Leicester honour ‘Khun Vichai’ on solemn day at King Power Stadium

“Leicester till I die,” they sang as Leicester tried for the breakthrough against Burnley, in honour of their late chairman Khun Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.

His life ended two Saturdays ago, here at the King Power Stadium, and this is the first time the fans have been inside since that day. 

He was the Leicester City owner; every time he attended a match here he would leave in a helicopter.

It would land in the centre of the pitch, rise and hover and then leave.

That’s what happened after Leicester’s 1-1 draw with West Ham on October 27, but the helicopter fell outside.

Five lives were taken away.

Pilots Eric Swaffer and Izabela Roza Lechowicz. Nusara Suknamai and Kaveporn Punpare, who were on the chairman’s staff.

And Khun Vichai himself.

They hoped against hope that those onboard would be rescued. The sight of the first responders leaving in their vehicles – slowly and without lights – bore brutal witness to the tragedy that was unfolding.

Khun Vichai left the centre circle that day for the last time. Today his son Aiyawatt ‘Top’ Srivaddhanaprabha returned there with a wreath in his hands.

He stood for two minutes in the driving rain in the still silence as the stadium came together to remember his father.

A special video tribute to Khun Vichai played on the big screens at either end of the King Power. The images showed the owner shaking hands with his players, his managers and his fans alike. He was shown with the championship trophy which Leicester won under his command in 2015-16.

He was shown holding the Premier League trophy and celebrating on the bus parade around the city centre.

How strange it is to see that same city centre today.

Jubilee Square is where the fans used to gather ahead of Champions League home fixtures before walking to the ground.

Imagine. Leicester City – champions of England – playing against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals. When they sing ‘Vichai had a dream’ around there, that is what they mean.

Today Jubilee Square was thronged again. Some wore ‘VICHAI’ on the back of their tops. Some wore ‘CHAMPIONS.’ They were gathered in their thousands; it felt like every supporter who intended on attending the match a mile and a half away at the King Power had gathered there.

They assembled for the 5,000/1 Walk – to honour Khun Vichai. Some Leicester players including Harry Maguire joined in.

And then the heavens opened.

For the length it took the crowd to move along the path towards the stadium, it rained. They arrived sodden. Some used their scarves or their Thai flags to keep the rain off their heads. And when they got there it stopped.

There’s another song they sing around here.

“When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.

“When you’re laughing, when you’re laughing, the sun comes shining through.

“But when you’re sighing, you bring on the rain, So stop sighing, be happy again…”

People are sad; the events they witnessed will always be hard to deal with. But this did not feel like a funeral march.

It felt like a thanksgiving. It felt like a celebration. The flowers on the stadium concourse – thousands upon thousands – provide the centrepiece to the tribute. Hundreds of replica shirts – from Leicester and clubs further afield – lined the pitch.

And this was a thank you to Khun Vichai for everything he brought to Leicester.

It was a thank you for the titles and the international players. It was a thank you for the European tour. It was a thank you for the defying of logic which saw them crowned kings of England.

There are 92 English league clubs and about 30 of them would feel they have more of a right to a title than Leicester City. But Khun Vichai’s vision and his determination made them jump the queue.

One fan outside said he wouldn’t care if they lost every game from now until they day he died. No one can ever take away what Khun Vichai brought.

He didn’t do it alone. He had Steve Walsh in charge of recruitment when they signed N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez. Both of those players left glowing tributes to Khun Vichai in the commemorative matchday programme.

Claudio Ranieri is widely acknowledged as the brains behind the title win in 2016. He was here alongside Leicester managers of old; Nigel Pearson who won the Championship and then kept them up. The Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, who managed Leicester in a different ground, in different century.

This was a day when the Leicester family came to honour one of their own.

The result scarcely mattered. Leicester are going to need three points someday but today that wasn’t important. What was important was to get out on the field – the same field Khun Vichai took off from – and honour him.

They did that by standing arm in arm for the two-minute silence. Not just the Leicester starting XI either, out there was the entire support staff to the team. It was emblematic of the family ethos Khun Vichai tried to build here, where the star players know the names of all the other workers they come across. Where there is a genuine connection between the fans and those on the pitch.

Those fans held aloft their special scarves today; they had ‘Mr. Chairman’ on one side and ‘Forever In Our Hearts’ on the other. He was the type of owner who would give out a pie and a pint on his birthday and other gifts at Christmas to fans in the stadium. This was a different gift and a poignant one at that.

The scarves will be something tangible to hold; something to remember Khun Vichai by. Those who lived through his reign however won’t need them. You cannot reach out and touch a memory. That’s what they will never forget.

The scar of October 27 means though that they’ll never be able to think of that without thinking of this. When they see those pictures of Khun Vichai with the trophy, it will bring to mind his fate.

They said the fairy tale was over when Claudio Ranieri was sacked so soon after winning the title. But the fairy tale ended in the moments that helicopter struggled over the King Power stands.

Leicester were reborn once before. A decade ago they barely had a club worth speaking of. When Khun Vichai took over eight years ago they were at the bottom of the Championship and going nowhere. Look at them now.

Andrea Bocelli stood on the pitch a couple of summers ago in a Leicester City shirt and sang ‘Time to say goodbye’. It was the pinnacle of Khun Vichai’s reign as owner. It was a wonderfully surreal moment when the world looked at Leicester and smiled. Dreams can come true. The impossible is possible.

On a bitter, damp November evening the song bellowed out again. Khun Vichai’s son walked around the pitch, collecting Thai flags and receiving warm applause.

The circumstances of the song could hardly be more different but both renditions had the same unifying effect.

 

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