Leicester City fans were in nostalgic mood on Sunday – and you could understand why.
Claudio Ranieri, who guided the Foxes to the most unexpected, feel-good success in English football by winning the 2015-16 Premier League, was back at the King Power Stadium.
And the current Watford manager got the hero’s reception he deserved as supporters remembered a campaign when they were written off as 5,000-1 no hopers – and ended up champions.
All sides of the stadium were on their feet applauding, with the 70-year-old Italian waving to all corners and pointing to his heart, while trying to hold back tears.
“This Premier League The love for legend Ranieri was relentless – but what next for Leicester & Rodgers? will be in my heart all my life. I’m very proud to be part of Leicester’s fairytale and history,” said Ranieri. “I’m a very shy man, I don’t want to show my emotions. If I’m ready I can be calm. If I’m surprised sometimes little tears happen.”
But the love from the Leicester fans was relentless.
In a chaotic and thrilling match played in blizzard conditions, Leicester won 4-2 with the home crowd going through their full range of Ranieri chants at regular intervals.
Current Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers said the reaction “warmed the heart”, while Ranieri called it “fantastic”.
Ranieri has been serenaded at the King Power Stadium before, but this time there was no Andrea Bocelli in a Foxes shirt and no renditions of Nessun Dorma – as when Leicester collected the trophy in May 2016. Just praise and gratitude flowed from fans who will be retelling that unforgettable campaign to future generations.
There was to be no repeat for Leicester after that.
They reached the Champions League quarter-finals the next season, but only finished 12th in the Premier League and Ranieri was long gone, brutally dismissed nine months after the club’s greatest moment.
But Leicester were punching above their weight – and continue to do so, with Rodgers securing successive fifth-placed finishes and winning the FA Cup in May.
The Foxes have since struggled to find their best form, although there was plenty to be optimistic about on Sunday.
The win over Watford, in which Jamie Vardy scored twice, takes them back into the top half, only five points off the Champions League spots, although questions remain over how far Rodgers, repeatedly linked with the Manchester United job, can take them.
“Brendan has publicly distanced himself from most jobs he’s been linked with, but paper talk will continue as long as he’s successful,” said Chris Forryan, from fans’ website Leicester Till I Die.
“With two top-five finishes, two consecutive European campaigns and FA Cup and Community Shield wins – he’s not doing that bad, is he?
“It will be down to Brendan how long he stays, but he’s building something at Leicester, a long-term project. If anyone can get Leicester back in the Champions League, it will be Brendan.”
A massive boost for Rodgers could be a return to form for England midfielder James Maddison, who was excellent and received a standing ovation when substituted after a goal and two assists.
However, the defence will be a concern and they have only kept one clean sheet in the league, despite having one of the best goalkeepers in Kasper Schmeichel.
So where do Leicester go from here? Their best chances of success could well be cup competitions. They are in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals, although a trip to Liverpool awaits, and top of their Europa League group but could be eliminated if they lose away at Serie A leaders Napoli.
Indeed, December could be a season-defining month for the Foxes with an energy-draining run that sees them play nine games, including league matches against Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool as well as their Carabao Cup and Europa League ties.
And what of Ranieri? Despite being a Premier League winner, he finds himself in a strange position of trying to rebuild his reputation in English football after a failed three-and-a-half month spell at Fulham in 2018-19, which resulted in only three wins from 17 games.
He’s picked up six points from a challenging first six games in charge of Watford – impressive 5-2 and 4-1 wins over Everton and Manchester United respectively, but defeats against Liverpool, Southampton, Arsenal and now his former employers.
It doesn’t get any easier with the defensively-poor Hornets entertaining European champions Chelsea on Wednesday and reigning Premier League holders Manchester City on Saturday.
Whether Ranieri can be a long-term success at Watford remains to be seen but, at Leicester, he will always remain a part of history and a Foxes legend.