpool, and everyone in the bar wore red and spoke lovingly of the club’s storied history. I should have been, but I wasn’t. I was instead drawn to the team that no one supported whose bespectacled manager jumped up and down like a madman. They had an American goal keeper (Kasey Keller), which was a plus for me, but it was the midfield that sold me.
On one side, there was a blonde Welshman, Robbie Savage, who never stopped chasing opponents even when there didn’t seem to be any particular reason to do so. In the middle, Neil Lennon slid into tackles with just short of murderous malice. My favorite, though, was the man with the four “z” name: Mustapha “Muzzy” Izzet. I got the impression that Leicester weren’t particularly favored, or even especially good, but I loved the way they battled against the teams I’d actually heard of. I’d found my team.
After several months of this, I announced my allegiance to my team by comically mispronouncing “Leicester” because of course I did.
It turned out that being a Leicester supporter in the United States back then took a great deal of work. I joined the official club site to allow me to listen to the matches live on BBC Radio Leicester as there were almost no televised games in the states. I finally got my first replica kit, one of the glorious collared affairs with the flocked Walker’s logo on the front. I wore it with tremendous pride on match days and didn’t even mind when people would ask me who the “Walkers” were.
Lacking any sense of football history, I didn’t realize that the Martin O’Neill era was a high-water mark for the club. I did have a sense that he was critical to the club’s success (signs reading “Martin O’Neill is God” were a subtle clue) and I was heartbroken when he left. I knew the good times were endangered but I’d never experienced relegation and didn’t know how it would feel.
There is nothing worse than relegation.
Trying to explain to my friends that my team had been booted from the league was difficult but doable. What I couldn’t do was explain the feeling in my gut, the feeling that something so bad had happened to something so important to me. During this era, there were more bad times than good, the worst coming when we were relegated from the League Championship. I described this as being like your favorite baseball team losing so much that they were removed from the major leagues down to AA baseball. Even that explanation doesn’t do the feeling justice.
Part of loving a team is sticking with them in the hard times. I still have my Topps Tiles sponsored League One jersey, and I wear it to remind me that, no matter how bad things are now, they could be worse. But, the beauty of the promotion and relegation system is that there is always hope of a better time.
There is nothing better than promotion.
I say this knowing full well that the joy of winning the Premier League is almost too much to contain. Promotion is better. The summers following promotion, the summers plotting spending sprees as the team moves up a level, the hope against hope that these players that you love can prove that they belong-it’s the best feeling a sports fan can have.
“Foxes Never Quit” is the team motto, and the teams that live up to that motto are my favorites. I never forgave Dennis Wise or Jermaine Beckford, not for their performances, but for their efforts. That motto is why I love this team so much. Love him or hate him, Jamie Vardy is the living embodiment of the Leicester spirit. I’ve never seen a man care so much.
Just look at that image. You’d think he’d just won the league, but you’d be wrong. That was the goal that took us off the bottom of the table and made all of us believe that we’d escape relegation. That goal made up for a year of pain. Heck, it almost made up for Troy Deeney’s playoff goal for Watford (if you haven’t seen it, look it up, but I’m not going to link That Goal here). Escaping relegation isn’t as good as promotion, but it ain’t bad.
I haven’t missed more than a handful of matches, either on the radio on television, over the last twenty years. It’s a lot easier to be a Leicester supporter now than it was, but it’s no less rewarding. People now recognize the shirt and sometimes even the names on the back. I can see every match on television in real time now. Our local independent book store even carries books about that magical championship season.
2015-16 was amazing and I’m fortunate to have experienced it, but that’s not who Leicester are and it’s not why I love them. I love the underdog Leicester City, the Leicester City who may not be the best, the most talented, or even the most skillful team, but if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. I love Steve Guppy and Mad Frank and Matty Elliott and Emile Heskey and Matty Fryatt and Tim Flowers and Pegguy Arphexad and Paul Dickov and Andy Impey and even Ade Akinbiyi. I love Leicester City, and I always will.