This article has nothing to do with Birmingham. It’s about a city’s day in the sun…
Leicester’s not a beautiful city. Yes, it has the Guildhall and the Jewry Wall, and the ‘new’ bit in the Highcross does look quite good, but there’s also a horrific ring road, the carbuncle that is the Holiday Inn (probably the least appropriate name for a hotel in the middle of a roundabout) and the Haymarket Shopping Centre.
It’s a nice enough place to live, but it wasn’t somewhere you dreamt of being. It was a stepping stone place; people left the place as soon as they could, often to go to bigger cities or better cities or cities where you felt like you could do something. Leicester wasn’t the sort of place where dreams came true.
It wasn’t what you’d call particularly notable either. I’ve had to explain where Leicester-the 10th biggest city in the country-is so many times that I pretty much automatically did it when I told people where I was from. People from up north thought we were southerners. People from down south thought we were northerners. This was the city of Thomas Cook, Joseph Merrick, DNA evidence being used in murder cases, Gary Lineker, Englebert Humperdinck, the (rather oddly-located) National Space Centre, Emile Heskey, Willie Thorne, Kasabian, Mark Selby, Mark Morrison… but no-one knew where we were or what we stood for. And we didn’t either. You didn’t see many outward manifestations of Leicester pride. Everyone I knew wanted to move, or talked the city down, or took the piss out of those who stayed. I’m no different; I love my city, I love my team, but I did too. King Richard being found in a carpark was a massive step towards stronger pride in our city, but it wasn’t the whole nine yards. I mean, Gloucester has a king in its cathedral, and no-one’s clamouring to get the bus down there, are they?
And that lack of a strong identity extended to the city’s football team. We’re averaged over 20000 in League One, have one of the best away supports in the country and have had some of the most famous English footballers ever wear our shirt. But somehow, people didn’t know who we were. They didn’t remember what we did, or where we were. We’d had our moments, but we seemed to get lost in translation… and if they did remember us, it wasn’t necessarily for the right reasons. People remembered Bergkamp’s hat-trick but not Walshy’s last-minute equaliser. They remembered Knockaert’s penalty miss and Deeney’s winner. They remembered Kermorgant’s ‘panenka’. They remembered Banks being at Stoke but not being at the club he was with when he won the World Cup (something not exactly helped by the shameful lack of a statue in his honour). They remembered Shilton being at Forest but not being at the club for whom he made the most appearances for. Spurs fans remembered winning the Double in 1961 but who did they beat in the final? They remembered Lineker being a City fan but they remember his shit on the pitch more.
Even locally, we’ve struggled a bit. You see, Derby and Forest are that tied up in their rivalry/love-in that we kind of seemed like the third wheel. Yeah, we got up for East Midlands derbies and they always had an edge to them, but it didnt quite have the same intensity as other derbies. And the less said about the ‘M69 Derby’, the better. When Forest fans told us (self-defeatingly) that they only hate Derby and we have no rivals, it used to sting a bit, because it touched on something our city’s always struggled with.
Is Leicester relevant? What are we? What is Leicester?
But now we know. If the whole hoopla about Richard III was the start of Leicester’s revival, then the wild celebrations that began on Monday May 2nd were the glorious ending (with Wes Morgan lifting the trophy being the Hollywood outro).
The Leicester City side of 2015/2016 reflected the city. Hard-working. Unheralded. Once derided. Battlers. As good as the football was, it wasn’t quite Barcelona-esque; rather, we exploited our strengths and the collective weaknesses of the Premier League.
I mean, for a young kid in St Matthews (once the poorest square mile in western Europe) to see someone like Riyad Mahrez getting his hair cut in a cheap barbers round the corner, praying in your local grey-brick mosque and then 2 days later turning “world-class” defenders inside out… how inspiring must that be? Yeah, you might still have your Arsenal shirts in the wardrobe, but it would feel like your victory as well. Just as much as those who trudged up Filbert Way when Barry Hayles was “leading” the line and we were being told to chill out and have a sandwich by an smarmy Bristolian who was taking us to the lower leagues for the first (and only) time in our history.
The thing about this though was that it isn’t just about success. We’re used to success; the rugby team are probably the most successful side in the country by a mile. But the class structure of rugby union means that it never brings people together (I mean, how could it, when for 100 years it sought to keep the workers out? Leicester Tigers aren’t exactly hooray Henry’s but there is a reason you barely see green, red and white flags in the city).
In the city centre, down by the KP, in the street outside the Market Tavern, everyone was together, from St Matthews to the Saff, Monsell to Mountsorrel, Braunstone to Belgrave… Dhol drums were everywhere, as were drunken football chants of delight. Kids in Nike tracksuits bunning zoots were celebrating next to 60 year old bitter drinkers who’d voted UKIP. This was a city becoming one in a way that it never ever has before, despite its reputation for integration and cross-community harmony (which was always massively over-played at the best of times).
And now, as we bask in the glory of success, we have something to cling on to. Here is Leicester. Battlers. Hard workers. Multi-cultural. Humble. Premier League Champions.