Monday 20 November 2017

An all-singing closing medley to bring the house down

Leicester City fans celebrate winning the Barclays Premier League. Photo: John Clifton/Reuters
Leicester City fans celebrate winning the Barclays Premier League. Photo: John Clifton/Reuters

Barney Ronay

Well, that went off pretty well. As deliriously-received once-in-a-lifetime sporting underdog parties go, this one really does have to be up there. On the day the world came to Leicester the club and the town produced something thrilling. This wasn't just a coronation, but a brilliantly-staged day of Total Leicester Celebration entirely worthy of the story that preceded it.

Part of Leicester's success has been the way these outsider champions have grown into their expanding role with such elan. And here too every note was perfect. Leicester played like champions. The air crackled with a very distinct kind of humid delirium. Andrea Bocelli appeared for 10 minutes and brought a house that was already down into a state of complete emotional disrepair. Frankly, it was all gloriously bonkers.

Before kick-off the atmosphere outside the King Power Stadium had been fevered and strangely unbound. Title-victory parties usually come with a bolt-on atmosphere, a set of rituals pulled out from under the bed with the baubles and tinsel.

Not so here. There is no precedent for any of this, no received way of behaving. Instead there was a more generalised delirium, from the fully-functioning fairground sprung up by the roundabout, to the heavily tattooed, deliriously gurning man being carried aloft through the crowd ringing his dilly-dong bell. People watched and rambled. The drums thudded. A middle-aged couple dressed in full-sized pizza slice outfits loitered near the main entrance. Groups of incredibly happy day-tripping Italians gathered in clutches and sang songs.

The gathering tribes were a feature of the day: The lunchtime trains from St Pancras had been packed with Italians, part of a mass travelling insurgence here to witness not just Claudio Ranieri's finest hour, but a moment that has exerted a global fascination. Dario Borroni flew in from Milan to Gatwick and planned to simply spend the day in the city. "I love the story," he said. "What Leicester have done is an inspiration. Everyone who plays because he loves the sport and plays in a small town, they're given hope by Vardy and the other players, this is the proof that sometimes the small team can win."

And so the minutes ticked down. An hour before kick-off the clouds massed, thunder battered the skies and the King Power was drenched with rain. Nobody cared. Nobody really noticed. Finally Ranieri emerged leading Bocelli by the arm. A huge roar came barrelling around the stadium, blue and white Christmas wrapper-style flags rippled, and for a while Ranieri struggled to still the chants of 'Campeones' and 'We are champions because of you'. Ranieri announced. "Thank you so much. I love you."

And so Bocelli sang with magisterial showmanship, building his way to the climax of 'Nessun Dorma' by swishing off his hoodie to reveal a Leicester shirt. And suddenly it was football-opera-karaoke as the whole stadium seemed to join the final straight, Italia 90 style, arms spread. In the stands the man from the Italian newspaper wiped away his tears. Leicester's owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha stood beaming, arms spread, imperial.

It was thrilling, mind-bending stuff, as Bocelli finally left his stage so that Leicester's 37th match of the league season - the grandest, most improbable dead rubber of them all - could take place. Albeit, this wasn't really a football match, more a kind of all-singing closing medley, favourite moments reprised for a crowd already in a state of encore-pleading rapture. 'Champions of England. Andy, Andy King. We're staying up.'

Of course Jamie Vardy scored early. It was a lovely flicked finish on the run, fizzing the ball into the corner of the net from King's cross. The King Power would have erupted at this point, but it was already pre-erupted, a fuzz of booming swirling shrieking noise from all sides. King's second goal was a perfect moment for this man for all divisions, almost too schmaltzy, too cinematic. King has played all through the league levels.

More prosaically, he just looked like an excellent player here, a constant creative menace against an occasionally bedraggled Everton, flustered minor guests at someone else's party of a lifetime. Vardy spanked in his second from the spot to make it 3-0 on 64 minutes. Minutes later he punted another penalty high over the bar when a hat-trick would have not just suspended but banished for good all sense of collective disbelief. Perhaps that would have simply been too perfect. But this was a champion day to crown an improbably thrilling season.


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