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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

The man behind football’s greatest miracle was so much more than just an owner

As part of our Football's Front Lines series, we attended Leicester City's first home game since the tragedy that stunned football

“You would go on holiday before the title-winning season,” Diane Statham told me on a overcast Saturday, “say you were from Leicester and nobody would have a clue!

“‘Is it near London?’ they would always ask.”

Diane is the treasurer of the Foxes Trust Supporters’ Club.

I spoke to her on the day of Leicester City’s first home game since Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and four others tragically died in a helicopter crash.

“After we won the Premier League,” she continued, “it suddenly became ‘Leicester! You were the champions!’ and everybody would come up to you shaking your hand.

“It was an unbelievable shift, and Vichai was the man behind that.”

Diane wore one of the commemorative shirts given out to those who made the trip to Cardiff last weekend

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Diane wore one of the commemorative shirts given out to those who made the trip to Cardiff last weekend

The world of football had been rocked to its core two weeks previous.

The club not only lost their much-loved owner, but the people of Leicester lost an ambassador who endeared the city to football fans all over the world.

“I’ve seen Leicester go through it all,” Alex Spencer tells me, a Foxes season ticket holder for over 15-years.

“I was there when we won League One, won the Championship and then I dreamed of winning the Premier League.

“To go through that and then witness the dream become a reality all in a six-year window was just unbelievable.

“I always thought we would only ever be a run-of-the-mill, middle of the table Premier League side, but Vichai changed that.”

The greatest underdog story of all time

EPA
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The greatest underdog story of all time

The way Vichai orchestrated Leicester’s title-winning season in 2015/16 has left Foxes fans with lifelong memories.

But Diane explained to me that despite how enjoyable the fairy tale campaign was, the season wasn’t without it’s fair-share of unnerving moments.

“I had a chart on the cupboard that worked out how many points we had, how many points Tottenham had and if we won what they needed, just because you couldn’t believe what was happening,” she excitedly told me.

“You were almost panicking towards the end of the season, looking over your shoulder and just hoping that they didn’t catch us!”

Diane cited the away win against Man City in February 2016 as one that got fans dreaming

AFP - Getty
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Diane cited the away win against Man City in February 2016 as one that got fans dreaming

“Even now before the games they show videos on the big screen of us lifting the Premier League trophy and you stand there asking yourself ‘did we really do that? Is that really us?’

“Everything just seemed to be going our way. We all believed it was going to be our season.”

The chances of Leicester winning the league were anything but believable.

At the time, the 5000/1 odds you could get on the Foxes to be crowned champions meant it was more likely that Jamie Vardy would appear in the next James Bond movie (500/1) and David Moyes would become an X-Factor judge (2500/1).

Thankfully neither ever happened.

“The names Vardy, Jamie Vardy”

Getty Images - Getty
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“The names Vardy, Jamie Vardy”

It’s that monumental feat that earned Vichai immediate cult hero status with the fans.

The various tributes, gestures and overwhelming outpouring of emotion I witnessed on the day emphasised the affection and admiration the fans have for Vichai.

With a couple of hours to go until kick-off, you could hear a pin drop around the King Power.

The areas that would usually be packed at 1pm on your average Saturday afternoon rested dormant.

You wouldn’t have believed it was a matchday

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You wouldn’t have believed it was a matchday

The Foxes fanbase had decided to sacrifice their pre-match pint in favour of a far more important gathering.

A march in honour of Vichai taking place from the city centre to the stadium had been the talk-of-the-town all week.

The original target of getting 5,000 fans involved – a nod to the 5000/1 odds Leicester overcame to win the league – paled into insignificance to the actual turnout.

Just shy of the entire capacity of the King Power were present at the memorial walk

AFP or licensors
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Just shy of the entire capacity of the King Power were present at the memorial walk

Fans and Leicester players, including Harry Maguire and James Maddison, walked shoulder-to-shoulder through the city’s streets.

A heavy downpour of rain failed to dampen spirits as the city came together to show their support for Vichai.

Chants that reminisced on moments of the crowning-glory of his reign – the title winning season – were bellowed out by an army of blue and white who marched imperially through the challenging conditions.

Those who weren’t in the squad took part in the walk

Getty - Contributor
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Those who weren’t in the squad took part in the walk

“You wouldn’t see this togetherness in a community like you would at other clubs,” says Alex.

“Vichai might not be here anymore, but he’s brought the whole city together today.

“There’s rumoured to be around 20,000 people here, that tells you how loved he was by all of us.

“As emotional as we all are to have lost him, things like this walk are a way of us coming together to remember what he did for us.”

The walk culminated with fans gathering around a shrine dedicated to the late owner.

The floral tributes which have become part of the furniture at the King Power in recent weeks had all been carefully moved to a car park just behind the stadium.

A fitting tribute to the Thai owner

AFP or licensors
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A fitting tribute to the Thai owner

The eerie silence around the shrine was momentarily interrupted as, from the back of the crowd, emerged Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, son of Vichai.

Shielded by a pair of bodyguards, the hordes parted to allow him to reach the front of the barriers.

After the man known to supporters as “Top” had paid his respects, onlookers broke out into rapturous applause to show their support for the heir to an extraordinary legacy.

Among the mass Leicester tributes that fittingly littered the car park, fans of other clubs had also visited to pay their respects to the man who gave hope to all that the gap on the elite clubs can be bridged.

A Leyton Orient scarf could be seen in the sea of blue

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A Leyton Orient scarf could be seen in the sea of blue

Both Leicester and Burnley supporters’ clubs took part in a joint wreath-laying outside the King Power.

Tony Scholes of the Up the Clarets group, insisted that the day was about far more than a 90-minutes game of football.

“At the end of the day we’re all football fans, we’re all a big family and we have to work together to help Leicester get through this.

“We’ve laid that wreath today not just on behalf of our fans, but in some sense we’ve laid it on behalf of football fans worldwide.

“Today is a memory that I will take with me for a long time.

“The sheer size of all of this shows just what everyone thought of the chairman here.”

A powerful image

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A powerful image

As kick-off approached, the sense of sadness that had engulfed the King Power transitioned into a celebration of the way in which Vichai will be remembered by the community.

Diane needed no prompting to tell me about the wider impact the late owner had on the city.

“He gave such generous donations to charities and also to the university,” she says with a Cheshire catlike grin on her face.

“He really wanted to be part of the city of Leicester and not just the owner of the football club.”

Vichai’s generosity meant that fans were often given free gifts

REUTERS
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Vichai’s generosity meant that fans were often given free gifts

One of the major benefactors of those donations were the Leicester Hospitals Charity, who have always enjoyed a strong relationship with the club.

Debbie Adlerstein, Head of Business Development at the charity, says that the link with Leicester grew even stronger upon Vichai’s arrival.

“The club often sends players to us so the children can spend the day with them. That became more frequent when Vichai took over.

“Most recently we had Kasper [Schmeichel], Kelechi [Iheanacho] and Wilfred [Ndidi] all come and visit us for the day.

Iheanacho is clearly not a fan of wigs

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Iheanacho is clearly not a fan of wigs

“The family ethos that Vichai instilled at the club poured out to the whole community.

“He wanted to help make a difference to everyone in Leicester.

“At the end of the title-winning season, Vichai made the biggest single donation in the charity’s history (£2million). That donation made such a huge difference and helped to put us on the map.

“He would regularly give up his executive box at the stadium so we were able to take 16 patients and their siblings to home matches.

“I can’t describe how much that did for them, it made them feel normal.

“His legacy will live on through the immensely generously donations he made to us.”

Art Attack

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Art Attack

Prior to the game against Burnley, it was announced that Vichai would be honoured with a statue outside the stadium.

It’s an idea that was proposed to the club by Foxes Trust chairman Ian Bason, who believes the gesture speaks volumes of the title-winning mastermind.

“How many fans of other clubs would be delighted to have a statue of their chairman outside the ground?

“The fact that everyone is so keen on the idea shows just how fondly we all thought of him.”

Charlton are an example of a club going to ruin under poor ownership

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Charlton are an example of a club going to ruin under poor ownership

Ian tells me that the eventual legacy of Vichai could be to force owners of other clubs to rethink the way in which they treat their fans.

“One good thing that I hope can come out of all this is that others look at the example Vichai set at Leicester.

“They should see how he treated the fanbase and the city and change the way they work to follow the model that he implemented here.

“I think it’s an ideal model for how an owner should run a football club and ingrain himself in the community.”

Vichai was a man who not only changed the history of Leicester, but whose legacy could well change the future of modern ownership in football.

Unforgettable

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Unforgettable

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