One bouncer, a few police officers and some taped-up tablecloths in the windows were all that separated the Premier League champions from their adoring public. Leicester City were enjoying a celebratory lunch in San Carlo on Granby Street, and there was a siege outside.
This was the first full day with Leicester at the centre of the football universe, and their fans were revelling in it. But while the celebrations in the morning were disaggregated – flag-waving here, a packed pub there – it needed a focal point. And then the Leicester players got on the bus after training and drove it into the middle of the city.
First the bus swung by the King Power stadium, where some fans had been gathering, shopping and singing. They cheered for their conquering heroes, who waved back, before rolling on slowly into town. As word of their arrival spread, so did the crowds lining the streets. It was like Jesus riding into Jerusalem, but with a full 18-man squad.
The destination was San Carlo, a popular Italian restaurant which the club had booked out the night before. The players and staff, including Claudio Ranieri, were ushered in just before 2pm. The players ate healthily, more meat or fish and vegetables than pasta and pizza. The staff were allowed more licence.
Fans were gathered outside, desperate to look in on the party. Some tried to peek underneath the temporary curtains, but were warned off by police. Children climbed on the shoulders of adults instead to peer over the top, and were cheered when they were high enough up to see.
The crowd started as a few hundred but soon grew into the thousands. Those who could not see climbed on phone boxes, lampposts and balconies for a better view. The more fans there were, though, the harder to get the Leicester players out.
Jamie Vardy, the star of this starless team, had a sponsors’ event to attend and was whisked out, through the front door and into a taxi at 3pm. Danny Drinkwater and then Riyad Mahrez were the next to go, each exit more of a scrum than the last. By now there was a drummer too, beating the rhythms of songs to accompany the departures.
The crowd was fervent and building to the climax of seeing the team leave. Every time the front door opened there was an anticipatory cheer, and a boo when no-one emerged. Only at 4pm, when the coach rolled back in front of the restaurant, and a dozen-strong police cordon made a path to it from the entrance, were the players allowed to leave. It felt like the bursting of a dam. Fans pushed and clambered to get the best view, for themselves or for their camera phones, as the team were hurriedly ushered back into the coach. When the bus finally pulled away down Granby Street, fans ran after it for as long as they could.
There was still fun for those outside, not least in the form of Lee Chapman, the Jamie Vardy lookalike whose life has been transformed in the last week. He does look remarkably similar to Vardy, the same age, build and haircut, and is a Leicester City season-ticket holder to boot. He has become a viral sensation, and has appeared on Soccer AM.
Chapman had been running around Leicester in full replica kit, with ‘Chappy’ on the back, and was outside the King Power stadium when the team bus drove past earlier in the day. The players were desperate not to let the opportunity slip.
“Ranieri spotted me,” Chapman told the Independent later in the afternoon. “The rest of the players were banging on the window for me to get on. I met Jamie, and he said ‘you’re an ugly-looking Jamie Vardy’. He’s just a down-to-earth, normal guy, like me.”
Chapman, then, was waiting outside the restaurant with hundreds of other Leicester fans this afternoon. He did not try to join them for lunch – “I’m not that cheeky” – but did provide a form of entertainment. He stopped for hundreds of selfies, even with those who asked if he was “the proper Jamie Vardy”. He appeared on YouTube channels and made phone-calls to strangers. When the players finally left, he danced with youngsters singing ‘Jamie Vardy’s having a party.’
Even as the best lookalike in football, Chapman is just a small part of the mini-industry that has built up in Leicester around its miracle team. Tuesday was a day of unprecedented attention and opportunity for those marking the title triumph. There were long queues outside each of the booths selling Tuesday’s Leicester Mercury, waiting for the commemorative edition.
One merchandise-seller brought 50 t-shirts and 110 commemorative flags - £10 each – and was sold out within hours. One city-centre printing shop, all out of current Leicester kit and t-shirts, had taken to printing ‘CHAMPIONS 16’ on their leftover stock of the grey 2013-14 away kit instead
So it was even at the club shop on Tuesday morning, where the first fans gathered after the far bigger party late into Monday night. The shop was all out of replica kit, waiting for Friday’s new launch, save for a few children’s home shorts. They had their own £10 champions flags, but not enough.
Some fans had come back to the stadium first thing, having partied there last night. Like Teresa Betts, arm-in-arm with friend Silpa Jethwa. Asked what being champions could mean to the city and its people, the pair stretched out their arms to convey the enormity. “You can just see,” said Betts, with as much voice as she could muster. “Whether you are looking economically, or at morale. I haven’t seen one person without a smile on their face.”
There were some, though, for whom today was as much about assimilation as celebration, about coming to terms with the fact that this team they had followed through decades of not much was now champions of England. So it was for one fan, Thomas, in the Market Tavern, a pub where the walls are covered in replica shirts and they sell Vardy Bombs – Jaeger and Blue WKD – at the bar.
“People don’t understand how deep this goes,” he told the Independent. “People don’t understand how much this means. For those of us who have been watching Leicester through the sh*t for 50 years. I don’t have the words.”
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