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"I don’t think that I’d ever set my alarm for three a.m. before. It was a fanciful idea anyway as it turned out – still buzzing from Leicester’s 3-1 defeat of Blackpool and excited at the prospect of a first ever visit to the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, home of Royal Sporting Club Anderlecht, I probably managed a couple of hours kip before it was time to start the long journey to Brussels.
The visits of Anderlecht fans have been eye-catching to say the least, so when the opportunity to make a reciprocal visit came about it was not to be missed, although none of the forty-odd old school City fans who made the trip could’ve been prepared for what we found. The warmest welcome imaginable, astonishing generosity and a mutual respect rarely witnessed at football grounds these days. The cobbled streets and gothic buildings of the Belgian capital couldn’t have been much more different from the increasingly modern face of Leicester but this visit exposed the human underbelly of football support and showed what could be possible with a small dose of empathy and warmth.
Obscene hour aside, the day started well with broad smiles on the faces of all, many of whom would be familiar to regular away followers of the mighty Foxes, but slightly less mirth from Martin the Ausden Clark driver who thought he was taking a kids football team to Belgium. It felt very much like one of Leicester’s more recent Wembley trips, nothing but enthusiasm for the day in spite of the inconveniences, the journey down the M1, M25 and M20 going quickly amid talk of promotion, sausage rolls and the origin of a certain sheepskin coat and we were in Dover by eight o’clock, sadly two hours before the next ferry but in glorious sunshine, and to the great amusement of a multinational audience, the first beers and songs were given an airing. Even the Port Police came to investigate but we were on the ferry and across La Manche in no time.
The crossing saw a full performance of the Leicester City songbook and we were on the Continent before you could blink, the atmosphere a mix of excitement and uncertainty but we needn’t have worried, the welcome at Anderlecht fans HQ “Le Pavillon” was as warm as the spring sunshine as fans started to congregate in the shadow of the stunning gothic church of Saints Pierre et Guidon, no doubt a few locals wondering why the English had set up camp in their back yard, but no-one anything less than courteous and welcoming. It took a while to get our hands on some “proper” beers, the norm in Belgium a small glass with a large head and, as sponsors of the top division, Jupiler was the obvious and highly satisfactory choice. The food was also excellent, a million miles from the thrown together cheeseburger or barely edible pie that we are accustomed to, so far so good as we made more new friends before setting off for the ground and an 18:00 kick-off.
By the time that we set off to the stadium it was much like a match-day anywhere in the World, fans in the purple and white of RSC Anderlecht surrounding us as we belted out a few City favourites to the partial bewilderment of many, although there were numerous fans of Les Mauves who wanted to take up the photo opportunity with funny English guys. In the midst of all the laughter was a poignant moment where one of the organisers laid some ashes in the grounds of the church, his step-daughter Paige Jackson, the pregnant girl so tragically killed on Saffron Lane a few weeks ago.
Shirts and scarves were swapped, including those specially made in royal blue and mauve carrying Marcin Wasilewski’s philosophical response to the horrific double leg break that effectively ended his Anderlecht career “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, the relative freedoms in the stands fanning the flames as Leicester City songs began to ring out. Initially unsure, the locals soon invited us to stand with their ultras where Jamie Vardy’s well known party was quickly thundering out of a loudhailer, scarves swirled and fans bounced as Oostende were picked apart in a 4-0 home win, the routine Wasilewski song belted out by all on the 27th minute as it had since the Poles injury, and made all the sweeter by the unexpected appearance of the City defender at the game alongside other famous former players Jan Koller and Vincent Kompany.
Standing, drinking and smoking in the stands without harassment was a liberating experience as more scarves and shirts changed hands, a genuine sense of fraternity and mutual appreciation filling the concourse at the end of the game where yet more photos were taken.
I doubt whether many fans of the most successful side in Belgian history will have known who Leicester City were when we arrived, but by the time we were leaving we’d made an indelible mark, a thousand fans singing “Leicester, Anderlecht!” as we streamed out of the stadium, arch rivals Standard Liege held to a draw at lowly Beveren a bonus and further cause for celebration heading into the end of season play-offs. The four hour wait until the coach was set to depart was never going to be enough, Anderlecht fans jubilant and full of optimism going into the final stages of their league, success a genuine possibility and another point of mutual reference as we joined-in as if we’d never been anything other than Mauves ourselves.
Thereafter, the long journey back was the hardest part, some more tired than others but the snoring punctuated with laughter as we questioned whether we had really just witnessed something so special. Calais Passport Control took another blast of Jamie Vardy in good spirits, while the second wind kicked in for many on the returning ferry crossing, even the bar staff recording the lairy Leicester fans while a bar full of French students joined in with a few indecipherable songs of their own, and twenty-five hours after we had left the King Power, we were back in God’s country, arriving in Leicester just after nine a.m.
As City fans I don’t think that we realise what genuinely brilliant supporters we have, all post-match platitudes aside, our fans showed on this trip that we have as much passion, pride and respect as anyone, superb ambassadors for Leicester, England and English football, and soon to take a deserved place back in the top tier of the game. As we grace Anfield, Old Trafford and The Emirates next season, don’t be surprised if you find yourself shoulder to shoulder with a Belgian, the seeds sewn for a lasting alliance, in many ways the trip transcending the game and acting as a reminder of what is really important in life; friendship, family and freedom."