After Leicester win the Premier League, an unforgettable party begins
LEICESTER, England -- They could not believe it had happened.
Even though the odds of it not happening were astronomical, even though traders were selling mementos of it before it happened, even though it had been barely a minute since they saw it actually happen with their own eyes, the disbelief was palpable.
Leicester City are the champions of England.
"It's unreal, mate," cried one fan outside the Market Tavern pub. "Pinch me, 'cos I don't think it's really happening!"
Behind him, hundreds of supporters danced in the street, bellowing out a chorus of "Campione!"
Campione. Champions. Leicester City are champions of the Premier League. You can say it as often as you like but it resolutely refuses to make sense. This sort of thing should not happen in modern football.
IN THE AFTERMATH of Tottenham's 2-2 draw with Chelsea on Monday, which confirmed Leicester's title, the party spilled into the city's streets. Between the Market Tavern and The Friary, another hostelry, was parked a television broadcast van.
In one sense, the producer who chose the location was vindicated; this was certainly where the action was. But there was a developing situation that would trap him here for some time: A shirtless Leicester City fan was jumping up and down on the van's roof, ringing a bell, while an expanding crowd of revellers sang the "Dilly Dong" song.
"It's a dream come true!" shouted Vic Sethi. "I can't believe it! Ha ha ha!"
As the crowd grew ever larger, cameramen waded into the mosh pit, braving elbows, bear hugs and celebratory sprays of beer. Reporters boldly attempted to broadcast live as they were jostled by the euphoric mass. And still the man on the van rang his bell.
"It's amazing!" bellowed a woman outside The Friary. "We're over the moon! We can't believe it! I didn't think we'd do it and then we did it and I'm so happy!"
Within moments, the traders arrived. One man tried to sell Leicester City sunglasses, garish blue plastic, for £10. Another had an armful of commemorative T-shirts. While most of the city was still in shock, it didn't take long to capitalise on the moment.
Now it seemed that all of Leicester was on the move. The pubs, bustling and busy all day and all evening, had cleared, and bar staff looked forlornly out of the windows of empty rooms. There was over an hour of drinking time left but no one wanted to sit inside anymore.
Car horns blared in celebration from nearby streets. No one seemed to know where they were going or what they were doing, but they were all grinning. And they all had to go somewhere.
Some ended up at Leicester's King Power Stadium. Others stayed in the city centre and danced by the clock tower at the top of Gallowtree Gate. With a name like that, you suspect this wasn't the first crowd that had ever gathered on the site. But it might be the happiest.
The clock tower itself is smooth and ornate, with no natural footholds, but that didn't stop a succession of young men from trying to climb it. Others clambered on top of bus stops that wobbled alarmingly under their weight. From nowhere, drummers appeared to beat out a soundtrack to the evening. And, of course, someone remembered to bring a football.
Leicester was having a party.
FOURTEEN HOURS EARLIER, it was a very different story in the city centre. Leicester's 1-1 draw at Manchester United, far from being anticlimactic, had sparked celebrations that went on long into the night.
When the sun rose slowly over the deserted city on Monday morning, which happened to be a public holiday in England, it is unlikely to have approved of what it saw: broken glass, dropped kebabs, congealed chips and all sorts of other detritus littered the streets.
The silence of was broken by a shout, which was soon followed by other shouts. And then a group of men began to sway down Granby Street. They sang a football song, the words of which cannot be reproduced here. It was about Tottenham and what Leicester intended to do to them. Their intentions were profoundly unhygienic. It was not even 8 a.m.
Soon, the city council's cleanup crew arrived. As the mess was swept up or blasted into the gutter by detergent-infused hoses, Leicester shook off the headache and got on with business.
One enterprising salesman was in the business of tempting fate. As the morning progressed and shoppers arrived, he set up his stall on the street selling "Leicester City: Champions" flags for £10 each. By 3 p.m., he said that he had sold 300. Clearly, he wasn't the only person in the city to feel confident about the Tottenham game.
"Don't worry," he said to one customer. "Chelsea will beat Spurs, no problem." Another potential customer, a man in his 30s with his young son, was after a "Leicester City: Champions" T-shirt: "All gone, mate," said the trader. "First thing to run out. I've only got the large ones left."
The excitement that preceded Leicester's game on Sunday was not in evidence as kickoff approached at Stamford Bridge, some 115 miles to the south. Reasonable crowds built up in the student quarter, but there was none of the buoyant mood that characterised the previous day. Just tension. And they wanted it over with.
"I'm quite happy to support Chelsea tonight," said Chris Ridley, who has been watching Leicester since 1993. "Not bothered. As long as it gets done. That's all I want. Get it done."
Another lifelong fan, Neil Snow, was wearing a bright blue T-shirt emblazoned with "Chat S---, Get Banged!" in reference to an infamous 2011 tweet by Leicester striker Jamie Vardy. Snow came back for this weekend from his new home in Stockholm. He used to have a season ticket but sold it when he moved to Sweden last year.
"I don't regret moving to Sweden, but had I known that it was going to be like this, I would have kept my ticket and given it to friends," he said. "Then at least I could have gone to some games. I flew into London Stansted yesterday, drove a hire car up, and tomorrow morning I'll be getting up at 4 a.m. to drive back down again. And I'm back on Saturday for the Everton game."
WHEN CHELSEA AND Tottenham kicked off, it looked as if that Everton game would prove to be very important. Spurs looked up for the battle, determined not to bow out of the title race just yet. They took the fight to Chelsea, hitting them hard in every challenge. And then they took the lead.
In the Bowling Green pub, Harry Kane's goal was met with a wave of groans and one rasping obscenity. Tottenham's second, scored by Son Heung-Min nine minutes later, was met only with silence.
"Well, there's a silver lining," said Leicester fan Mike Dawson. "I've got a season ticket, so it will be good to win the title at home. But I just want it over now. There's always fear until you're over the line."
In the Slug & Lettuce at half-time, the mood could best be described as subdued. The fizz appeared to have gone out of the game and attention turned to the one television in the establishment that was still showing the snooker, with local boy Mark Selby attempting to win the world championships.
But Gary Cahill scored for Chelsea, and then no one really cared about the snooker.
Every Chelsea attack was roared on, every Tottenham tackle was met with a heavy sigh. The mood had changed and the room sensed it. From having no chance of overturning a two-goal deficit, from having no chance of winning the title on Monday, suddenly there was a realisation that it would take only one moment to change everything.
And that moment came seven minutes before the end, when Eden Hazard equalised for Chelsea. Now the pub was bouncing, united in hope. The theme song of the campaign, "And Now You're Gonna Believe Us!" was belted out again. But did they believe? From the way they cringed with trepidation whenever Tottenham moved forward with the ball, you'd doubt it.
But the clock continued to tick and six minutes of injury time passed swiftly, most of it used up with further stoppages. And then came the sweetest sound that the city of Leicester has heard in many years: The sound of referee Mark Clattenburg's whistle.
Men and women howled with pleasure. Some stood motionless, their heads in their hands. Others just beamed with happiness. And then they began to pour into the streets, filling the night air with noise that bounced off the shop fronts on Market Street.
It was a sustained, cathartic, relief-filled roar of approval that said the most unlikely title challenge in Premier League history, and quite possibly in football history, had ended in triumph.
And even when those fans wake up on Tuesday morning, even when they hold the newspapers telling the story in their hands, they still won't really believe that it has happened.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.