'Leicester's Buzzing': One Night in the Underdog City that Could Win the League

Clive Martin travelled to the King Power stadium to find out what it feels like to live in a city in the middle of football fairytale.

by Words: Clive Martin, Photos: Alex Sturrock
23 March 2016, 9:00am

Leicester is one of those cities that the rest of Britain doesn't quite seem to understand. For all its history, it's not a city that can be easily nailed down with an accent, a haircut, a swagger or a stereotype. There is no "Leicester bloke" character on any sketch show, no clichés for us to simplify it with. It lacks a Salford Lads Club, an Angel of the North, even a Roni Size to place it in our cultural timeline.

For better or worse, it seems that you have to know the place to understand it, and to people who don't know it, it's just another motorway city, somewhere north of London and south of Birmingham, something vaguely to do with crisps, Kasabian and Richard III.

But perhaps that says more about our dated understanding of what a British city should be. Because not only does Leicester have its own unique history, industry and accent, it's also a city that appears to be quietly on the ascent when so many of our grand old towns are mired in post-industrial decline.

Although, right now Leicester is probably most famous for having the most in-form football team in Britain, if not in Europe.

Against all expectations, Leicester City are currently five points clear at the top of the world's most-watched football league, and they're doing it in some style. With the help of a ragtag group, including an Italian nearly-man manager, a few Thai billionaire owners, the first million pound non-league player, the Algerian ex-stalwart of the Le Havre reserve team and the blessings of a local Buddhist monk, they're breaking records and winning neutral fans' hearts all over the world.

But Leicester's success goes a lot further than just its football team. That unusual, pan-global make-up of the squad seems to be in the city's bones. It recently became the UK's first city to have a minority white population, and has seen strong economic growth in recent years, avoiding much of the austerity and despair that many of its louder, more identifiable country-mates are feeling the brunt of.

Intrigued by a city taking on both the decline of the industrialised Midlands and the Premier League in its own way, I travelled up to Leicester on the eve of a home game against Newcastle, to see whether their footballing success translates on the streets.

"Leicester's buzzing right now," our cab driver, Harbo, a British Sikh and die-hard Leicester fan tells us. The son of an Indian immigrant who's lived in the city since the early 60s, he's impressed that we're off to meet Steve "Walshy" Walsh, a cult figure around here who, over a decade after his retirement, still jointly holds the record for the most red cards received in the Football League.

Walsh, who was born in Preston and came to the city in 1986, played for Leicester for 14 years and returned to the city when his playing career ended. "I played all my football up north when I was younger, so it was a big thing me coming here without my family. But when I came to Leicester I was accepted immediately."

"What's going on with the football team has ignited the town," he tells me. "Every pub you go to, everybody's talking about it. It's taken a lot of people by surprise, but at the same time it's been coming for years. Even fans from different clubs come up to me saying they hope we win it."

Walsh now runs a football academy for young people in the area. "It's something you see in kids' football. Before they'd come to our holiday camps in Barcelona and Madrid shirts, now it's all Leicester. That shows you the impact it's having."

After we left the academy, we met up with Peter Soulsby, ex-Labour MP, narrowboat enthusiast and the current mayor of Leicester. With his ticket for tonight's game proudly laid out on the table, he tells me about the last few years of his job. "When I was elected in 2011, I pledged to make Leicester a proud and self-confident city, and between them, the success of the football team and the discovery of a bag of bones in a car park has been quite a help in that," he says, referencing the 2012 discovery of the remains of Richard III.

I ask Peter what kind of city Leicester is, where it sits in British society and where it is now. "It's a city that has, over the last few decades, been quite unsure of itself. It used to be a massive textile centre... as recently as 1960, Leicester used the slogan 'Leicester clothes the world', but of course then the world changed, and Leicester changed. It's remained comparatively affluent and rather successful, but nobody was quite sure what it was there for any more. Lots of new communities made their homes here, and for a while the city seemed quite uncertain as to what that meant [but] I think now we know that diversity has become an enormous strength."

As Peter mentions, Leicester's reputation for diversity and integration has made it a beacon for how multiculturalism can work. What does he think lies behind achievements in that field? "You can't pretend that everything is 100 percent right here, because there's always challenges, but you don't get the same problems here that you have in other UK cities, where people lead parallel, separate lives. There seems to be a very high degree of engagement between communities."

To get a glimpse of this multicultural Leicester, we headed up to the Narborough Road area of the city, a major thoroughfare that was recently named " the most multi-cultural high street in Britain". With a reported 23 different nationalities running businesses here, from across four continents, the Narborough Road is a diverse place, even by Leicester's standards.

The Daily Mail is typically quick to remind us that it is "not a utopia", but despite all the hair-straightening products and tinned fish and obscure meat cuts, it's a high street that seems to come from a Britain long lost. There are few chain stores here; every shop seems to fulfil a certain function or want; there are customers chatting with the staff, and shopkeepers talking to each other outside their shops.

Granted we were only there for a Monday afternoon, but it felt like Trumpton with a jerk hut to me. A utopia it might not be, but its values seem to have way more in common with Nigel Farage's ideal high street – all small British businesses and self-made businesspeople – than he'd like to admit.

Every shopkeeper we spoke to seemed to be not only proud of their business, but proud of Leicester, and basking in the vicarious bliss the football team was bringing to the city. "Buzzing" was a word that came up a lot. Only an Eritrean hairdresser who told us he was a Man United fan seemed anything but enraptured with what with was going on in the league.

"It's such a good vibe, it's hard to explain", says Amy, who works at a tanning and beauty salon on the Narborough Road. "You used to see some people and they'd be mardy and arsey and that, but now everyone's so cheerful." What does she wish she could tell the world about Leicester? "Just come and have a look, it's wicked."

At his Cyprus Kebab shop, we meet Sami Enver, whose walls are covered in certificates validating the fact that he was a professional goalkeeper in his home country. I ask him how long he's been here: "31 years". What brought him here?

"Brian Clough," he said. I looked puzzled as what to role the legendary Middlesbrough striker and Nottingham Forest manager had to do with it.

It turned out that Sami had unsuccessful trials at Forest and moved to Leicester to start this business soon after. These days he only has eyes for the Foxes. He reiterated his upmost faith in Claudio Ranieri, and believes Leicester will in fact wrap up the league earlier than expected. He invited us for some free food after the game.

As the sun began to set over the well-lit Midland sky, we made our way towards the King Power stadium for the build-up for tonight's match. On the walk I started to think about about Leicester's place among other British cities. It's neither industrial, nor post-industrial, seemingly affluent yet defiantly working class, quasi-rural in its locale yet metropolitan in its make-up. Maybe that makes it hard for us to pin it down exactly. In a culture where identity is about saying you're the best and the place next to you is shit, the complexities of Leicester just sort of get ignored.

Unlike the Farage-led divide-and-rule we heard about during much of last year's election, Leicester deals with constant, large-scale immigration, and uses it to its advantage. UKIP polled around 8% in most seats here, below the England average of 14% (although they did a bit better in Liz Kendall's seat of Leicester West, the whitest of the three city seats).

I was keen not to buy too much of the PR, and sure that Leicester has its problems just like any other city, yet just walking around there seem to be a kind of casual, natural multiculturalism at play. You could go into most establishments and find people with their roots across the world, hanging out together without comment. It all seemed a long way from London, where multiculturalism often means "being able to get spicy food delivered late at night", and even further away from the bitter racial divisions in many other parts of the country.

It seemed to me that a place like the Narborough Road (as well as several other, similar high streets in Leicester) hadn't grown into what they were through council initiatives and a metropolitan-style thirst to try something new. It wasn't part of anyone's manifesto. It was just a place that accepted people and let them run their businesses. Leicester didn't seem like some sort of grand leftist project or colourless utopia. Instead it just seemed like a place where people didn't hate each other.

In a football pitch in the shadow of the King Power stadium, some local boys were having a kickabout while their dads had a few well-needed straighteners before the match. As their wild shots rattled against the steel cage of the pitch, it was clear who they were trying to emulate: James Richard Vardy, the Ned Kelly of football. He's a player whose career has been defined by fighting against the scouting system, moving up the leagues by proving people wrong, from the Stockbridge Steelers to the top of the Premier League in a tough ten years of football.

It's no secret that 29-year-old Vardy has become something of a folk hero to football fans across the country. His story, of playing part-time while doing shifts manufacturing medical supplies, to being the top scorer in the Premier League, seems to have captured the imaginations of football fans who've maybe begun to see their favourite players as strange, unapproachable, spornosexual demi-gods in Audi TTs, hiding behind gated communities and posting pictures of their free flyknits on their club-approved social media accounts.

But there's nowhere you'll feel Vardy's anti-hero adulation more acutely than in the city where he plays.

Leicester fans have endowed the man with a strange, mythical, rebel status, somewhere between Rocky and Rasputin. The song (and now the T-shirt) says that if he's having a party, you should bring your vodka and your charlie. Vardy seems strangely passive in this: nobody seems to mind that they're unjustifiably aligning him with cocaine use. The club doesn't seem to discourage it. It just seems to be part and parcel of his popularity. The laddier element of football sees him as one of their own, a vagabond, a scoundrel, a ne'er do well done well.

There is little sentimentality when Vardy is spoken about, no worthiness or mawkishness. None of that Chariots of Fire bullshit. For somebody who's done what he's done this season, he's as much villain as he is hero, strangely. He's a bastard, a vicious opportunity-taker, a "horrible striker", a junkyard underdog. Someone who we think might be winging it, but somebody who's not going to choke. He is perhaps, the perfect post-recession English football hero, a man who has simply ceased to give a shit about the established order and is determined to take it for everything it's got. Harry Kane might have scored more goals now, but Vardy is a John Dillinger for the Lad Bible generation.

We'd elected to watch the game at Narborough's Lost Bar, an establishment coated in Leicester paraphernalia (including a portrait of Gary Lineker as Indiana Jones, for some reason).

For a team that plays its football so painfully close to the edge, and one that seems like its run of luck could come to an end at any moment, the feeling was that this game, against a well off-form Newcastle, was easily winnable, a mandatory challenge on the way to greater things. In this fixture Leicester were the contenders, and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle were the stumblebums.

The game was bittier, tougher and nastier than everybody had thought. Newcastle were defending well but wasting chances. It wasn't easy and it wasn't pretty. It was a Monday night in the Premier League, after all. For all Leicester's continental stylings, they're a resolutely English-type team; hard, big, hungry, with a big fucking German centre back and a star striker with an assault conviction. So far, it was more nitty gritty than tiki taka, but I got the impression that's how the fans here liked it.

But when Japanese striker Shinji Okazaki scored with outlandish half-overhead kick, the place erupted, predictably. Old school firm boys and recent visitors were celebrating as one, and Leicester were looking lonely at the top again.

At half-time we cabbed it over to the other side of town, to a pub-turned-curry house that'd been recommended to us by Harbo, our cab driver from earlier in the day. He told us he'd be watching the game there, with his son and some of his old mates from the Filbert Road Days.

As older fans they seemed as much interested in their rogan joshs as they were that Andros Townsend had just been brought on, but seeing this multi-ethnic, pan-generational support, I was reminded how little you see non-white communities in the mainstream of British football support.

In a town the size of Leicester, the diversity of the supporters seems almost inescapable, and very much engrained in the club's culture. Harbo and his friends weren't newcomers to the global brand of the Premier League. They were die-hards who'd been following Leicester since the days when the National Front used to leaflet matches. Their experience is sadly still quite unique in English football.

Football might be a global game now, but I wonder how many other British clubs are still carrying the hateful baggage of the bad old days with them, the times when people like Harbo might've been subjected to horrific abuse, even if they were on the right side.

"I suppose you could say that Leicester has integrated better than other places," Harbo tells me after the game had safely finished.

"My dad came here in 1960 to work in a foundry. There were no Indians around then, but I was never marked out as different or anything like that. In the group I used to go to the football with, there were white lads, Indian lads, West Indian lads. None of us really thought anything of it."

"Later on when the NF started to gain popularity, people would say to me, 'Come on Harb, let's go Paki-bashing,' and I was like, 'Look at me!'".

Leaving Harbo to it, we went to meet some of the city's younger inhabitants, the people involved in its youth culture and nightlife. Nico and Sam (AKA Curly Hypa) put on nights, DJ and MC, bringing crowds and acts such as Royal T, Marcus Nasty and others to nights like Beast Wang. I wondered what it was like to grow up and be into music and style and culture here. "The area I grew up in was named one of the most impoverished areas in Britain," says Sam. "My mum wanted to move away a few years ago, now she wants to stay. Because you can't really get away with burning out a car any more."

"It's popping off," adds Nico, optimistically.

I mention that Peter Soulsby, the mayor, told me that his biggest challenge is getting young people to stay here beyond university, instead of moving to London or elsewhere. Both agree that more clubs, more live music, more to do on weekdays is the only way that's going to happen. Britain needs a city that can rise up and take the weight of London, to carry the growing problem of a centralised culture, and Leicester, a blank canvas though it might be, is in a stronger position than most to do it.

On the way back, we stopped at Sami Enver's kebab shop, where we indulged in a free baklava, and a tour of what could be described as the shop's chill-out zone, where Sami and his English wife display the pics of the life they've built for themselves on the Narborough Road.

That weekend, Leicester won 1-0 again. It was another close scrape that's keeping the entire city on its toes. The glory of the Premier League is getting closer and closer, but even if the worst happens, if Leicester do choke, and if Tottenham don't, it's a city that now knows it's got something it can tell the rest of the world about. And if the rest of the world comes to Leicester, they'll see that it's a lot more than Kasabian and a bag of bones in a car park. They'll see that most of the world is already here.

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