For every football fan, there comes a time when you question the merits of caring. Sometimes it lasts an afternoon. Other times, and more frequently after a seething period of reflection, mere minutes.
But we’re all slaves to the strain – that heart-tugging, sick-to-your-stomach feeling of giving a shit. Conditioned to simultaneously love and hate everything on that pitch in front of us while completely powerless to do anything about it.
Being a Leicester City fan is no different. Neutrals may rightfully cast wistful glances in our direction after six baffling years that have encapsulated one of the all-time great escapes, a miraculous title win and two seasons (and counting) of European football. But is it ever truly easy? The answer is no, of course – but neither should it be. It’s those knots in the pit of your stomach which also make the good times so euphoric. We need them for football to mean what it does to us.
You think you’ve completed the game after sitting through the agonising torture of a title victory (yes, really): week after week of pressure; of holding on to 1-0 leads; of watching your rivals' games like they're your own; of wondering whether this will finally, surely, be the game where everything cocks up and you can euthanise the hope once and for all. And then it doesn’t. There’s Wes Morgan, and Eden Hazard, and Jamie Vardy’s kitchen, and a trophy, and Andrea Bocelli, and the Champions League, and... then you just carry on.
And now we’re in an FA Cup final – our first since 1969, having never won the competition and lost more than anyone else in the past (four times, thanks). And it matters. You can have good seasons, great ones even, but almost nothing quite compares to that one day where you can walk down Wembley Way alongside your own. Only they know the journey you’ve been on to get here, each fan with their own twists and bumps along the way, but all carrying that same collective weight of experience. Being a fan can be one of the worst feelings in the world, but try finding a more rewarding one when the going is good – these kinds of moments that for most of us, happen only a few times in our lifetimes.
We’ve never been to the new Wembley before – not properly. The 2016 Community Shield and a 5-4 thriller against Tottenham in the Premier League aside, Leicester haven’t played in a major final since the gradual acceptance that the millennium bug wasn’t going to end days and All Saints topped the charts with Pure Shores. In the ’90s, the old Twin Towers were like a seasonal pilgrimage: four play-off finals and three League Cup showdowns from 1992-2000. There have been close calls since: Trezeguet’s dramatic stoppage-time winner for Aston Villa in last season’s League Cup semis; reaching the play-offs for the first time since 1996 in 2010, only for Yann Kermorgant to make himself a legendary jingle victim with his pathetic Panenka in the semi-final shootout against Cardiff. And the mother of them all: Troy f**king Deeney. No matter what we’ve done since, some punches to the gut still leave a bruise.
Mostly, though, I think back to times long before we were even that ‘good’. As a fan, I've never been to more games in a season than our League One campaign of 2008-09 – my second-favourite season supporting Leicester, when the clouds finally parted after a decade of slow death. Granted, that was a particular year of freedom – my last at school, drizzled in the summery jangles of landfill indie – but I’ve got no doubts that those who were also there felt similar. We won the title at Southend and rubbed shoulders with Hereford, Stockport and Yeovil that year: four clubs who won’t even be in the Football League next season.
I think back to cramming five people into a Toyota Yaris for the worst of 0-0 draws at Plymouth, en route to relegation; of a Tuesday night at the Withdean where fog meant you couldn’t see the other end of the pitch (handy, when you turn a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 defeat); of Mark de Vries doing Spurs in the last minute live on the BBC; of obscure, cheap foreign signings where the hope always, always outweighed the actual outcomes.
Nobody gets to enjoy being good forever. Some never get to enjoy being good at all. It’s often the crap you look back on most fondly, though, when those rare rays of sunshine poke through brightest. It’s your crap. Once you’ve seen a hapless Kevin Pressman get beat by his opposition number, you’re practically bulletproof.
In a curious way, it’s also those times you feel most protective of when the country’s biggest clubs are slithering up to one another trying to form breakaway leagues reserved for an elite few. We’ve had Elvis Hammond, Hossein Kaebi, Matt Mills and Barry Hayles; now we get Jamie Vardy, Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi – and if all goes to plan, under the lights on Tuesday nights next season too. Because we can. Others could.
Those unscrupulous charlatans will simply never understand what it means to be a football fan. At school, amid our early-noughties years fighting administration, relegations and Championship obscurity, supporting Leicester wasn’t much of a badge of honour. Few of my mates went every week, and there wasn’t a whole lot to be proud of. But I’ve always pitied the fan who tells you they support Manchester United with any accent other than one that fits a series of Shameless – over the years they’ve missed out on so much. Sure, you’ve seen the club win some trophies on the telly, but what does that actually mean? The snobbery isn’t lost on me, I can assure you, but it’s true – at least for me.
While the giants plot their league of brands, they fail to remember something we’re all guilty of at some point. What is football for? Is it existing in the Premier League and getting angry about transfers? Is it even really about the winning? At its heart is something no oligarch or leveraged takeover could ever buy: that cherished sense of belonging to our clubs, no matter what level we’re playing at. It’s the shared hope; the pre-match pints; even the post-match Twitter chat with fans you’ve known for years. Ask a Bury fan what they’ll be doing in August, when fans flood through the turnstiles once more. What they’d give even to just be bad again.
Leicester are a good team these days – a very good one, in fact. We’re among the lucky ones who’ve seen our team pull off something spectacular that will live with us the rest of our lives. That we’ve also seen the bottom of the glass will always make it that bit more special. The caretaker manager from that aforementioned 0-0 draw at Plymouth is now our director of football – Jon Rudkin has been since 2014, having initially started at the club as a youth coach in 1998. Even the kitman has a story to tell: the former coach driver for Germany at Euro 96 hasn’t missed a first-team game for our club since that same year.
We all want stories to tell. On Saturday, I’ll be one of the very lucky ones making my way down Wembley Way – two decades is a long time to have waited for that moment again in a sea (or rather a pool this weekend) of blue. There’ll be plenty of knowing looks from tube to turnstile along the way: the kind that say, ‘I’ve seen a bloke signed from Teletext knock us out of this competition once’.
It's really not about the winning. But wouldn’t it be nice.
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