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29th Oct 2018

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha bucked ownership trend by fostering community spirit at Leicester City

James Knight

Leicester City owner and Chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha died when his helicopter crashed outside the King Power Stadium on Saturday evening

Throughout Sunday fans gathered at the ground to lay tributes and find solace in being together. This is the darkest moment in the club’s history, a shocking final act to an eight-year drama that took Leicester, my club, from a run-of-the-mill Championship side to one of the greatest underdog stories in sport.

Leicester is a one-team city that is now defined by the football club. Without Vichai none of 2015/16 was possible. His role in the transformation of the club is much more far-reaching than that season alone but it is the shared experiences of that year, and three days in May in particular, which forged the bond between owner and city; the trophy presentation with Andrea Bocelli, the bus parade where hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, and the Monday night when the title was sealed. Fans gravitated to the stadium that night too, a place to find others to share the feeling with.

The Srivaddhanaprabhas bought the club in August 2010. The first year of their investment followed the foreign owner arc familiar to football fans everywhere. Paolo Sousa was sacked after nine games and replaced by Sven Goran Eriksson, who promptly binged on high-profile signings such as Yakubu, Gelson Fernandes and Darius Vassell.

What happened when Eriksson’s tenure ended in October 2011 is a big stepping stone on the road to why we’re seeing such an outpouring of emotion now – because Vichai did something that billionaire owners of sports teams are not usually inclined to do: he learnt.

His decision to give the job back to Nigel Pearson – both the overwhelmingly popular choice among supporters and about as different from Sven as it’s possible to be – changed the club forever. Instead of sticking to the showbiz path, with a famous manager and big transfers, he changed course. That January Leicester signed Danny Drinkwater and Wes Morgan.

Four years later Vichai made a similarly defining decision not to sack Pearson after a touchline ‘altercation’ with James McArthur and with the club bottom of the Premier League. With this decision he bucked the ownership trend again: he changed his mind. After initially deciding to make a change, he was talked out of sacking Pearson by his son and handed the manager a reprieve. Vindication came in the form of The Great Escape and everything that followed.

Much has been said in the wake of this terrible tragedy about Vichai’s incredible generosity. His donations to charities in Leicester are too numerous to list but even extended as far as helping to pay for the reburial of Richard III, another defining moment for the city which shows how in touch with the community he was throughout his time in Leicester. His acts of kindness to players and staff helped foster a strong sense of unity within the club. And he always valued the fans.

That isn’t always the case in football. Often supporters are taken for granted, whether it’s through high ticket prices, weird kick-off times or other reasons. Free beer and doughnuts at the King Power Stadium could be perceived as a bit quirky, but those gestures went a long way to creating a relationship between the Chairman and the fans.

In April the club gave out 60 free season tickets to celebrate his 60th birthday. Any fans making the trip to Cardiff next Saturday had already been promised a free breakfast and a scarf at the stadium. A similar offer was in place for a game in Newcastle last season. Acts of kindness like these have cultivated a personal connection with the ownership that means every one of us has been touched in some way by the man.

Alongside all of that, it’s also worth saying he was extremely good at being the Chairman of Leicester City. His impact was more than money alone, his legacy will leave the club in a far better state than the one he inherited.

His big decisions, on Pearson and the hiring of Claudio Ranieri, were right. It was his intervention that helped convince Jamie Vardy to stay after the title victory and almost certainly kept Riyad Mahrez at the club for longer than anyone expected. Vardy even invited him to his wedding. The tributes from players have been heartfelt. Wilfred Ndidi mentioned how Vichai went to watch him at the World Cup. Kasper Schmeichel, the player closest to the Srivaddhanaprabha family, wrote a long post on social media on Sunday night after the news was confirmed.

Schmeichel was signed within a year of Vichai buying the club. He’s one of the iconic players of this Leicester City era. He has been there for the whole ride, from heart-breaking play-off defeats to the Champions League. He’s one of the players who received a BMW by the Chairman after the title win.

According to reports, he was also the player who rushed out to the scene of the crash. His reaction, the despair and the fact he stayed at the ground until the early hours afterwards were a revealing insight into the impact Vichai had on the club. Schmeichel has often been a spokesman for the team throughout highs and lows over the past seven years. Over the weekend his words spoke for an entire city in mourning.

James Knight is a Leicester fan and edits the Dilly Ding blog.