Football: Foxing with a Kiwi Leicester City fan

By Bruce Holloway

LEICESTER WE FORGET: Rod de Lisle is heading to the UK in May in the hope of seeing his beloved underdogs, Leicester City, win the Barclays Premier League.
LEICESTER WE FORGET: Rod de Lisle is heading to the UK in May in the hope of seeing his beloved underdogs, Leicester City, win the Barclays Premier League.

In any other year Rod de Lisle would be best defined by what he does: business development manager for Robert Harris, northern league football team manager for Hamilton Wanderers, repeat winner of the annual McMahon-Butterworth St Patrick's Day Limerick Competition.

But not in 2016.

These days, as England's Barclays Premier League contemplates the improbable emergence of Leicester City as 2016 champions, this affable 55-year-old youth is now better identified as New Zealand's foremost strip-wearing, scarf-waving, programme-collecting Foxes fan.

On a Kiwi landscape awash with Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Spurs, and Chelsea supporters, and even the odd boorish West Ham and Everton bozo, Rod is that rarest of creatures: a Foxes fanatic, a Leicester lover, a man who measures his life in terms of City fixtures.

That's worth acknowledging in a premiership season where, with six games remaining, Leicester sit seven points clear at the top, and on the cusp of the most astonishing result since Cinderella went to the ball.

They started the season at 5000-1 odds, with a team comprised largely of journeymen and unsung heroes, and were widely viewed as relegation fodder.

To consider Leicester City's title charge in a wider historical context, since they were elected to the Football League in 1894 their highest ever finish in the top flight was second place in the old Division One in 1928-29.

Should they now complete the most inconceivable win in the history of the premiership, perhaps in all of football, it's likely to be hailed as a success which offers a ray of hope to supporters of mug sports teams everywhere.

LEICESTER SHRINE: Lisle's memorabilia
LEICESTER SHRINE: Lisle's memorabilia

But here at football's final frontier, most Kiwi followers struggle to spell Leicester, let alone cheer for them.

So for the benefit of a Kiwi audience, de Lisle compares it to Thames Valley winning the Rugby Championship or Colin Craig being elected Prime Minister.

And on an otherwise pretty deserted Leicester supporter landscape in New Zealand, Rod shines as an oasis of enthusiasm.

Indeed, if there was a league title for best Kiwi Foxes fan, he would also be five points clear.

• Collection of 10 Leicester shirts? Check.
• Leicester jacket? Check.
• Leicester programme collection? Check.
• Leicester team photo on the office wall? Check.
• Souvenir Jamie Vardy potato crisps packet? Check
• Repeat pilgrimages to King Power Stadium? Check.
• Appearances for the Leicester City (fans) internet football league team? Check.

Though as Rod is quick to acknowledge, it's a very small field in which he stars.

"It's a bit like being the bloke (Daffyd Thomas) on Little Britain - the only gay in the village," he says.

He name-drops Paul Henderson (Auckland) and Bernie Muollo (Wellington) as fellow Kiwi Foxes fans, but then runs dry. "If we were that sad we could have our fan meetings in a telephone booth."

And until this season "pity" was the prime reaction from rival fans.

"Maybe a bit of humour. But one thing you never get is hatred. It's not like Man United or Arsenal where you can alienate half the football fraternity.

"Nobody dislikes Leicester. They are seen as a nice plucky wee club to follow. And there is absolutely no pressure in being a Leicester fan. If they win it is great. If they lose, well, it is kind of expected.

"Last season it was a given that we would be relegated. It was just another season. But they picked themselves up and pulled off a great escape, and that was fantastic."

However in 2015-16, it's all got a bit weird as Leicester have confounded the pundits and kept winning.

"As a Leicester fan you always expect every little run to end with a string of defeats. This season it hasn't happened, so you keep waiting for it.

"It still could happen, with seven games to go. Even now, you think they will probably finish second or third. You fully expect them to collapse in a heap, because that's the way you think as a Leicester fan."

LEICESTER SHRINE: Lisle's memorabilia..
LEICESTER SHRINE: Lisle's memorabilia..

But Rod, the cunning old Fox, has now invested in something of a reverse insurance policy - just in case nothing does go wrong.

He's blagged tickets to Leicester's final two matches of the season, and heads to England in May for the home game versus Everton at King Power Stadium on May 8, then the final match, away to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on May 16.

Until then he's enduring a nervous run of what seems like weekly 1-0 wins, home and away.

"It's almost taken all of the enjoyment out of the game.

"I feel a bit like Nick Hornby when he wrote Fever Pitch. He described Arsenal's (1989) season where they won the title and for the last game of the season he couldn't even watch it, just sat in another room. It's like that, a whole lot less enjoyable. Because there's a lot more riding on it."

Set aside the curse of his Leicester City addiction, and life has been good to de Lisle. He's married with five kids, posh motor, and a Harrowfield home resplendent with avant garde art and a bigger music collection than Real Groovy Records,

From his kitchen espresso machine he serves a flat white brewed from the finest Costa Rican and Colombian coffee beans, then patiently explains the curious origins of the Leicester connection.

"Back in 1974 I was knocking around with a bunch of football-focused kids in Tokoroa and we all decided to all pick an English team to follow. At the time they were showing (black and white) TV footage of the Liverpool-Leicester FA Cup semifinal and it became a coin toss for me: Liverpool or Leicester."

Tails it was, and Rod effectively spurned a club that was to embark on five European Cup wins, and extend its tally to 18 league titles, in favour of an also-ran, destined for decades of near-anonymity.

Not his fault. In that era it was tough gig being a follower of even the biggest English clubs. There was no internet, precious little newspaper coverage, Shoot magazine was shipped with a 3-month lag time, and when football results were read out at 9.05am on Sunday morning, the sound was so fuzzy it seemed like they were being transmitted from Mars. The best additional perspective you could hope for would be a slight inflection in the Martian announcer's voice.

"We had to buy an Auckland Star just to find an up to date league table," de Lisle says. "Nowadays it is all Facebook, twitter, and instant gratification."

Leicester may have been an unfortunate choice at the time. But while you can take a lad out of Tokoroa, you can't take the Tokoroa out of a lad, and ever since, de Lisle has remained stauncher than a Kinleith trade unionist.

"It's a different type of football supporting. When you follow a big club it's probably a little bit bland really. It's funny, but when you follow Leicester, a match win can often feel as good as winning a cup."

De Lisle reckons there is a real desire among the general public for someone other than a big team to win.

"Just about everyone is hoping Leicester win the league. Apart from Spurs fans, but even then the comment is, 'We want Spurs to win it but if they don't, we want Leicester'.

"Apart from Blackburn there are only four clubs that have won the premiership: Manchester United 13 times, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea. So the average punter thinks: 'this is bloody good'."

In terms of the broader notion of fandom, it's much easier these days with Facebook, internet mailing lists, and satellite TV.

"The accessibility of the game has changed. Today you can go down to The Soccer Shop and they have got all the gear.

"Following has also become a lot more global beyond England. Though the premiership is still up there, I'd say most kids now are Barcelona fans. It's about the cult of personalities, the Ronaldos and Messis.

But de Lisle doesn't begrudge the prawn sandwich brigade or any glory hunters now thinking of becoming Leicester fans.

"Jump on the bandwagon. There's plenty of room, we'll pump up the tyres."

But there's also the traditional Leicester gallows-type warning.

"I fully expect we will have a shit season next year. Absolutely."

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