All photos by Jake Lewis.
When Leicester City stunned the world and rose through the ranks to win the Premier League last year, beating 5000-1 odds, I watched on with cynicism. I don't know much about football, but I do know Leicester; I was born there, and after 21 years, I left. I rarely visit, but I went up for a music festival the week before the win happened, and was surprised to see that everyone was already celebrating. The city was covered in bunting, revellers were drinking at midday, and the city buzzed with certainty that it was really going to happen. I am a pessimist, I said no it isn't. As I walked to the festival, I thought how embarrassing it was going to be to peel down all those blue and white banners. Something conflicted with my usual Leicester pessimism: I realised for the first time that people all over the planet were watching us to see what happened next.
A week later, they only went and fucking did it. People got tattoos, my Facebook feed went wild, even American friends sent their heartfelt congratulations. Loads went down to the stadium to hold the trophy and to try and make eye contact with Mr. Jamie Vardy. Kasabian had a homecoming show or three, and 240,000 people descended on my little city to cause absolute carnage. As I watched the scenes erupting in pubs across the city and saw people I went to school with hugging each other, I started to feel a little bit left out. Everybody loves an underdog, I was told repeatedly over the coming weeks. Leicester is known for its multiculturalism, but that carries a dark undercurrent of bitter racism and division; I had never known my city to have an atmosphere other than one of vague resentment, but after the win it felt really united.
But what happens after a huge, roaring success? When you do something that nobody thought you could, when you get global recognition, when Hollywood films are in the works about your fairytale; what next? There was very little chance of it ever happening to begin with; there was even less of a chance of it ever happening again. Not only have Leicester been back on form all season – in other words, failing miserably – they've just sacked their manager. It seems emblematic of Leicester's rise and then fall that their Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong, everyone's-favourite-sweet-faced-uncle manager Claudio Ranieri would lose his job just nine months after winning the league, two weeks after the dreaded board vote of confidence, and two days after a strong performance in the last 16 of the Champion's League. Nothing more says that the dream is over and the magic is gone than sacking the guy who got the band together in the first place. Leicester's owners, after touching briefly the hem of greatness, have grown impatient with their team settling in to their more natural pace, just above the relegation zone.
I went back to Leicester to find out what's next when the world sees you as a nose-diving one-hit wonder.
Last year, there were banners of football players, blue and white decorations everywhere, and rogue drinkers spilling out of pubs and having it large in the middle of the day. Even now, Leicester City street art is everywhere. It's inescapable. I went to Millie's Cookies, where I'm told local legends Kasabian eat for free, and they were proudly displaying a cookie cake emblazoned with L.C.F.C. Champions.
Locals love nothing more than an excuse to get wrecked. To get a feeling of how major the team's success was, I spoke to Xander, who owns a bar called The Attic in the city centre. He said that on the run up to the win, "There were no holds barred in the street. Nobody could control it, so there was a party all the way up high street and people coming in and out for two or three weeks later. I wasn't really into football, but everyone got excited. When we had won it, everyone ran out on the streets – it was a Monday night. A bus was coming out from the station, and within 20 minutes, it had people jumping on top of it".
He told me that for the celebrations, all of the bartenders in the city made a cocktail that represented Leicester. The Attic's contribution was a Chat Shit Get Banged; a cocktail made with WKD syrup and garnished with a faux-coke icing sugar rim and a rolled up sugar money note. Those cocktails are still knocking about.
But there are some signs of Leicester's decline, including the very literal "30 percent off on Leicester shirts" one that greets you before you even get in the door at the Leicester City merch store. I asked David who works there how it felt last year, and he said, "Dream come true. One of the seasons which you can't forget". But now? "If you've been a Leicester fan for so many years, you're used to it," he shrugs. "We're always fighting a relegation battle; it's not a big problem. They'll fight for it and they'll stay up in the Premiership, and we'll be happy". Does it matter if they never do it again? "No, but I would love to do it again. It's tremendous for the business and the morale in the city".
It was morale that led to the creation of the new murals just outside the city centre. One of them, painted by artist Richard Wilson, is on the back wall of Marks Electrical, a company who sponsor the team. It started as a portrait of celebrated manager Claudio Ranieri (bit awkward now), but was so popular that the store commissioned Richard to finish. Fans, international news crews, and even Ranieri himself came out to see Richard work. "Grown men came and cried seeing their idols painted on a wall," he explained. "As someone not from Leicester, I could really feel this feel good factor in the city around that time. The fans were so emotional about what the team were doing. They made history that will live on forever, regardless of some possible relegations".
Inside the electrical store, Edmund, a shop worker, believes that there's a negative to all that morale, all that misplaced hope. "I think too many people have got too high an expectation based on last year. I say this year is not last year. You can't expect it to just all of a sudden be the top team in the country every year. As a Leicester fan I take the rough with the smooth. There's been a lot more rough than there has been smooth over the years, but that's just following football".
Nothing can take the joy of the 15/16 win away from fans; not even relegation. I met with Dave, a Leicester native who has supported the team for 61 years He told me, "if you're a Leicester fan you're used to adversity. You're not used to things going well, or if they go well for a little while, you expect to get it snatched away. It's easy to support a winning team, but it's harder when you've been supporting your team and you've seen them go through some really bad times". I asked Dave whether he's disappointed this year, and he said, "football is all about dreams. Players come and go, but fans stay. Why am I sitting here after 61 years of being a fan? Should I know better? It gets in your blood. No one will ever take last year away from us, no matter what happens, our name has been on that trophy and for a number of years a lot of people around the world will remember us".
Maybe it's the WKD syrup and potato fritters, or maybe it's all the talking to people who truly care about my city, but I almost feel proud. The atmosphere on the high street on this bitterly cold Friday evening sits somewhere between the overt celebrations of last year and the usual dreary complacency; Leicester has finally known pride and recognition outside of its own borders. Perhaps Ranieri's firing sours the underdog story slightly. But Leicester has gotten used to fighting for their reputation. No matter what happens next, from Millie's Cookies to the Jamie Vardy murals, this city still bristles with pride.
More on Leicester: