Few executives have sparked such affection in their own supporters
Srivaddhanaprabha family are lauded for helping to write Leicester’s title fairy tale, says Sam Wallace
The Agusta helicopter landing on the Leicester City pitch at the King Power is as regular a tradition at home matches as the pre-game Foxes bugler, one of the few obvious reminders that the Srivaddhanaprabha family who own the club are extremely wealthy people.
The owners of Leicester bought the club in 2010, although it was never entirely clear why. Their fortune was in the King Power duty free chain, which had a monopoly on the airports of their native Thailand. They built up arguably the biggest polo estate in the UK, and created the King Power team, signing the best Argentine players and taking the country’s leading team manager from their rivals.
Polo bought the Srivaddhanaprabha family, and the patriarch Vichai, an entree into the British establishment. Their King Power teams won the Gold Cup and Queen’s Cup, and the family rubbed shoulders with members of the British royal family. Polo was their passion and Vichai’s son Aiyawatt, known as “Top”, played in the team alongside Facundo Pieres, the Lionel Messi of polo.
But it was football that truly catapulted the Srivaddhanaprabha family into the national consciousness. Their club’s remarkable 2016 Premier League title victory, in just the second season after their promotion from the Championship, changed the notion of what was possible for teams outside the elite. While Top, the club’s vice-chairman, gave some interviews in the aftermath, Vichai stayed out of the spotlight. He remained the reclusive billionaire.
Vichai was known for his close links to the Thai establishment and also for his religious faith. The Buddhist monks from the Wat Traimit Withayaram Woraviharn (Golden Buddha) Temple, in Bangkok, are flown in by Vichai for many of the home games to bless the team.
Vichai is known simply as “the boss” at Leicester and at his Berkshire base, which encompasses 100 acres, 60 staff and the stabling of around 80 ponies at an annual cost of around £8million to run the two teams. Dominating that
world of dedicated amateurs and the country set was relatively straightforward once the level of investment was set. Vichai signed manager Peter McCormack from rivals Dubai, owned by Sheikh Ali Albwardy, who had previously won seven Gold Cups and seven Queen’s Cups, to run the teams.
Getting to the top of English football was quite another proposition.
The decisions made by the Srivaddhanaprabhas, and Vichai in particular, have not always been easy to read. The first interest the family had in football was an executive box in the west stand at Stamford Bridge, which they took in 2006.
In August 2010, they bought Leicester from Milan Mandaric when the club were in the Championship, taking four years to get promoted.
Their eight years in charge were first characterised by a loyalty to managers, even Claudio Ranieri, who lasted longer than many would have given him when the team bombed in the season following the 2015-2016 title-winning season. Previously, they stuck with Nigel Pearson through that difficult first year in the Premier League and only eventually parted with him when Pearson’s son, James, was involved in a sex scandal in a postseason tour of Thailand.
The family take advice on the big football decisions from Jon Rudkin, the former academy director and now director of football, who has their full trust and can often be seen accompanying them across the pitch to the helicopter when they leave the stadium. They also place great store in Susan Whelan, the Irish chief executive of Leicester and King Power. Since winning the league, the club have continued to invest but struggled with managerial appointments, replacing Ranieri with his assistant Craig Shakespeare, then Claude Puel.
In Leicester, the Srivaddhanaprabhas are regarded as model owners. They delivered the greatest season in the club’s history and, by and large, the Leicester faithful also agreed with the decision to sack Ranieri. The Srivaddhanaprabhas donated £2million towards building a new children’s hospital in the city; £100,000 to the fund to rebury Richard III and £23,000 to a fan who was raising money for research into his son’s rare genetic disorder. Few owners generate such affection in their own support, although for all that they remain a very private family.