'I Should Die Happy': Checking in on Leicester 2 Years After Their Miracle

Tim Wigmore@@timwigContributor IMay 2, 2018

TOPSHOT - Leicester City's Italian manager Claudio Ranieri (L) poses with Leicester City's Austrian defender Christian Fuchs (C) and Leicester City's Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel with the premier league trophy after winning the league and the English Premier League football match between Leicester City and Everton at King Power Stadium in Leicester, central England on May 7, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / ADRIAN DENNIS / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.  / / AFP PHOTO / ADRIAN DENNIS        (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Colin Murrant burst into tears. It was April 3, 2016, and Leicester City, his lifelong team, had just beaten Southampton 1-0.

"Some guy grabbed me—I don't know who the hell he was—and he started crying as well," Murrant recalls to B/R. "We just stood there hugging each other. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it."

One month later, Leicester City were the most unlikely champions of England.

To be a Leicester fan in 2016 was not just to support title-winners; it was to support the most popular title-winners in the history of the Premier League, flag-bearers for the idea that titles are won rather than bought. In the partisan world of English football, it was hard to find anybody not rooting for "the Foxes."

Against this memory—simultaneously so vivid and otherworldly—reality could hardly not feel humdrum.

Murrant, now 68, and his son Tim have been going to Leicester City games for more than 30 years. Tim was registered as a Junior Fox when he was two days old—before Murrant had actually registered his birth.

The Martin O'Neill years around the turn of the century, which included two League Cup victories and consecutive finishes of ninth, 10th, 10th and eighth in the Premier League, were the most successful that father or son had ever known. "He took us places where we'd never been," Murrant says of O'Neill, a successful manager in his own right.

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But nothing could prepare Murrant for the delirium and disbelief of 2015/16: the 5000-1 season. A campaign that started with Leicester being tipped for relegation, not for title glory.

Colin Murrant with his grandkids
Colin Murrant with his grandkidsCourtesy of Colin Murrant

"You just expected to win," he says when we meet in the BrewDog in Leicester, a favoured pre-match joint for many fans.

While on one level he embraced the team's brilliance, on another, Murrant—a member of the Foxes Trust Board, the supporters' group—expected the team to remember they were Leicester City.

"No other fans have even experienced what we did—because it was so unreal," Murrant recalls. He felt as if Leicester were being carried by a greater force. "The whole world was with you," he says he remembers thinking.

They are not anymore. It is Saturday, March 3, and after his pre-match pint, Murrant and other fans trudge through the snow and slush on their way to Leicester's match against Bournemouth. A victory would improve Leicester's prospects of getting into the Europa League, but it already feels like the season is winding down.

The scheduling of the game is indicative of Leicester's return to a sleepy provincial Premier League club. While in the heady days of 2015/16, Leicester compelled themselves to be live on TV, today's match is at 3 p.m. on a Saturday. The club have no televised Premier League matches in March and April. Murrant laughs: "That probably tells you where we are at the moment."

In the freezing cold at King Power Stadium, fans' spirits are warmed by a pre-match show of memorable recent Leicester City moments. Naturally, the montage culminates with the sight of Claudio Ranieri lifting the Premier League trophy. As they savour the exceptional skill of Riyad Mahrez, the goalscoring of Jamie Vardy and the leadership of Wes Morgan, Leicester's fans applaud with their famous hand-clapper: It is as if they are somehow still believing, willing the moment to happen all over again.  

"We need the three points!" the Tannoy exclaims as the players take the field. Kasabian—the city's most famous band, whose tunes formed the soundtrack of Leicester's run to the league title—blares out.

But an encore of 2015/16 this is not. This is a day when Leicester toil, but they don't quite click; in other words, it was what would once have been considered a normal day, before no one was sure what normal was anymore. Mahrez is the sole Leicester player immediately identifiable as being of title-winning pedigree; he creates several fine chances and then, in the 97th minute, decides to take the matter head-on and curls a wondrous free-kick to salvage a 1-1 draw.

Kasabian's "I'm on Fire" blares out as the whole team engulf Mahrez. For a few moments, the King Power Stadium almost feels like it's 2016.

The fleeting illusion soon collapses. "It was an appalling game—appalling," one fan grumbles walking away from the ground. "I'm glad to be leaving that—it was dreadful. Dreadful," he laments, as if only repeating the words will convey quite how poor the team were.

Two years on it is back to normality for Leicester
Two years on it is back to normality for LeicesterLaurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Even the joy of Mahrez's performance is tainted by the knowledge he will almost certainly depart in the summer. His captain Morgan is derided as "too old and fat" by another departing fan. One says, simply: "Well, that was a load of crap, wasn't it?"

Perhaps they shouldn't be grumbling. Leicester are having their second-best season since 2000. Given their history, a season of comfortable mid-table obscurity, accompanied by good runs in both domestic cups, ought to be savoured.

Instead, everything is seen through the prism of that 2015/16 season; and, rather than delight in what they have, Leicester fans can be left feeling oddly empty.

For a yo-yo club (locals once joked that Leicester belonged in "Division One and-a-half"), being nestled in the top half of the Premier League, effectively safe by the end of January, ought to be cherished. If it is not, the club only have their own miracle workers to blame.

Winning the title changed something fundamental in the psyche of Leicester fans; something that, even for those like Murrant, cannot easily be undone. Feelings of that wondrous triumph are so intense that everything is now seen through that lens. Fans know that is absurd. But fans are also human beings.

When they played Manchester United recently, Murrant and other Leicester fans chanted that they'd won the league "more recently than you." Yet such cockiness cannot conceal the frustration that comes after a miracle. "You feel a bit disappointed that we haven't really gone on from it," Murrant says. "It has set the bar higher, without question."

The temptation is to write off Leicester's title as a wonderful and mad aberration, a glorious and utterly incongruous interlude for both the league and Leicester themselves.

And the league has indeed returned to a world in which the link between input and output—what a team spends and what results they get—seems inexorable.

Champions League football proved profitable for Leicester
Champions League football proved profitable for LeicesterGonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

But, for Leicester, it is possible to glimpse at least the start of an on-field legacy from the miracle. What they achieved was so impossible and absurd that a legacy does not mean being regular Europa League participants, let alone challenging for the Champions League or the Premier League title. Instead, it would be a secure existence as a mid-table Premier League club.

As there was no precedent for a club like Leicester winning a major league in the modern era, there was no precedent for how to exploit this opportunity.

"Football's arms race is brutal; winning the Premier League is a necessary but not sufficient condition for building long-term fan engagement and associated revenue streams," says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford Business School.

"The really big clubs—Manchester United, Juventus, Real Madrid, etc.—can sustain commercial success off-the-field because they are consistently successful on it. If Leicester City really wants to hit the financial big-time, then it has to make finishing in the top five a regular goal. Otherwise, the club stands to become nothing more than a modern version of mid-'90s-era Blackburn Rovers."

Sponsors seem to have forgotten the Leicester City story just as quickly as they were captivated by it. Remarkably, in 2016-17, Leicester City actually earned slightly less in sponsorship and advertising than in 2015-16. While Leicester earned £14.2 million in sponsorship in 2016-17, Manchester United—who finished fifth the previous year, meaning they were not even in the subsequent Champions League—earned £162.3 million.

Success alone—even when it is as glorious as Leicester's—is not sufficient to compete off the pitch, making competing with the elite on it over a period of time virtually impossible.

As a result, Leicester are now one of the Premier League's most anonymous sides, even if there is still evidence they have used the title to build a bounty that will make them more successful in the long run.

Leicester City's English striker Jamie Vardy (L) comes on as substitute for Leicester City's Algerian midfielder Riyad Mahrez during the English FA Cup third round replay football match between Leicester City and Fleetwood Town at King Power Stadium in Le
PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

Together, the Premier League triumph and run to the Champions League quarter-finals—which generated £70 million from UEFA, in addition to extra ticket sales— were worth about £120 million to Leicester, according to Rob Wilson, a football finance expert from Sheffield Hallam University.

Commercial revenue (which excludes sponsorship and advertising) nudged up by £2 million in 2016-17, suggesting Leicester shirt sales were stronger. "They have undoubtedly gained brand position from their success," says Wilson. "Without it their revenues would not have grown in the same way."

Although Leicester's record in the transfer market has been mixed since 2016, the proceeds of the title are also being siphoned off to invest in longer-term projects—like a new state-of-the-art training ground that is currently being planned.

So, if the iron law of modern football—that link Leicester fleetingly broke between what a club spends and its results on the pitch—holds at King Power Stadium, in the coming years, the club should be more successful than if the miracle had never happened.

It may not feel like it, but for a club of Leicester's size and financial means, success in normal circumstances looks a lot like the current season. Whether Leicester can continue to experience it may depend, paradoxically, on how much they can forget their title victory and the dangers of unrealistic expectations that it brings. "I really do believe in the next few years we will establish ourselves in that sixth or seventh position," Murrant says.   

Yet football is about emotions, not cold economic logic. There is a sense that being a Leicester fan is now simply less fun—and that the 2017-18 season would have seemed altogether more captivating had it not been preceded by the Premier League crown and a run to the Champions League quarter-finals.

"Yeah, definitely," Murrant admits. "I'd have to say yes because nothing could ever surpass that. If we won it for the next 10 years—which we won't—it would never be as good as that one because it was just so unexpected. Nothing could ever surpass it, I realise that."  

His regret is his two grandsons— who were five and three when Morgan lifted the Premier League trophy—were too young to fully appreciate the enormity of Leicester's achievement. Worse, they even thought it was the norm.

"They just think this is Leicester, this is it. I remember my son saying that telling them we're not going to win this every year is going to be worse than telling them there's no Father Christmas. We're never going to win it again—let's be honest about it."

Leaving King Power Stadium, a group of fans cannot help but hark back to that season. "We were treated like royalty," one fan reminisces. On the train away from Leicester, another fan complains that Bournemouth were allowed to take their penalty a couple of inches closer to the goal than the penalty spot. "Not that I think those couple of inches would have made any difference," he says with a laugh.

"If ever you feel down, you just put the DVD on," Murrant says. "It'll never leave you." He loves nothing more than watching the video of Andrea Bocelli singing "Nessun Dorma" immediately before Leicester lifted the Premier League trophy.

"I'm welling up now," he smiles. "I've seen the promised land. I should die happy."

He has instructed that "Nessun Dorma" is played at his funeral.