LEICESTER, England — With time, they no longer seem like memories. They are too strange, too difficult to explain. They feel, instead, like hallucinatory flashbacks from some fever dream.
The butchers who paid tribute through the medium of sausage; the pilgrimage of the van driver from North London, drawn to a city he did not know, compelled to find a wall on which to paint a mural; the story of the television personality who appeared on screen naked save for a pair of crisp, white boxers.
With time, an air of unreality has settled on it all. If it remains hard to comprehend the overwhelming fact that Leicester City, the 5,000-to-1 shot, actually won the Premier League title last May, then all of the little details that illuminated the story have become more unfathomable still.
For a few weeks last spring, everything around Leicester felt dizzy, giddy. Now, eight months on, it all seems hazy, flickering and shimmering somewhere between recollection and imagination.
Leicester, for so long one of England’s “yo-yo” teams — bouncing between the top flight and the second tier, never able to settle — is back in its traditional role. This weekend’s F.A. Cup match at Everton brings a little relief from what has become an arduous, but familiar, Premier League season, the club once more flirting with the relegation battle, all thoughts of a repeat title long gone.
The Foxes’ opponent on Saturday is fitting: It was a home defeat to Everton on Dec. 26 that brought the first audible mutterings of discontent in the stands at Leicester this season, and fans who have felt only joy for a year are starting to rediscover anxiety and anger. There have been questions about the wisdom of the club’s summer recruitment, expressions of frustration at the players.
As Claudio Ranieri, Leicester’s manager, put it last week: “The first six months of 2016 were fantasy, and the second six months were reality.
Those who were caught up in the story feel the same. Gary Lineker, the stripped-to-his-boxers television personality in question, supports Leicester and played for it, but even he believes the club has simply reverted to type. “It’s not that anything in particular has gone wrong this season,” he said. “It’s just that this is what Leicester is, what it has always been.”
The contrast between what Leicester is and what Leicester, briefly, was has simply served to deepen the sense of disbelief, to allow the doubts to flourish. It is hard to be sure that it did, actually, happen. “I think I remember it,” Lineker said.
Only firm proof assuages the doubt. There is the club’s continuing Champions League campaign, of course, the great beacon of optimism from the first half of Leicester’s season. Ranieri set his team a target of remaining in European competition beyond Christmas, and his players delivered in style: Sevilla awaits in the Round of 16.
There are the books, too, with titles like “Fearless” and “5000-1” and the slew of others that were published to record what Lineker called the “most unlikely sporting triumph of all time.” And there are the awards, which continue to trickle in. Before Christmas, Leicester was named team of the year in the BBC’s year-end awards, while Ranieri picked up the honor as best coach. Just this week, Riyad Mahrez was named African player of the year, a title Shinji Okazaki had already picked up in Asia.
It is the mementos in Leicester, though, the ones available to all, that will endure the longest. W Archer & Son, the butcher that in March created a sausage in honor of Ranieri, is only a 10-minute drive from Leicester City’s King Power Stadium. The sausage contained chili, garlic, fennel and “a hint of Champions League.”
The sausages are still for sale, though they are not moving in quite the quantities they did in the season’s final weeks, when the owner, Sean Jeynes, was selling as many as 600 a week.
“We maybe sell 130 or 150 every week,” Jeynes said recently as he worked on a block of Himalayan Salt Beef. “It’s more if we are at home, or if there is a Champions League game. They have become part of the match-day ritual for a lot of fans. They’ll have some Ranieri sausages before they go to the game, or buy some if they’re watching on TV.” He does not plan to stop selling them anytime soon.
On Kate Street, not far from the city center, there is proof. Rich Wilson is not a Leicester fan; his only connection with the city was that an old friend, Junior Lewis, once played for the team. “He was voted their second-worst-ever signing,” Wilson said.
In April, though, after Leicester beat Swansea City 4-0, and inched closer to the championship, Wilson — an amateur street artist — decided to make the club his next subject. “I was interested in painting portraits of people in places where they meant something,” he said. “So I decided to paint Ranieri in Leicester.”
He asked for time off work and drove up the next day. He had neither a specific destination nor a commission. He remembers circling the city, “thinking this was stupid,” when he turned behind the back of an electronics shop and onto Kate Street. “That was when I saw the wall,” he said.
The shop’s owner, also the owner of an executive box at the King Power, let him use the wall to paint Ranieri. “He had not even seen any of my work,” Wilson said. “He did not know who I was. But everyone was so carried away with what was happening, so he just agreed.”
Wilson planned to spend “a day and a half” in Leicester, painting just one portrait, of Ranieri. “When the owner came down and saw it, he asked me to do the whole team,” he said. He wound up staying five weeks.
The mural is still there; Wilson has returned only once, after his image of N’Golo Kanté was defaced after the player moved to Chelsea in the summer. “I do worry that something else might happen,” he said. “Particularly I worry that Leicester fans might do something, because they are so passionate after a bad defeat.”
It is not quite at that stage yet, of course, but the sense remains that perhaps Leicester is a place that might like another dream. The Champions League could provide it, of course, or the F.A. Cup.
This time last year, Tottenham eliminated Leicester from this competition. Defeat in that battle helped Ranieri win the war: It enabled him to give his players a crucial week off, just after a defeat to Arsenal seemed to have brought the title charge to a crashing halt. That break — and the projection of relaxation — helped Leicester’s squad gather its spirits for the run-in.
Now, the cup might provide something quite different: It is not a distraction, but a destination. Leicester has never won it; fans of a certain vintage still remember the pain of losing three finals in the 1960s. To win it would be a fairy tale, another chance to journey into the unreal, a reminder that things that cannot happen do, and things that did not happen can.