Leicester soak up the Premier League celebration of the century
LEICESTER, England -- The Premier League has never seen anything like this. The Premier League never expected to see anything like this. Wes Morgan, a £1m defender, lifting the trophy that he and his similarly priced teammates had won, not by fluke or fortune, but by what will be a considerable margin.
This is the Premier League. It is the richest league in the world, historically dominated over its relatively brief existence by a small cabal of powerful clubs. Chelsea and Manchester City spent hundreds of millions of pounds to start winning it. Manchester United and Arsenal have spent similar fortunes trying to keep winning it. Liverpool and Tottenham have done likewise and they've never won it. But Leicester have won it. And they won it in style, shrugging off the notion that they might take their foot off the accelerator and obliterating sorry Everton with more comfort than the 3-1 scoreline suggested. This was the day of days, a day that may never be repeated. And no-one will ever forget it.
Thousands were gathered outside the King Power Stadium more than three hours before kickoff, enjoying the fairground rides, taking advantage of the club's offer of a free beer or simply standing in the sunshine with a bemused grin, soaking up the moment, taking it all in.
The world moves quickly now. Local themes become global memes within a matter of minutes. Social media is all over it and then, within hours, it is simply over it. But no one in Leicester has yet grown weary of what happened on Monday night. You suspect that no one ever will. In the streets on the way to the stadium, player portraits are tied to lampposts, posters are up in windows and cars decked with blue scarves honk each other at every junction.
"I've been supporting Leicester for over 35 years," said supporter Pram Rana. "I never ever thought anything like this could happen. Success to us was winning League One; it was getting promoted to the Premier League. It feels like I need someone to pinch me. We just went mad on Monday. The whole of Leicester went crazy. Everyone knew it was going to happen, but it still came as a bit of a surprise. We've never had anything like this."
"I've waited 50 years for this party," said Gaynor Hansen with a laugh. "Fifty years! And the day is here! It's unbelievable. I'm speechless. The only words I can use are 'Dilly ding! Dilly dong!' Up until Monday night I was still waiting for someone to pull the rug from under our feet. Because we're Leicester City. We don't win the Premier League! But we have! Two minutes after the final whistle on Monday, I burst into tears and I'm still emotional now. If I saw Claudio Ranieri today, I'd just give him a big hug and a big kiss. And I'd say, 'Grazi! Grazi! Grazi!'"
Looking on was Everton supporter Jimmy Woods, who paid tribute to the home fans while trying not to dwell on his own frustrations. "I wish it was us, don't get me wrong, but it's their day. Best of luck to them. They deserve it. They've done so well this season."
Ranieri's programme notes were suitably, well, Ranieri. "(Our fans) were dreaming," he wrote. "I said dilly-ding, dilly-dong, they woke up and the dream is a reality."
Captain Wes Morgan was a little more conventional and gave a little insight as to how this astonishing feat has been achieved. "I feel a great sense of pride," he wrote. "Everybody has played an important part in their individual way. Nobody has got above their station; everybody has remained grounded and together. We all work hard for each other because we knew what we wanted to achieve."
But as kickoff approached, the sunshine was lost above huge, grey clouds that loomed over the stadium. Lightning flashed in the sky and thunder rolled through the sky. It was as if Leicester's impossible success had angered the gods in some way. But the clouds parted for the arrival of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.
He had revealed this week that he contacted Ranieri himself and asked if he could have the honour of performing. "I've followed the story of Leicester for months," he said. "I love this beautiful story."
It was Ranieri who led the singer onto a stage in the centre circle, serenaded of course by a chorus of "Championes." "Andrea Bocelli is here for you," announced Ranieri after finally convincing the stadium to fall as close to silent as it was ever going to be. "I want to say to you that we are champions because you pushed us, thank you so much."
And then Bocelli sang, and how he sang. For a time, thoughts of football melted away, ludicrous and pointless, replaced by something different and altogether more ethereal. With his every breath, a stadium of souls was lifted higher and moved further by the beauty of it all. Apart from the Everton fans who, with absolutely no sense of occasion, cheekily chanted their own team's name throughout.
But for all their efforts, there was no mischief that could drown out Bocelli, no distraction that could spoil the moment. Banners rose in the stands. Shining flags of blue and white were waved. And then Ranieri gave into the emotion and allowed himself to shed a few tears. He was far from alone on that front.
When the game eventually kicked off, it did so to the sound of the dilly dong song, the most unlikely soundtrack to the most unlikely season ever. It took just 20 minutes before the first Mexican Wave rippled around the stadium, stopping abruptly at the edge of the away end. The visiting supporters were good-natured and full of praise for Leicester, but there were limits.
Ranieri had warned his players this week that he would, "kill them," if they thought their season was over and slowed down. The rumours that the Italian is far harder and tougher in private than he seems in public must be true. Leicester opened the scoring in the fifth minute, Jamie Vardy slipping in between Bryan Oviedo and John Stones to poke home Andy King's cross. King, who has now won League One, the Championship and the Premier League with Leicester, could have added another soon after, his close-range header saved well by Everton goalkeeper Joel Robles. But King's moment came in the 33rd minute when he side-footed home after Mahrez had caused chaos on the right.
Everton were generally as poor as Leicester were vibrant. Roberto Martinez's men moved the ball slowly and in pretty patterns, but to little effect and with far less of the off-the-ball movement that characterised their play in happier times. Defensively, they were simply abject.
"It's done now," said Everton fan Woods even before the game. "Martinez has had his chance. The press conferences, well, you wonder what game he's watching. Obviously, he's watching a different game from us. He's a nice fella, he really is. But my dad's a nice fella and I wouldn't like him to manage Everton either."
The pattern continued in the second half and to minimal resistance. In the 64th minute, Vardy was clumsily felled by Matthew Pennington, already on a yellow card for an equally reckless shove of Riyad Mahrez earlier. Vardy picked himself up and gleefully slammed home his 24th goal of the season. Another chance came and went for him five minutes later, Robles blocking his shot and then howling in frustration at his defenders. Two minutes later, Vardy missed another penalty, blasting it over the bar. While this season has been a dream for Leicester, it has been a nightmare for Everton. Kevin Mirallas' late goal proved no consolation.
One by one, heroes were withdrawn to extraordinary ovations. First, the selfless Shinji Okazaki, then Marc Albrighton, released on a free transfer by relegated Aston Villa in 2014. Finally, the PFA Player of the Year, Mahrez. And with that, Leicester moved an incredible 10 points clear at the top of the table. They haven't just won this league, they've dominated it. But the game was secondary to the main event; it was a warm-up act for the most extraordinary coronation in the history of the Premier League.
There was still a sense of disbelief in the city all week, a fear that at some point it was going to be taken away from them. But when Morgan lifted that trophy above his head, it was all so real. Whatever else happens in the future, wherever the road leads, they will always have this. Ranieri, Vardy, Mahrez, N'Golo Kante, Morgan and all the others. They will live forever now.
Quite possibly the most incredible English champions of all time.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.