Leicester fans celebrate despite Man United draw keeping title party on hold
LEICESTER, England -- There was always a possibility that Sunday would end in anti-climax. Leicester, after all, were away to Manchester United and needed a win to seal the title. Strip away the excitement and that's still a big ask for any club, especially with their top goal-scorer, Jamie Vardy, suspended. But when Michael Oliver blew the full-time whistle after an eventful afternoon at Old Trafford that ended in a 1-1 draw, the people of Leicester swiftly shook off any sense of disappointment.
In the Market Tavern, one young man peeled off his shirt, picked up a blue and white squared flag, climbed on top of a table and swayed unsteadily to the sounds of Jeff Beck. Around him, the entire pub joined him in song.
"Hi Ho, Silver Lining!" they roared. In this case, the silver lining is that Tottenham Hotspur cannot afford a draw when they play Chelsea on Monday night. Outside on Hotel Street, the locals mingled with hundreds of drinkers from Molly O'Grady's next door and The Friary over the road. And in spite of the draw, Danny Drinkwater's late red card or any lingering anxiety that Tottenham might somehow catch them, the faithful danced and sang in the street. There really seems to be no stopping this party.
Within minutes, a phalanx of freelance photographers rushed into the melee, and there was no shortage of volunteers to perform for the cameras. Behind them was that 21st-century phenomenon, a ring of raised smartphones, flashlights beaming like the Eye of Sauron. From the corner of Friar Lane, smiling police officers looked on.
"It's better this way," one officer said. Because it's all good-natured and friendly? "No," the policeman replied. "Because it means we might win it at the King Power Stadium. And I'm not working that day so I can watch it."
Leicester had been nervous all morning. The city was decked in blue and white bunting. Huge flags hung from shop windows. Two hours before kickoff, the streets were filled with people, striding purposefully toward wherever they were watching the game. Last weekend, with Leicester playing at home, the pubs were busy. This weekend, with almost 30,000 Leicester fans stuck in the city, unable to get a ticket for Old Trafford, the pubs were absolutely rammed.
In The Friary an hour before kickoff, it was hard to tell where the queue for the bar started. Everything seemed to be a queue. Dozens of lines, bound together in a dense lump of sweat and tension. The bar staff struggled boldly against overwhelming odds, their task made harder by the masses and their typically British decision to buy four drinks each at once to save the hassle of queuing again.
By the time the game actually started, you watched from wherever you were. There was no room to manoeuvre, no chance to seek out a better vantage point; people simply slipped off their coats onto the ground and played the cards the day had dealt them. One young girl, perhaps nine years old, was perched on a ledge in the middle of the pub, oblivious to the noise and the nerves, deeply engrossed in her iPad. Her father shrugged. "Calmest person in here," he said.
If the rest of The Friary was hoping for something to calm them down, they certainly didn't find it on the television screens that lined the walls. Leicester started badly, so jittery that they could barely gain possession of the ball. United, looking far more like themselves in the opening exchanges, poured forward and it was no surprise when Antony Martial opened the scoring. When he slipped the ball between Kasper Schmeichel's legs, there was a profound sigh; so much air was exhaled at once that you wouldn't have been at all surprised if a window or two had popped out of its frame. One lone Leicester fan opened up with a shout of support, tinted with frustration.
"Oh ... come on Leicester!"
Claudio Ranieri's side don't wilt easily and they clearly weren't going to do it here. Gradually, they picked themselves up and hauled their way back. When Wes Morgan bundled home the equaliser, the pub's windows really were in jeopardy. But while The Friary was loud and boasted pockets of established enthusiasm, the clientele was mixed and, in many cases, seemed new to the cause. Spontaneous songs were thin on the ground.
This was not an issue over the road in the Market Tavern, where the locals spent the second half performing a greatest hits of old favourites, referencing heroes long since retired and a stadium, Filbert Street, long since demolished. Above a floor filled with broken glass and spilled drinks, vocal chords were stretched to their breaking point. People gathered in clusters, some with friends, some at random because they'd been washed up there by the swell of the crowd. One man bought his drink at the bar and turned to extricate himself but saw nowhere to go. There were only crowds. He shrugged, turned back to the TV and decided to wait it out there until full time.
"Chas!" bellowed the landlady midway through the second half. "Chas! Get off the bleeding table!" On the far side of the pub, a man who had been leading the pub in song sheepishly bowed his head and slipped back down onto the floor. Ten minutes later, he was back and she shouted at him again.
In the damp, humid melee, it wasn't always easy to follow the game. Indeed, there was a triumphant cheer toward the end, when Oliver produced a red card. With all the noise, many fans assumed that he'd sent off Memphis Depay for diving. The fury was palpable when realisation dawned that it was Drinkwater leaving early. "I thought this ref was good!" one man shouted at the bar. "But he's just like the rest of them!"
But the dismissal didn't change the game, and when Oliver blew for full-time, there was an almighty cheer. Then, the music came on and shirts came off. Outside, Leicester fan Adam Olsen watched the crowds singing and dancing in the street.
"It's a great result," he said. "It means Tottenham have to win all of their games now. They can't draw." But he recoiled at the suggestion that he's feeling confident now. "No," he shouted over the din, "I don't want to say anything like that. It's part of being a Leicester fan." But is he happy with the idea of winning the title on Monday if Tottenham slip up? He shook his head. "I'd rather do it ourselves but come on, who cares?"
A huge cheer suddenly goes up from the crowd. They've picked up one of the photographers and are throwing him up in the air. The party is in full swing. Leicester is rocking. Who knows what these streets will look like on Monday night if Chelsea win?
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.