Like many, my introduction to Leicester City was through a man in white ballet tights. It was 1979, a perishing day, and Scotland seemed about to be denied its traditional ten minutes of English football tacked on to the end of Sportscene until Archie MacPherson confirmed that an outside-broadcast unit had battled through the snow to film one of the few surviving games – City vs Ice Station Zebra.
Was that what the opposition were called? It doesn’t really matter. What was important, and unforgettable, was that Keith Weller wore tights. No-one did this back then (he wore gloves, too). At City’s Filbert Street the mercury had frozen. Probably the man from the Leicester Mercury had frozen, entombed in a Glacier Mint while attempting to type his match report. Out on the pitch the Ice Station defence looked like the pathetic survivors of a Disney animation movie still 34 years away from release – trapped in an eternal winter. And Prima Ballerina Weller? With blood circulating as normal thanks to the hosiery, and with the orange ball seemingly Araldite-d to his feet, he pranced into position for a lovely goal.
So how was he greeted? With ridicule, of course. Football in ’79 was unforgivingly macho and players were supposed to take whatever the weather threw at them. Enlightenment has been slow. Twenty years after Filbert Street, Graeme Le Saux was subjected to abuse for doing something as poncey as Weller (reading the Guardian). More recently still, Steve McClaren hoisted an umbrella at a rain-lashed Wembley, losing the England job, and managers are still ruining expensive suits in downpours, just to show they’re big and tough.
The English game’s dinosaur ways are amusing to us, Scotland having some of its own of course, but I hope the current Leicester manager, Claudio Ranieri, can take heart from Weller’s story. Everyone laughed at the late striker but they were wrong: not only did he win the game for his club that day but he proved himself to be a second-skin trailblazer. Everyone laughed at Leicester when they appointed Ranieri, but look at them now.
At the start of this incredible season, the Italian was everyone’s prediction for the first manager to be sacked. An old nickname was dredged up: “Tinkerman”. If he could fail at Chelsea with all their advantages, then how could he possibly succeed at a club who’d barely survived relegation?
This theory ignored a few truths. Chelsea are mad and ruthless. Managers can change. Sometimes they’re written off too quickly, just as sometimes other managers, when they arrive, are written up too gushingly. Louis van Gaal got that treatment when he took over at Manchester United: a true football aristocrat, come to give England the benefit of his supreme knowledge. Ranieri has almost done for the Dutchman this season, having already seen off Jose Mourinho, another not short of fluffers in the media and a boss who had baited him in the past. The exuberant, irresistible Leicester were just too hot for the bold Jose and he spontaneously combusted.
Last week, some of the gentlemen of the English press gathered and admitted they got it wrong about Leicester and wrong about Ranieri. What was it about him they misunderstood or didn’t rate or thought a character flaw? His quiet, quirky, boffiny nature? In the country of the blind, the baseball-capped manager is king, or very often thought to be. Him, or the one with the bull neck – both as Anglo-Saxon as you can get. But Leicester had just blown away Manchester City and if they do the same to Arsenal today they might well become champions for the first time in their 132-year existence.
Like the film Frozen, an early version of which was played out at Filbert Street in ’79, Leicester’s current story is a wondrous fairytale. It would be wrong to say it’s all been about a fair-haired one and a dusky one; like any side who’ve ever dared challenge the orthodoxy and the elite, it must be a brilliant team effort. Nevertheless, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have been sensational. Have we run out of superlatives for them yet? Ranieri, speaking to the Italian sports daily Corriere dello Sport last week, reckoned not. “This year Mahrez has given us incredible magic,” he said, while Vardy “runs at 1,000 miles an hour and always at the same speed”.
I never saw this coming either. “Where is Leicester?” my eight-year-old asked as the Foxes started to irk the established order. I pointed vaguely at a map, only having been there once in my life and that to interview Zoe Ball (who did give me a kiss). Pop music-wise, the place has provided Showaddywaddy, a band who were 20 years out of date, and Kasabian, who started out wanting to be Oasis, but there’s nothing phoney about the football team.
My laddie liked the racket made by their fans in televised games – the King Power Stadium appears a bit utilitarian after the low-slung charms of Filbert Street, but it’s a thunderbox for sure – and wanted to know who they’d play in a local derby. “Nottingham Forest, perhaps?” I said. “Who the heck are they?” he said. But it’s difficult to ignore the parallels between Forest’s improbable title triumph of 1977-78 and what Leicester are doing right now, not least when you remember how Brian Clough’s side shocked Manchester with a 4-0 win at Old Trafford.
There are only three Leicester match programmes in my collection: those from the games featuring Weller’s snow waltz and the two hat-tricks Birmingham City’s Kenny Burns netted against Peter Shilton. The first was all headers, the second a perfect hat-trick, with the latter coming on another ice rink of a pitch. But Leicester don’t seem to mind Arctic conditions.
Their last charge to the summit came during the ferocious winter of 1962-63, England’s coldest on record in the 20th century, when groundsman Bill Taylor’s ingenious mixing of fertiliser with weedkiller generated enough heat to keep the frost at bay and City playing – while their Scottish manager Matt Gillies, Frank McLintock and playmaker Davie Gibson from Hibernian earned the club the nickname of the “Ice Age Champs”.
Leicester didn’t quite finish champs that season but maybe it’ll happen this time. And wouldn’t that be wonderful? For once the tagline, somehow copyrighted, of “the best league in the world” would be justified.