Heart Of Football

Leicester, my Leicester, is a team of and for the world

Champions-elect Foxes are led by a Roman, spearheaded by an English-Japanese strike force

The world waits for Leicester to be crowned English champions.

As a Leicestershire boy, born and bred in the county of the Foxes, I truly never, ever imagined such a thing. Even today, with the Premier League turned upside down, we citizens of the county are wary that Manchester United (being ever so rich and worldly Man U) will put the celebrations on hold.

Leicester City as champions of England? Pull the other leg!

Except that it is happening. A Roman, Claudio Ranieri, is just one win away from completing the Leicester rise from bottom to top. And all roads lead to the Fosse Way, the dead straight road built by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago to link the South West Coast to the North East of England - passing through Leicester in the heart of the midlands on the way.

So everything, and nothing, is new today.

Leicester was on the Roman map long before the old grey fox, Mister Ranieri. And, oh, thousands of years before Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, and Shinji Okazaki to name but three of the team that is storming the Premier League.

Leicester people feel differently about themselves today because the championship is almost in the bag. And because next season, the Foxes will be running in the Champions League along with Barcelona, the Madrids, Bayern Munich, Juventus and all those big names.

Englishman, Algerian, Japanese. The club, financed by Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha (another thing we Leicestershire folk never expected to say), has suspended our disbelief.

That's yours, and mine, and those in every part of the world that follow this game.

I am paid to be neutral, but the editors of The Sunday Times know my "secret" and ask for this one weekend to abandon neutrality and tell it from the heart.

It's difficult because Leicester is no longer the city of my youth, a city which, being all of 14 miles from where I lived and studied and played, seemed as big and remote as the green countryside (the fox-hunting green fields) that form the county.

Today, I hear Americans make a hash of trying to pronounce Leicester (simply say it like Lester), and they make a mockery of the syntax and "mis-spelling" of quaint old English folk.

But it's still our Leicester, though you are very welcome to share the romance. Our Leicester, which actually has an Asian community right in the centre - a community that has brought jewellery shops where there used to be hosiery and shoe-making factories.

One jeweller last week pronounced that he has invited Mr Jamie Vardy, and the future Mrs Vardy, to choose any rings of their fancy and he will give them, free of charge, to the couple.

Jamie Vardy, the non-League reject risen to Hollywood movie script fame because of his goals, wouldn't be alone if he finds all this fame and fortune just a little bit surreal.

Mahrez, the wing magician chosen by the professional players of 100 clubs in England and Wales, was blown away when he learned last Sunday that he was the first African to be voted the players' Player of the Year in the UK.

And we can keep on going with the worldliness of this story.

N'Golo Kante, that tenacious little fellow who bites into the tackles and covers a dozen kilometres every game, had to leave his native France to be recognised by his own country in time for the Euro 2016 tournament.

A Leicester blue, and now also one of Les Bleus.

You know what thrills me? When the City players take to the field in the renamed King Power stadium (it was Filbert Street in my day), they do so to a rasping blast of the Post Horn Gallop.

Listen to it next weekend when Leicester play against Everton with every prospect of winning the title on home soil if it isn't won by staving off defeat in Manchester this afternoon - or Spurs failing to win at Chelsea tomorrow.

The military shrillness of the tune always quickens my stride, and always did so because it was the Leicester foxes' rallying call.

With all the changes, the infusion of Thai money, the expansion of Leicester City so that its parts on the field represent every continent on earth, it doesn't seem the same place, let alone the same club.

Leicester - my Leicester - was, as far back as I remember anything, a yo-yo team. Sometimes too good for the old second division, often not quite good enough to stay in the top flight, we bounced up and down between the tiers of English football.

Leicester people feel differently about themselves today because the championship is almost in the bag. And because next season, the Foxes will be running in the Champions League along with Barcelona, the Madrids, Bayern Munich, Juventus and all those big names.

We are told that Ranieri was cagey enough when he was invited to take over the team to ask for a clause in his contract that will net him a £5 million (S$9.82 million) bonus for winning the league.

The wily old so-and-so. He either saw something (he says it was exceptional camaraderie, hunger and teamwork), or was backing the longest shot of his life.

Speaking of backing, there was nothing to stop any believer in Leicester wagering on the team to do the improbable and win the EPL. Anyone who put, say £100, on the Foxes to outrun the rest at the start of the season could be about to cash in on a life-changing half a million this week.

The odds were 5,000 to 1. I know a lot of Leicester City supporters, but don't know of anyone who put a penny on the team.

Yet new experts, from different cultures, now reckon they saw something coming. One fanciful link is the story that the bones of King Richard lll, found on the site of a long gone Leicester church that is now a car park, were given a fresh burial in Leicester Cathedral this time last year, coinciding with the start of the Foxes' escape from relegation.

Another comes from Thailand where the monks of the Golden Buddha Temple in Bangkok were persuaded to visit Leicester's stadium and bless the turf periodically over the season.

It is karma, they say.

There are no disbelievers left in the city of Leicester. The fans there are grateful for everything, though they worship Ranieri and they see with their own eyes the sheer effort that started with the players running for Premier League survival.

Many canny Leicestershire people also know that this has been a remarkable season of failure. Chelsea's implosion, the Manchesters, Arsenal and Liverpool not being the sum of their expensive parts.

Only Tottenham pushed for the title. And, hey, who would back the cockerels against the mighty foxes?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 01, 2016, with the headline 'Leicester, my Leicester, is a team of and for the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe