Their bandwagon has beer. Charlotte gets the swag and the bromance, but Leicester City’s true Carolina hearts actually rest two hours north and west of Bank of America Stadium, nestled in a mountain range.
If ever an official mid-south Foxes supporters group were to see the light of day, the odds are good it would probably spring from Asheville, North Carolina, , a soccer-friendly burg of 83,000-plus that’s home to more than a dozen craft breweries. A burg where Chris Watts has been preaching the gospel of blue for more than 15 years now.
“It’s like a dream,” says Watts, a Leicestershire native who has called Asheville home since moving to the States almost two decades ago. “My brother’s a season-ticket holder and he gets to the games. I was over there in October, against Crystal Palace and Watford, and it was just unbelievable to see where we were. And you keep thinking, ‘Is this going to keep going?’ It’s a bit like a dream. At the same time, it’s brilliant.”
Pinch him, he giggles. And why the hell not? Watts has been a fan for more than 10 years and a Foxes fan for pretty much the last five decades, through thick, thin, and thinner. Some eight years earlier, he had shepherded a group of US friends back to Leicestershire for his 50th birthday and a series of matches in the Midlands, including a pair at the King Power, then the Walkers Stadium.
“Five minutes into the [match],” one of those friends, Tim Branson, recalls of his initial Foxes experience, “I saw four guys carrying out two.”
But he was hooked.
The second game, they got the skybox treatment. Watts landed a program signed by the team — which, as it turned out, would become the first Foxes side ever to be relegated from the Championship to the third tier of the English football pyramid.
“I’ve still got it,” Watts chuckles. “I’ve got a signed program, in a frame, of Leicester at their lowest.”
And look who’s laughing now.
The Panthers prepping for the biggest single event in North American sport, Super Bowl 50’s NFC gatecrashers. The Foxes are atop the most popular soccer league on the planet. First, they were cute. Then a curiosity. Then a fluke. Then a stubborn anamoly. They weren’t supposed to here, either of them.
The parallels are valid and real enough: they’d finished their previous seasons on an unexpected, almost desperate hot streak. They’d been dismissed by the experts, were under-appreciated outside their own province, middling brand names turning in gold-caliber performances, week after week, month upon month. looked at the Carolina Panthers, 3,924 miles and an ocean away, and saw — well, themselves.
“The beginning of the year, [Leicester City] didn’t have great expectations … and kind of the same goes for us,” says Panthers kicker Graham Gano, one of four Carolina players to receive customized Leicester City shirts from the surprise leaders last month. “They’ve done really well this year, and so have we. So they kind of thought their season was similar to ours and they pulled fArsenal hero Martin Keown has urged the club to move for Manchester United defender Chris Smalling.Smalling is currently on-loan with AS Roma.“Smalling is doing exceptionally well – £13 million, the price they are putting on his head, that’s not enough,” Keown said on BT Sport.”Arsenal could maybe do worse than to take him.”Smalling’s loan runs to June.or us and that’s how we got the jerseys.”
Before their NFC Divisional Round test against Seattle on 17 January, Panthers players turned up at work to find that the Foxes had sent over customized blue shirts for quarterback Cam Newton, cornerback Josh Norman, linebacker Luke Kuechly and Gano.
“Carolina have had an incredible season,” the Leicester left-back Christian Fuchs . “Like us, they ended last season really well and again, like us, some people didn’t expect them to do what they’ve done this season, even after the great start they had.”
Before long, they shared a narrative and a hashtag: #KeepPounding. The Panthers returned the favor, and Leicester shared pictures and videos on social media of striker Jamie Vardy, centre-back Wes Morgan, Fuchs and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel decked out in Carolina black, tossing and kicking an football around.
“They were natural at it,” Gano says. “It would be interesting to see them kicking field goals and what it would look like. Obviously, their form looks good, but I never saw the ball going through the uprights. It’s a little different swing than [it takes] to keep the ball under the posts. But I’d love to have an opportunity sometime to have a kick around with some of the pros over [there], and compare how I match up with those guys.”
But he thinks they’d probably be thick as thieves, espack from his shocking knee injury.The setback means Chambers’ season is over, with the defender to be sidelined for six to nine months.He posted on Twitter: “Devastated to end 2019 like this! If there’s one message I’d like to get across it’s that I’ecially after the Foxes posted a video to YouTube of Fuchs attempting a series of “keepy-uppis” with the oblong American ed to a multitude of Premier League clubs. The Ivorian wide man has been a key player for Crystal Palace since returning to Selhurst Park in 2014, and is perennially touted for a step up.Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur are among the clubs to hfootball.
“I was in the airport in Chicago and I’m sitting at the bar and got talking about football – American and English,” Watts recalls. “And I pulled up [the Fuchs video] to show a few others. It’s pretty neat to see an English soccer player, albeit an Austrian, keeping up an American football. They thought it was pretty cool.”
In one corner, the Panthers, unloved, slapped with 22-to-1 odds to win the NFC back in May and 40-1 to win the whole shebang. In the other, Leicester, dismissed almost universal preseason favorites to be relegated this term, 2000-1 odds to win the league at the start of the campaign.
“It’s not quite the same,” Watts says of the two franchises and their comparative roads. “But nobody was expecting the Panthers to be where they are. A lot of my friends, when they saw the stuff about the shirts [coming over], and then the Panthers sent shirts back the other way, it’s been neat.”
Carolina are playing in their first Super Bowl in 12 years; since 2003-04, 13 different NFL teams have qualified for the title game. Leicester are the first squad other than one of the “Big Five” clubs [Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea] to be leading the Premier League in the last week of January since Newcastle in 1995-96.
“Being on both sides, [the more remarkable story is] Leicester City, for me, just because of what they’ve had to do, the fight, where they’ve had to come from,” says Branson. “Going down to the third division and going back into the second and having to fight their way back to the top. Asheville’s got a single-A [baseball] club. It would be like them somehow winning and if they did promotions, getting promoted to the majors. In a little city like Asheville, it doesn’t happen very often.”
“You’ve got to have respect for them,” Gano says of the Foxes’ rise. “I haven’t been able to catch a ton of their games – we’ve been pretty busy over here, so I haven’t really had the opportunity to catch up with them.”
And, full disclosure, Gano is a Bayern Munich fan, having grown up bouncing from Scotland to Germany to Scotland to Canada as a Navy brat (“I used to have a thick accent,” he notes, without a trace of burr.) Born in Scotland, he also maintains a bit of a soft spot for Rangers.
“But I didn’t have a favorite English team,” the kicker says. “So I guess I can pull for [Leicester] now.”
After all, there’s plenty of room on the wagon. And in Asheville, the best beer on the continent never tasted better.