Inside the corridors of Leicester City’s King Power Stadium lies a photo detailing the Foxes’ FA Cup Final exploits. The caption tells you that they have appeared in four Finals, and have left trophyless on each occasion.
Well, that was until Saturday evening.
That still feels quite a strange thing to write if I’m being honest. As a child, I was always told about Leicester’s unwanted record. No team had been to a cup final more times and left empty-handed. I was always told to respect this iconic competition. Indeed, I still remember as a five-year-old being sent to bed just as the Foxes’ – then a side struggling in the lower echelons of the Championship – were about to knock out Premier League Tottenham in 2006. But like any other football fan, I always dreamt that success would one day come.
And that success did come. The 2015-16 Premier League title triumph was nothing short of a miracle. Every moment along the journey was a moment to savour – they are all moments which I’m proud to have witnessed first-hand.
And that is how I reflect upon Saturday’s famous victory as well. Thousands – if not millions – of Leicester fans have gone to their grave waiting for them to one day lift the FA Cup. After 137 years of waiting, that day finally came.
I was privileged to be one of them 6,500 Leicester fans in attendance at Wembley. At the age of 20, I had only witnessed heartbreak whilst watching Leicester there before. Indeed, I had only watched them at the National Stadium on one occasion in the past – I was not born the last time that they had reached a domestic cup final.
And all of this in the backdrop of one of the strangest years anybody had ever seen. As a city, Leicester has been hit harder than most over the last 15 months. Just one day after being knocked out of the FA Cup at the quarter final stage last season, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a local lockdown across the city and part of the County – it was the first of its kind as life returned to some form of normality for most across the summer of 2020.
A high infection rate prevented supporters from attending the King Power Stadium as football gradually opened its doors once again in the build-up to Christmas. So that means that the FA Cup final was actually the first time that Brendan Rodgers’ men had played in front of spectators since football’s suspension in March 2020.
It was always going to be a strange experience. The last time I watched Leicester in the flesh, I boarded a train and walked up to the stadium without a care in the world. This time, there was consent forms to fill in, Covid tests to undertake and print-at-home tickets to remember.
But this was still Wembley on Cup final day. And, to the credit of the FA and the DCMS, it felt like any other football game. On the stairs of the stadium, officials stood waiting to check your negative Covid-19 test, alongside your match tickets. Once you were standing on the premises, it just felt normal.
Ask anybody who I’ve ever been to a football match with, and they will all tell you that I like to get there early. As I entered this vast stadium, fans were slowly making their way to their seats. As 17:15 approached, the stadium got busier and busier.
Perhaps, I expected to feel a bit anxious about being in such a large crowd. If I’m being honest, though, I felt as safe as ever before. All fans were socially distanced, face-masks were mandatory. My only focus was on the game.
And it’s the build-up to an FA Cup final that makes it ever so special. The National Anthem roaring across the speaker-system. Abide With Me brought a tear to the eye of many around me. It’s a tradition which feels as powerful now as it did when Leicester last made the trip to the Cup Final in 1969.
And so to 90 minutes that will stay ingrained on my mind forever. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the match. I can’t remember the last time I felt so nervous about one individual game of football.
After a nervy first 45 minutes, the game came alive throughout the second period. And it was just short of the midway point of that half when jubilation struck. It was a goal good enough to win any competition, let alone the most historic club competition in the world. Belgian midfield maestro Youri Tielemans picked up the ball, drove the ball at the Chelsea defence, and let fly. A right-footed shot that was destined for the top corner the moment it left his Nike boot.
I tried to describe the feeling a day later to a friend who does not support Leicester. I really struggled. Imagine how you felt when Kieran Trippier netted that free kick against Croatia during the semi-final of the World Cup in 2018. Do you remember the pure elation that took over your body? Well, times that by about 100. That’s how I felt.
After the elation, though, came the emotion. I remember thinking about all those supporters who travelled to Wembley in the four previous cup finals. The anguish they must have felt as they travelled back up the M1. And here I was, just 25 minutes away from watching Leicester win the FA Cup. Stood around me grown-men were crying their eyes out. This is what football does to you.
It could have all gone so horribly wrong with just minutes to go. Ben Chilwell’s finish from close range brought a nervy silence around the Leicester City end.
Was Chilwell offside? It was impossible to tell from my vantage point. I was at the other end of the stadium. I remember thinking that I cannot look. My heart just could not take anymore.
I turned around and waited for the reaction of the crowd to tell me the outcome of the VAR review. A roar of which I have never heard the like of before, confirmed to me that Chris Kavanagh had indeed ruled the goal offside.
Just what do you do in that moment? Do you celebrate? Do you burst out crying? It was the moment that you realised that this was the Foxes’ year. This was a day that you’ll remember your whole life. This was a day no Leicester City fan had ever seen the like of ever before.
By Conor O’Grady