As Leicester City edge tantalizingly closer to the Premier League title, the joy their fans are feeling is about more than just winning. It is also about all the years of losing.

To the global audience, watching the #EPL Leicester comes as an unexpected novelty that interrupts the usual Big Club narrative. To Leicester fans – and the rest of us cheering them on – it is about a lifetime of supporting a team for whom the low points far outnumber the highs. But without those decades of disappointment, they wouldn't appreciate this moment quite so much.

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Leicester City players celebrate their team's first goal by Danny DrinkwaterGetty

To anyone who has only followed football during this millennium, Manchester City are one of those aforementioned Big Clubs. But, to the long-term Man City hardcore fan, there have been plenty of lows and theirs are tales of glories last told in the 1960s.

Both Cities were down in the third tier of English football (I long to still call it Division Three) in the not-so-ancient past. Now the blue team from Manchester are on the verge of a Champions League final (I long to still call it the European Cup).

But even as Man City approach the summit of Europe – nay, global football, for what else is the Champions League but the best marketed club competition in the world – there are probably still City fans out there who will tell you that their greatest footballing memory is the injury time comeback against Gillingham in the 1999 play-off final (to escape from the aforementioned Third Tier): it was a triumph, but one set amidst the rubble.

Supporting the other team in Manchester is a little different. Manchester United's fans feel hard done by when they finish seventh in the Premier League and outside the European qualifying spots. The horror. I'm not saying that there are no true Man U fans, but what I am saying is that some of them are glory hunters, who know little about being a real football fan. It's not really about winning trophies. It's about shared experiences. The highs and the lows.

Often, it's not even about the winning, but the journey. There will be chanting and cheering when (if) Leicester win the league, but that it just a moment to round off a season of hopes and dreams, of glorious away days and surprising victories. In their dotage, Foxes fans will remember this season – the whole of it – for a very long time.

They should also make sure they book their tickets to the outposts of Europe in next year's Champions League, for the opportunity may not present itself again. (Have you ever wondered why England away games feature so many flags from the tiny clubs of the Football League? It's because we don't get to see the world with our club teams).

But as Leicester and Manchester City fans dream of the potential joys just around the corner – and as they enjoy the hope and anxiety of the journey – there is the starkest reminder that this is just a game.

Liverpool's greatest manager, Bill Shankly, famously joked: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

In the grand scheme of things, football's importance was put into perspective this week with the reaction to the long-delayed, much-obfuscated second Hillsborough inquest. Nobody goes to a football match expecting to die. And their families certainly don't expect the victims to be blamed. Finally - finally - the truth has been told and the stigma is gone. The hurt will always remain but football's ability to be more – as well as less – than a game has shone through.

As David Banks argued: "Ultimately it was the campaign by the families that resulted in the events today, but the families were sustained by the loyalty and support of a city that has an ingrained sense of justice and a determination to fight for what is right, even though that fight might last for years."

Liverpool's football clubs and its citizenry are inextricably intertwined. And the story that they suffered at Hillsborough resonated with the wider football community. Anyone who attended a football match before Hillsborough and the Taylor Report knew what it was like to be trapped in horrible crushes and treated as subhuman.

As my Liverpudlian pal Andy said after the verdict: "Finally. For all football supporters. It could have been any club. It happened to be Liverpool."

Which is why we all rejoice in the verdict, whilst continuing to mourn for those 96 Liverpool fans today. And why so very many in the football community are happy for Leicester City. We dream, we fantasize, that the Foxes' thrilling success could happen to our own clubs. And that others would be happy for us, because we all support the game of football.


Steve Busfield has written and edited for some of the world's biggest newspapers and web titles. This includes being the Guardian's sports editor for the launch of its US edition. Most recently he oversaw ESPN's global football coverage.