LEICESTER LOONEY TUNES
Mickey Blue Eyes.
Until a few seasons ago there was this small, round, bald, noisy fellow who sat behind our little group in the Street End. Sotto voce, Mark nicknamed him Elmer Fudd after the old Looney Tunes cartoon character. Hell, he even looked like Elmer. We never did find out his real name. But he was mildly irritating, so I moved my seat in a vain attempt to get beyond audio range. Then as time went on we began to appreciate he unconsciously helped us through some dire passages of play during the bad days. We softened, dropped the faux surname and between us called him just "Elmer." He could unknowingly have you gurgling happily at La Condition humaine or he could shout something so stupid, so utterly inane, you had to check if he was species-specific. Then we began to look on him with something dangerously close to affection. Still, when he failed to renew his season ticket we heaved a sigh of relief, but there was also a sense of something missing that should be there, like a faint post-hernia ache in the groin. All it proved of course is that life and people are never perfect.
Elmer was a sort of human equivalent of Leicester City FC, an odd not to say peculiar club. They were always known as one of the yo-yo teams, so called because they regularly went up and down between the old Football League First and Second Divisions. Their style of play, if you could call it that, was notoriously dour and utilitarian. All I can seem to recall while playing them is a dreary series of 1-1 draws. Their old ground at Filbert Street was an appalling dump crammed as an afterthought behind some aged terraces. In fact one of the entrances was directly through a tiny space between two of them. At the time the visiting aesthetic experience fully justified a friend's opinion that, "Leicester is Stoke without soot."
But times have changed as they always do. Since 2002 City have played in a much superior modern stadium, attendances have increased substantially and even survived a spell in League One, and Stoke and Arnold Bennett's Six Towns are no longer covered in soot and factory chimneys. Appropriately, even the name of Leicester's ground has yo-yoed; these days it is called the King Power Stadium. In the year of relocation they went into administration when ITV Digital money failed to materialise after the broadcaster bankrupted - something that very nearly overturned us and others too, and was almost certainly a factor in the exit of Wayne Rooney - and construction costs of the stadium impacted, the proverbial double whammy that also hit Arsenal in a much softer wave. Since then they have suffered more ownership and managerial problems. Despite that they got back to the Premier League for this season. It has been a "colourful" journey for them, though not one to envy: they survived and here they are yet again. The sum total is a fable of the modern game. You can take what you wish from it.
Our only connection with them was of course formidable striker Gary Lineker in 1985-86, who scored thirty goals before shipping out to Barcelona. He joined us when we were league champions and holders of the European Cup Winners Cup; we won nothing during his stay. After he left we regained the league title. These days he fronts Match of the Day, where his onscreen persona is suet pudding diluted with ditch water. Last season, apparently boring even himself, he said his voice is a "Leicester drone." This is undeniably true. I often have the feeling his dinner table chat would be the equivalent of listening to coagulated custard slide down a wall......Slowly. In short, a classic BBC employee of the Lord Reith era.
I thought of Gary very early Saturday morning when I turned on the TV set to catch the latest dose of news lies before I set off for Leicester. Normally I avoid day time TV like the cultural plague it is, but it was the first day of the footy season and irrational excitement overcame my judgment. By coincidence the BBC News Channel had a quartet of talking heads that included footy marionette Dan Walker, another sports "reporter" module-gnome whose name escapes me, Simon the newsy, and the obligatory pc frumpy breakfast woman. Dan fondled a new football and pulled a new onscreen ploy straight from the Beeb's training gulag, the shtick where the mouth widens in a Yank-style false grin to show a teeth whitening system. The sports "reporter" duly competed in the orthodontic race, as, incidentally, does the regular weird woman sports clone out of Salford. Dan tossed the ball to Simon, by implication an invitation to comment. Simon, so diffident he might be on Ibuprofen, said wisely, "It's a ball, Dan." The "reporter" showed his teeth and added, "It's very round." The woman mumbled something about the next item being a report on the thieving habits of magpies. For a microsecond I thought she was about to relieve the tedium and launch a slur on Newcastle fans but she was serious. My mood lowered when I heard Ross Barkley was out for six to eight weeks with a training injury. I switched off in the renewed knowledge nobody with a functioning brain watches TV before seven in the evening, especially during the footy season.
The weather for the opening day was English gusty-grumpy, sluggish-overcast, grey-white and coldish. That plus the Ross news left me with a vague sense of the ominous. The journey through England's choked motorway arteries hardly helped. Still, we go the match. What we do, to coin a phrase.
Actually, the Leicester stadium surroundings have changed greatly since my last visit. The old ground has completely disappeared and a variety of new commercial buildings have sprung up around the "new" one. The current site is far superior to the old one on the basis that almost anything is better than a decaying tenement. So is the stadium interior, though, alas, badly marred outside by banner advertisements hung in the under-terraces spaces on three sides of the periphery. The exterior is small scale height because pitch level is much lower than ground level. It leaves you with the impression of a cheap-but-not-cheerful solution. Had Leicester had the money they could have done a lot better with the external envelope. But rational football commerce dictates you do not spend what you do not have. Which means you have to tailor available capital; as it is, even the present solution almost saw them off. Nevertheless, it is much better than their previous ground. And they have managed to survive this disgusting monetary era. For which, good on them.
Years ago my last visit to Leicester saw a famously disgraceful scene when The Big Yin tried to asphyxiate the misnamed Freund after the fractious Aryan attempted to kick him off the park. The inevitable reaction and its inevitable red card were understandable. The Yin marched off while bent-arming an up-yours to the home crowd, one of the acts that embedded him forever in the adoring folklore of Evertonians. Of course we cannot condone any of this but I have to say I sympathised at the time with the pimply-faced adolescent Evertonian a few rows in front of me who in a heated moment invited the brutal Hun to "Fuck off, 'Itler!" (Look, I know how awful that is but for some reason it hit me on a funny nerve)..........Wait. No. Strike that last bit. It was all unacceptable. We have our dignity to maintain. I hoped for better and classier this time round. These days I occasionally wonder what Elmer would have made of it all.
Teams. Us: really, missing only Barkley and Coleman. Them: nobody I knew. By kick off I was as crazily optimistic as any ale house loon. It was, after all, the first game of the season, yet another rebirth, the smell of cut grass, team colours, the roar of the crowd. It never fails to ignite your best feelings, assuming you have not surrendered to soap opera/woohoo screams/ale house "culture."
The first half was so one sided in our favour it was almost embarrassing. Poor Leicester could hardly get hold of the ball unless we gave it to them, though they were fired with early season enthusiasm and chased everything. The only ominous sign was slight hesitancy between Jags and Sylvain, so noticeable because it is so rare. Maybe age is taking its toll. Every now and then the enemy would loop it through the middle sky and cause an emergency frisson; apart from that Leicester had nothing but commendable effort and persistence. Meanwhile Our Boys played some quite delicious stuff. This was particularly true down our left where Bainsey and Peanuts had one of their transcendent spells - flicks, backheels, interchanging, the lot - that often had the homesters tripping over in bewilderment. The duo was simply dazzling.
Therefore, no surprise when the first goal arrived after a quarter of an hour. But it still required an element of luck through a couple of rebounds. Leicester was pinned back at the time. A left side corner to us had their penalty area full of determined bodies. Everything looked doomed to founder on crowded Leicester flesh until the ball ricocheted clear. Unfortunately for them the ball came out straight to Bainsey, dead centre a few metres outside the D and with time and space to make his mind up. Which meant he could shoot. Which he did. Which cannoned off somebody and angled forward left where it was chased by Distin who found himself one-on-one with their 'keeper. An excellent spread eagle save rebounded the ball wider left but also at a slightly better outer angle. Whence came new slimline Aidan McGeady, by which time their central defence was back defending in numbers while their 'keeper again fronted renewed danger. What to do? McGeady solved the geometry by shifting the ball to his right foot before curling it over everybody into the only square metre of space it would fit, inside their top left of the goal frame. A brilliant strike.
A minute later Lady Luck was treacherously coquettish as ever. Leicester equalised after they too got a corner on their left side and in a goal mouth scrum Sylvain rightly instinctively tried to empty it over the main stand but hit it too low against their man. Instead of rebounding wildly as it usually would it dropped like a stone at enemy feet and he could hardly miss. One day, you thought viciously, I will find Lady Luck and pull her finger nails out with pliers. The bitch has it coming.
Not that it made much difference to our play. If anything the tempo stepped up and our passing became even more relentless and smooth. McGeady missed two clear chances before a defender bravely threw himself in front of another of his efforts. Then Naismith narrowly missed another after Bainsey-Peanuts ripped them open for the umpteenth time. It was a familiar tale of frustration upon frustration. There was a sort of inevitability in it all, the story of the last three seasons or so.
The first half should have ended up with us three or four in front. Instead, we had to settle for 2-1 just seconds before half time. It was another superb goal engineered by left side telepathy from You Know Which Two. I suggest you relish the sight of them in action because it will be years before you again see anything like it anywhere on the planet. (Naturally the tiny-minded churls of Match of the Day give them only grudging praise - if the two genii were part of the Sky 4 they would be covered in onanism. To hell with the media - honourables excepted - the mean-spirited talentless time-serving jobsworths.)
Initially it looked as though the chance had gone: a right side attack brought the ball to Lukaku's feet five metres or so right centre in their half. He hit a magnificent left-footed long pass wide left angled forward. Nevertheless it looked on its way out of play until Pienaar rescued it close to the touchline before turning back a few metres while holding off a niggling defender. Then he waited for Bainsey to materialise on a parallel forward run inside, duly made, backheeled into his path through a yawning empty space, Leicester utterly unfrocked. Pienaar raced into the angle of the penalty area, collected the inevitable return and prodded it across to Naismith, who swivelled on his right and hit home an unstoppable left-foot swerve into their 'keeper's top right corner. It had all the beauty of the mathematical solutions you can see in Good Will Hunting. It all sounds so easy you should try it, but expect to disappear up your own arse first.
It would have been nice for the second half to have been a classy stroll to a good win whatever Leicester did. We should have known it would be the difference between fine blend and ersatz. Both sides made adjustments and the gross result was to sterilise the game in Leicester's favour; no option, they packed their right side and crowded out our main threat, while we had no equivalent on our right despite a late cameo from Seamus. As long as the gap is a single goal there is always the possibility of an equaliser whatever the chasm in class. To their credit Leicester kept plugging away and might even have got one when their fresh substitute raced away through the centre and ballooned a clear chance he should have buried. I sank lower in my seat expecting the worst. Sure enough we leaked one five minutes before the end, yet another lucky rebound.
Ironically, the enemy attack came down our left where Leicester had successfully piled bodies. It was a determined move that owed more to physical persistence than anything else. A series of close passes got their man to their right edge of our penalty area where we expected him to be snuffed, which he was, but not before he got off a smothered shot that trickled across the centre of the area. Jags and an attacker went for the ball with equal strength and it squeezed slowly left out of the tackle. It could have gone anywhere but naturally it went straight to the man Stonesy should have been marking but wasn't. He could hardly miss from eight metres, nor did he. So yet again we dropped two points in the most wildly irritating fashion.
In the end it was an unsatisfactory draw which demonstrated all too clearly why we will likely miss the top four places, assuming we end up in the mix. Based on this single match we are still unable to kill off the enemy when we have them running in circles, even when it is a team as weak as Leicester. It left this fan staring at his shoes while muttering annoyed oaths. Maddening is the best controlled description I can think of. Still the season stretches before us with all its possibilities and hopes. We must remain optimistic. It is only one game. Perspective....all is perspective.....
It was a long journey home interrupted by a visit to West Midlands friends. By the time I arrived at chez nous our game was on Match of the Day. It was as hopelessly badly edited as ever. Meanwhile, Lineker has done a course at the same Beeb gulag that indoctrinated the morning marionettes. Now he speaks quickly and leans forward with the kind of "enthusiasm" only acquired in the Donald Duck School of Drama or through too much attention to Martin Scorsese. It seems news has filtered through Stalinist fairy lights hypnotism in the control room that we proles are bored with them and their front man; this time Gary was even dressed in all grey a la the John Major puppet in Spitting Image. But it is too late to modify The Drone without it looking effected. Gary and the format are beyond saving: time to give the kids a chance and ditch hideous artificial hysteria, appalling editing, lousy graphics, ludicrous bias in the running order, and flakey pundits like dopey-grinning Rude Gullit and uninteresting Alan Shearer. Alas, the Beeb cannot be hurried and will fall over in its own long, long time. If anyone knows how to beat a subject flat it is Auntie BBC. But it could be much, much worse; it could be the outright cultural corruption and sucker subscriptions of capitalist oligarch Murdoch's Sky TV and Fox News.
Roll on the home fixtures with Arsenal and Chelsea.
I wonder what Elmer made of it? I wonder if he knows Richard the Third was found buried under a Leicester car park?