It’s no secret that I’m a big Leicester City fan. Or that I spend a significant portion of my week talking, writing or watching them for many months in a year. With the 2016/17 season over, and a real break from football this year, it feels like a good time to finally try and reflect on what’s been the most successful, and also crazy, twenty-four months as a Foxes fan.
I probably wasn’t the only one who felt a little odd at the start of last season. There was a sense of optimism and excitement at the start of it. A sunny, early start away at Hull awaited. It was a gorgeous day, a pleasant drive up there with my best friend (a friendship forged through a shared love of the beautiful game and strengthened by an understanding outside of it) saw us enjoying a glorious picnic in the park outside the stadium. The team looked so promising on paper. We were going to see a first League start for a couple of new signings and an outing for Demarai Gray. Youth blended with our stars of the title winning season, complimented by a couple of new signings. It went downhill the minute the referee’s whistle blew and I think all travelling fans felt the same; there is no way to follow a Premier League title if you’re a club like Leicester.
It’s safe to say a mixed bag followed, peppered with far more frustration, disappointment and discontent than many predicted. What had been a seemingly unstoppable fairy-tale for Claudio Ranieri turned grim all too quickly as stubbornness and uninspiring changes led us closer and closer to the dreaded relegation zone. Our owners, usually wise and rationale, took a brave decision that catapulted them into the most hated lists. The club, the players, even some fans were vilified for facing up to a harsh reality. That reality is that no man, no player is bigger than the club. The Italian will live on forever in Leicester hearts, but that didn’t mean everybody would stand by and let him risk our Premier League future. A decision vindicated by our, in the end somewhat comfortable, survival and rescued the season.
It was all a little bit underwhelming though as far as the league was concerned. The league returned to almost status quo. The big clubs, so embarrassed or seemingly ashamed by being shown up by Leicester spent millions and invested everywhere to ensure that no such repeat would occur. The chances are now, it probably won’t again for a long, long time. Not unless Tottenham can break the mould. Even then, given they’ve been up there for a few years now, it still wouldn’t be a complete surprise.
Perhaps the problem is more that we never really got a chance to truly accept exactly what we’d achieved. As our season closed and our parties just about simmered down (for some, anyway), the Euros began and then by the time the usual English letdown faded, it was pre-season and time to go again. It was too much for us to take in at such short notice. Something we’ll likely never see a repeat of, but bursting with memories we’ll be able to call upon when times get hard. It made it easier, and harder, to accept the way last season panned out. Even if that sounds ridiculous. Knowing what we were capable of made it so much tougher to face just how off our game we were. Having to swallow that we’d blown our chance to build on the previous season hurt. On the other hand, having the memories and that engraved trophy made us less upset about it.
One campaign certainly offered a welcome distraction of course. As the Foxes made their Champions League debut, it was timely, coming off the back of an atrocious start to the season. We were a different side in Europe. More of an unknown quantity and retaining our favoured underdog status seemed to help. Slowly, yet all at once, every Foxes fan was charmed by the experience, the glistening Tuesday and Wednesday nights under the lights. For many, it presented an opportunity to go abroad and visit some gorgeous cities. Copenhagen, Bruges and Porto welcomed us. It all started in Belgium, Marc Albrighton and Riyad Mahrez getting us off to an early win that seemed all too easy.
Who could have predicted that the club who would make England proud in the Champions League would be Leicester City? We fought our way into the last sixteen by topping our group (we’ve all made a pact not to talk about that Porto hammering, right?) and then pulled off another impossible over two legs against Sevilla to put ourselves into the quarter-finals. Our time had to end, but not without us making it difficult for Atletico Madrid first. You couldn’t be heartbroken or disappointed because we’d already over-achieved, shown what we were made of and proved many a person wrong. Nothing will come close to the goosebumps brought on by hearing that piece of music, or the Tifos we came up with, or the sheer noise and feeling amongst the crowd at the King Power in those last two home games.
There are certain memories that I doubt I’ll ever lose focus on, or forget but it certainly felt like an in-between chapter for the club. After three seasons that all featured huge highs and fairly few lows, maybe we needed a more bland season to remind us how lucky we’ve been. Even then it wasn’t without highlights. Kasper Schmeichel features in so many of them too. Today marks six years since we signed him and I’m amazed we’ve been able to keep him this long. He was utterly invaluable again last year, setting some Champions League records and showing exactly why he’s so well regarded. A double save, one in each leg, against Sevilla ultimately gave us the chance to recover and progress twice. He wasn’t the only one either who thrilled us, it was a season for the low-key players to shine, the likes of Albrighton and Danny Simpson standing out all too often. We may not have had repeats of the previous season from our stars but that’s why the team unit is so important.
For the first time in years, I was relieved to have a break from football, from Leicester. It was my second full season writing about my experiences for Yahoo and naturally, it was tougher than the first! There are only so many ways you convey your frustration without wearing out all the various words for it.
What does next season have in store for us? Anything but a roller-coaster would be unexpected. A battle remains, as pre-season draws close, we have players with uncertain futures and transfer targets still firmly locked in our sights.
As usual, whatever the outcome, I’ll be there, cheering them on. Once a Fox, always a Fox.