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In Praise of the Foxes

2021-05-18

Leicester City mural in the side of a row of terraced housesBy John Williams

My own club is Liverpool FC, but I think I know a little of what it is like to be a Leicester City supporter.  I have lived in the city for many years and my wife and most of my close family support The Foxes – many are season ticket holders. So, when in 2016 Leicester City, a 5000-1 shot, won the Premier League title, we set off to the King Power stadium that night to celebrate with hundreds of others.

And when, later, 250,000 people descended on Victoria Park in a kaleidoscopic celebration of this astonishing achievement, the whole city was there, all faiths, religions, classes and generations. In an age of increasing social division and heightened individualism, arguably only football can still do this: can pull people together from widely different social backgrounds, at critical moments, to experience a truly communal sense of civic identity and belonging. 

But Leicester City’s own recent story was no simple one of homespun, local owners and the careful marshalling of resources out of potential economic catastrophe. In fact, the club has been foreign-owned since 2010, bought by representatives of the Thailand-based duty-free shopping business, King Power. These billionaire owners, polo-loving, Manchester United fan, Vichai and son ‘Top’ Srivaddhanaprabha, ostentatiously arrived by helicopter for home games, landing on the King Power pitch. They astutely hired in 2015 as manager, Claudio Ranieri, an Italian who changed little initially, but he encouraged squad bonding (and good PR) by buying his City players pizzas in a local restaurant after significant performances. The club’s players, though hardly costly and little feted, had been meticulously scouted and globally recruited using complex analytics.   

Leicester City’s budget and resources in 2016 were small compared to its main rivals and its 2016 success did seem like a triumph for old school intuitive character, caution and planning, as well as for some basic, modernist sporting qualities and values, over the power of money. At the heart of it was an immutable bond between Ranieri, the City players, the club’s fans, and their Thai owners. The Leicester back-story seemed to touch all sports fans by mining some very familiar and over-worked cultural tropes about sporting ‘miracles.’   

But now in 2021 we have another chapter of this tale to write, as Leicester City, by beating favourites Chelsea FC at the weekend, won the FA Cup for the first time in the club’s 137-year history, and after four previous failed attempts in the final to do so. Here is another romantic narrative of the kind much loved in sport; the underdog overcoming adversary and history to triumph via glorious moments of individual brilliance. But something more complex and perhaps more important was also going on here.   

You see, for much of the early history of English professional football, the FA Cup was the competition to win, much more important even than the First Division title. The FA Cup was the only truly national competition and when it began to be televised live from the 1950s it was pretty much the only live football available on TV. The final brought the football community in England and Wales together with the monarchy and the military, to close off the season as a defining symbol of civic respectability, togetherness and popular nationhood.    

More recently, however, the FA Cup final has fallen from public favour. So much football is televised these days that it has become just another fixture in a crowded programme, one that the most powerful English clubs see as being of secondary importance compared to qualification for the big money promise of the UEFA Champions League.  

But this year’s final seemed to have additional meaning. It was the first fixture to have fans present and to have some ‘atmosphere’ after the latest Covid lockdown. Its obvious importance to Leicester people and players also challenged recent conventions about the competition as being somehow ‘second-rate.’  The City owner Vichai had died tragically in a helicopter accident in 2018, but the images of his son Top celebrating enthusiastically with the players and the City staff on the pitch after the final were very poignant, raising again questions about the detachment of other elite level billionaire owners from their own fans, and indeed from the game itself.   

Back in 2016, Leicester City winning the Premier League title was widely (if simplistically) read as an inspiring triumph for sporting over business values. Symbolically at least, in 2021 the club’s FA Cup win also seems to have revived some belief again in the role of the FA Cup as a competition for celebrating heroic sporting narratives and emotion over feelings of commercial ennui. I can tell you that in my own home there were some deeply expressed local ties and tears of joy, on Saturday evening – as there would have been all over the city.  Because, for all the talk about money and greed, sport still really matters to people.

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