Leicester City and Wembley – reunited after sixteen years

After the dream we never dared to have, the dream we have long harboured: Leicester City are returning to Wembley Stadium after sixteen years.

We will become reacquainted on Sunday for the FA Community Shield after both spending a large portion of that time on a circuitous rebuild. The final years of the Twin Towers saw a pair of League Cup triumphs under Martin O’Neill.

Then the rot set in and City were relegated in 2002, just months before the demolition of Wembley began.

 

The stadium re-opened on 17th March 2007. We lost at Stoke that day, in the middle of a ten-match winless run. A year later we returned to Stoke, drew 0-0 and fell out of the top two divisions for the first time in our history. Wembley seemed a lifetime away, not eight years.

The Premier League title was out of reach for so many clubs at that time. 2008 signalled the mid-point of seven successive seasons when the title went to either Chelsea, having replaced Claudio Ranieri with José Mourinho, or Manchester United. Ranieri, Mourinho and United will all be there on Sunday.

And so will we.

The Sixties: Should I stay or should I go?

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When Leicester City club historian John Hutchinson reels off the names of the 1963 team that came close to the double and ended up winning neither the league nor the FA Cup, he does it with such speed that it sounds like one word.

That emphasises the familiarity of the eleven names and the warmth felt towards a side known as the Ice Kings for their ability to deal with wintry pitches.

All eleven of the team stayed with City the following season and all made at least 25 appearances.

City had lost in the FA Cup final in 1961 and followed up 1963’s defeat to Manchester United by losing again, this time to Manchester City, in 1969. Davie Gibson played in both the 1963 and 1969 finals, a Scot who made Filbert Street his second home – and Wembley his third.

“Gibson was the key player in that ’63 side,” says Hutchinson. “He was magical. I suppose you could say he was the Mahrez of the team. He was the creative one.”

Full-back Richie Norman agreed with that assessment, telling Laurie Whitwell of the Daily Mail in March: “Davie Gibson was like our Riyad Mahrez, excellent, very tricky.”

Now aged 78, Norman was glad about Leicester games being moved to Sundays for television towards the end of last season because he was still working as a physio for non-league Nuneaton on Saturdays. Many of the Ice Kings still attend games, half a century on from their playing days.

 

Hutchinson clearly has a sense of the history the current team have made, regularly weaving parallels between then and now, but it doesn’t take a historian for that. We all realise. This surreal story has made each of us gaze into the future, knowing these players will be looked back on as heroes.

Just one has turned us against him – for now, at least.

If Mahrez was the creative force behind City’s improbable title win, then N’Golo Kanté was the driving force.

Gerry Taggart, who played in City’s previous game at Wembley in 2000, spoke to the Daily Mirror just days before the title was sealed about the likelihood of key players remaining at the club.

“It would be a terrible shame if the people who are about to win the Premier League didn’t stay at Leicester and play in the Champions League,” he said. “They will be short-changing the club, the fans and the city.

“These lads have changed football – hopefully for good – and then what are they going to do? Walk out of the door because someone has offered them a few quid more? They’re set for life as it is. You’ve got to give it a go. You’ve got to stay put, surely.”

Kanté didn’t. He walked out of the door, seemingly uninterested in retaining the same warmth of affection afforded to each member of the Ice Kings.

The challenge Claudio Ranieri has now is how to replace the irreplaceable. There’s nobody quite like Kanté anywhere in the world, let alone in Leicester City’s squad.

One of the midfielders hoping for selection in his place will be Andy King, approaching a decade of service for the club, the closest thing we have now to a loyal servant in an era when success is rewarded with £100,000 supercars.

Kanté won’t be getting one of the BMWs dished out by City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. He won’t experience the Champions League this season either and, of course, he will also miss out on Wembley. Thankfully, it looks like he will be the only one. Mahrez will be there. King will be there.

And so will we.

The Nineties: The magic of Wembley

May 1992.

Blue and white bucket hats shielded disbelieving eyes from bright sunlight. Leicester City were playing at Wembley for the first time since the 1960s.

And this was vintage Wembley. This was Gazza Wembley, still basking in the afterglow of Italia ’90 and yet to experience the horror of “Brolin, Dahlin, Brolin, brilliant!” or holidays elsewhere in 1994 while the World Cup is played out, England-less, in the United States.

This was iconic Wembley, just five days after Ronald Koeman’s free kick blasted Barcelona to their first ever European Cup win.

Barca will visit Wembley before 2016’s visit of Leicester City too, but just one day before – for a friendly with Liverpool as part of the International Champions Cup.

We haven’t been immune to this – playing against Celtic in Glasgow, Paris Saint-Germain on the outskirts of Los Angeles and Barca themselves in Stockholm.

As supporters, we are eternally grateful that our Wembley visit, that means so much to us, will be one earned through merit rather than chucked in our direction as part of a sprawling pre-season tournament.

I was seven years old in May 1992 and took defeat that day to Blackburn Rovers like a punch to the stomach. I took 1993’s defeat to Swindon Town like a kick to the head.

By 1994 and a third successive Division Two play-off final, this time against Derby County, I was beginning to run out of body parts to illustrate the pain.

Thankfully, we won.

 

In 1996, City played in a fourth play-off final in five years. From my vantage point level with the six-yard box, I saw a look of horror on Crystal Palace goalkeeper Nigel Martyn’s face as the ball flashed past him into the net in the closing moments of extra time.

Steve Claridge set off towards the opposite side of the pitch pursued by his team-mates and nearly 40,000 City fans went wild, players and fans celebrating the goal that took us back into the Premier League and sparked the Martin O’Neill era – two more Wembley appearances and two League Cups followed.

If Claridge’s goal propelled us into a new realm in the 1990s, the club has recently been catapulted to unforeseeable heights by Ranieri, his coaching staff and his magnificent set of players.

It was nearly Palace on Sunday. Cast your mind back to Alan Pardew’s dad dance and the talk then was of a rematch, twenty years on, between two of the Premier League’s less familiar names. Instead, Manchester United spoilt the sentimentality and won the FA Cup to give us 1963’s fixture again.

Manchester United players and fans are used to this trip. It won’t mean as much to them – and that’s not a dig. It can’t mean as much to them. We may be champions of England, but our players won’t be taking Wembley for granted.

And neither will we.

David Bevan is the author of The Unbelievables: The Remarkable Rise of Leicester City, out now.

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