“Brighton for Chilwell again…and Graaay…Goal for Leicester City!” shouted the play-by-play announcer as Demarai Gray of Leicester City Football Club knocked a half volley into the Cardiff net. Gray immediately removed his shirt to reveal the words “For Vichai,” and then joined his teammates to celebrate with LCFC fans in their corner of Cardiff City Stadium.
“And the perfect tribute for their former chairman, who died so tragically a week ago, beautifully taken by Demarai Gray. And just look at the collective celebration, players and supporters alike.”
Leicester City (LCFC) defeated Cardiff City on Saturday, November 4, 2018, in a somewhat meaningless game in the Premier League standings, but oh so meaningful to Leicester City and Premier League fans all over the world.
It was only a week ago on Saturday, October 27, when the routine turned into disaster as LCFC’s chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, boarded the team helicopter at the end of a Leicester City game from the middle of the LCFC pitch. Only moments later after barely making it out or the stadium, the helicopter spun out of control and crashed into the stadium parking lot in a ferocious ball of flames.
While players, staff and fans speculated, it took several hours before the press told the world what was suspected – Vichai, along with two members of Vichai’s staff, Nursara Suknamai and Kaveporn Punpare, pilot Eric Swaffer and the pilot’s friend, Izabela Roza Lechowicz, perished in the accident.
It has been a week of shock and tears for Leicester City fans, whose love for their former chairman is bottomless. Fans and experts credit Vichai with a turnaround that is, essentially, unprecedented in the Premier League. In 2010, Vichai was part of a consortium that purchased the English Football League Championship club Leicester City, and became chairman a year later.
Leicester City would then go on a run that is essentially unprecedented. The team made it to the top football league in England, the Premier League, and in the 2015-2016 campaign, despite being given a 5,000-to-1 shot of winning the league championship, decisively brought the title home to Leicester City. Imagine a Double AA team in America’s baseball farm system rising together to make it to Triple A ball, the Major Leagues, and then winning the American League East. In America, that’s not possible. But then again, no one thought Leicester City’s rise to the heights of England’s top league was possible either.
As one fan said after Vichai passed away, “he made us champions.”
FCLC’s chairman was also the founder of King Power, the dominant duty-free business in Thailand, which is the name that adorns the team’s stadium and jerseys. And while there has been resistance to foreign owners of Premier League football clubs in the past, Vichai helped bring a winning attitude to the team while demonstrating a powerful common touch, reaching out to the fan base in intimate ways. He would provide beer and food to fans in the stadium, handing them personally to them. He awarded 60 random season ticket holders free renewals this year on his 60th birthday, a special birthday for Asians.
“It’s a big thing for Leicester City, this,” said one elderly lady paying tribute outside King Power Stadium. “And he was the best bloke you could have. He never went without acknowledging you. He was OK giving you bacon sandwiches you know, your cup of tea before you went your breakfast.”
Without question Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, from the moment he took over Leicester City FC, well before the miracle and whatever else, he invested money in the club. He was also very clear about having a footprint in the community, donating money to local charities, taking time to stay and greet the fans before and after games. It’s very easy to be cynical about these billionaires who buy Premier League clubs. Is it just a play thing? Is it something where he wants a financial return? It might have been those things but it was also something he really lived for every match day. It’s no coincidence that it led to his passing that he made the effort of coming over there, flying his helicopter onto the pitch, on and off before and after the game. Without question, he was one of the most beloved owners of the Premier League.
A couple of days before the match with Cardiff City, LCFC manager, Claude Puel said that “The game is not important. The result is not important, but our desire, our actions to give our best on the pitch to honour our chairman, is the most important thing. About our conviction, our focus, we will be ready. I am confident the players can give their best.”
At the end of the match with Cardiff City, happy they could win the game for their beloved chairman, the team stood together in front of their fans. As Cardiff City Stadium emptied out, the LCFC fans in their corner of the stadium, many wearing white t-shirts with Vichai’s face boldly saying “The Boss,” stood and sang Leicester City songs, held up flags of Thailand, chanting “Vi-chai.”
For a long time, amidst the empty stadium, the players and fans communed, trying their best to say good bye. The players finally parted, and made their way to the locker room to begin preparations for a long flight to Bangkok, Thailand to attend the funeral for their chairman.