One crazy night in May 2016, the whole world was focused on the East Midlands city of Leicester as flagship football club Leicester City won a heroic and historic Premier League title. TV crews from all parts of the globe had descended on this multi-cultural market town all week to find out how its beloved Foxes triumphed over the moneyed elite of Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and the rest.
Was it the unusual recent discovery of Richard III in a Leicester car park? Was it Claudio Ranieri’s imaginary bell? Was it the communal post-match dining at Peter Pizzeria in the city centre?
Maybe it was just hard work all season by team-focused individuals led by a previously underrated manager – and the desperately poor form shown by the usual suspects from Manchester and London. Whatever the reasons, Leicester’s well deserved fairy-tale victory saw the city celebrate in style when the title was presented at the last home league match against Everton. Who could not have been moved when blind Andrea Bocelli serenaded Ranieri and the 32,000 lucky enough to be inside the King Power Stadium with a rousing rendition of ‘Nessun Dorma’?
The previous Monday, when Tottenham’s draw at Chelsea confirmed Leicester as champions, local lad and lifetime Foxes fan Mark Selby won the World Snooker Championship.
It wasn’t to last, of course. Ranieri’s Leicester performed miserably when defending their title in 2016-17 and the Italian was duly sacked in February 2017 – after taking the club to within 90 minutes of a place in the last eight of the Champions League.
Leicester, meanwhile, is slowly getting back to normal after the crazy days of May 2016. This sport-focused community can also boast a successful rugby club, a county cricket club, a top basketball team and a speedway team in the Elite League.
On its doorstep, Loughborough University is home to the world’s largest university-based sports technology research group as well as to SportPark, where national bodies for tennis, swimming and cricket are based.
In terms of football, the city has produced a number of England internationals, most notably Gary Lineker and Peter Shilton. Before the unexpected triumph of Claudio Ranieri’s boys in 2015-16, the Foxes had won three League Cups – but still hold the unenviable record of four winless appearances in FA Cup finals.
City, known as Leicester Fosse until after World War I, have spent more seasons in the lower flight. In modern times, the club has only twice finished in the higher reaches of the premier division, in the early 1960s, when another England great, Gordon Banks, was between the sticks.
After Banks’ understudy Peter Shilton came into the frame, Leicester’s great local rivals, Nottingham Forest and Derby County, became surprise winners of the English title. East Midland derbies have often been dramatic, Leicester’s injury-time winner at Forest in May 2013 sealing a play-off place in a winner-takes-all contest. Leicester hadn’t won there since 1972.
Crowd trouble has blighted many of these fixtures, even in recent years, but this pales in comparison to previous clashes with Leicester’s nearest rivals, Coventry, currently two divisions below them.
Leicester’s lower-league football scene is awash with colourful names. Loughborough Dynamo, former by rugby-rejecting pupils of the local grammar school in the 1950s, currently compete in the lower flight of the Northern Premier League. In the same division are Coalville Town, formerly Ravenstone Miners Athletic, FA Vase finalists at Wembley in 2011.
Another Dynamo, Shepshed, compete below them in the newly founded Midland Football League, along with the team representing Loughborough University.
Currently aiming for an FA Vase final themselves, Thurnby Nirvana, a senior offshoot of Leicester Nirvana, play at Dakyn Road in Thurnby Lodge, on the eastern outskirts of Leicester. Leicester Nirvana remain, very much so, and run 15 (!) junior teams of all age groups, from under 7s upwards.
Thurnby won the East Midlands Counties League in 2014 and compete with all other lower-league sides from Leicestershire in the Westerby Cup. The final takes place at Leicester City’s King Power Stadium.
Three or four National Express coaches a day run to Leicester coach station run from Birmingham (2.5hrs, £11.80) and East Midlands (30min, £3.70) airports.
Alternatively, a bus runs from Birmingham International to Coleshill Parkway (every 15min, 15min journey time), from where a train runs to Leicester (every 30min, 40min, £9-£13).
From East Midlands, a slower, dearer but more frequent Skylink bus (55min, £7) runs to Leicester St Margaret’s bus station every 30min, hourly through the night.
Swift Fox Cabs (0116 26 28 222) offer fixed transfer rates.
In Leicester itself, several bus companies operate different networks and ticket systems.
There’s a chain hotel right by the ground, the Holiday Inn Express Leicester City – though it doesn’t offer any special game-day deals or open its bar to the public. Rooms fill, so online prices increase, on match weekends.
Around Leicester University, a 15-minute walk from the ground, are two independent hotels. The family-run Spindle Lodge is set in a pretty townhouse dating back to 1876, while the more contemporary belmont is a stylish three-star offering weekend deals.
Both are also very close to the town centre, where the upscale chain Ramada encore Leicester City Centre stands by the CM bus stop for the stadium.
On focal, pub-dotted Granby Street, the Mercure Leicester The Grand Hotel was once the finest place to stay in town. Today a chain, it still contains a ballroom and elegant staircase.
By the station, affordable rooms are provided at the Premier Inn Leicester City Centre.
Many of Leicester’s numerous city-centre drinking spots are sport-focused – none more so than the excellent King Richard III, one of the finest football pubs you could hope to find. Soccer travellers from all over have donated the many pennants – Malta, Osaka, Boca Juniors – that colour the walls, complemented by hand-crafted club shields created by a house painter from Scarborough forced to change trades after an industrial accident. From here, buses run families and friendly regulars up to the ground on match days. There’s also pool and recommended tasty baps.
Also under the umbrella of local brewery Everards, the Barley Mow displays classic black-and-white images of LCFC in the back room, including the 1968-69 team that reached the cup final. There’s also regular live music on Saturdays. It’s on Granby Street a short walk from the station.
Nearby, The Last Plantagenet is a large Wetherspoon, with match action and meal deals. The more traditional-looking High Cross is of similar ilk, its name alluding to a medieval landmark rather than any football reference.
The Market Tavern (3-5 Market Place) is equally traditional, while a more discerning clientele frequents The PUB (12 New Walk), with its real ale and quality kitchen. Opposite, the characterful King’s Head also specialises in Black Country brews and TV sports –though for both establishments the name of the game is rugby.