Leicester pay trib­ute to tragic owner in emotional vic­tory

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By Jim White at Cardiff City Sta­dium

Long af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle, as the rest of the Cardiff City Sta­dium stood empty and still, a vi­brant, de­fi­ant, bois­ter­ous chant rang out from the still packed vis­i­tors’ sec­tion.

“Cham­pi­ons of Eng­land you made us sing that.” There could have been no more per­fect sum­ma­tion of what their lost chair­man Vichai Sri­vad­dhanaprabha, killed in a hor­rific he­li­copter crash at the King Power Sta­dium last Satur­day, had given these Leicester City sup­port­ers. Al­most ex­actly a week on, here was their chance to ex­press their grat­i­tude col­lec­tively, to say thank you to the man who changed their sup­port­ing out­look. And how they took it, re­fus­ing to leave their po­si­tions, stay­ing on well into the evening to ser­e­nade their lost owner.

In front of them the en­tire Leicester squad, the back­room staff, man­ager and the play­ers who had just recorded a most ap­pro­pri­ate vic­tory, ap­plauded their sup­port, savour­ing the sol­i­dar­ity be­fore they took a flight to Thai­land to at­tend his fu­neral.

“You can see from the re­ac­tion the im­pact he had on so many lives,” said the goal­keeper Kasper Sch­me­ichel, who had been one of the clos­est wit­nesses to the af­ter­math of the ac­ci­dent. “He’s a man we were im­mensely proud to have known. We wanted to do it for him and his fam­ily.” And do it they did. Their man­ager Claude Puel had said dur­ing the week that the re­sult in Cardiff would not be im­por­tant. But he knew this was the right way to mark their loss, the per­fect sign-off. Foot­ball might be wholly sec­ondary, but this was a re­sult that would have de­lighted their beloved chair­man.

“It was a mat­ter to keep our self­con­trol,” said Puel. “If we play on just emo­tion, we will not win. [But] if we bal­ance be­tween emo­tion and self­con­trol, de­sire and ag­gres­sive­ness then we have a chance.”

There can be no doubt Sri­vad­dhanaprabha would have rel­ished see­ing the side he bankrolled play with such in­tel­li­gence, such con­vic­tion, such re­solve. How he would have par­tic­u­larly en­joyed the mo­ment in the 56th minute when Ben Chilwell sent a fizzing cross from the left wing into the mid­dle of the Cardiff box. The ball fell per­fectly to De­mari Gray to side-foot into the back of the net for what turned out to be the win­ning goal.

You could see what it meant to the play­ers, as Gray tore off his shirt in cel­e­bra­tion to re­veal a mes­sage on his un­der­shirt read­ing “For Khun Vichai”. As if to prove ref­er­ees are pro­grammed to be party poop­ers, Lee Probert booked him for his cel­e­bra­tion. You can imag­ine Sri­vad­dhanaprabha smil­ing at that. This was one of those rare days when the stan­dard hos­til­ity of foot­ball ri­valry was muted. Out­side the sta­dium be­fore kick-off, Cardiff fans were seek­ing out their vis­i­tors to shake them by the hand. Ev­ery­where you looked were hugs of con­do­lence. In­side, the ad­ver­tis­ing hoard­ings fring­ing the pitch car­ried the mes­sage #To­geth­er­with­Le­ices­ter, while a huge Thai flag bear­ing the words “RIP Vichai” was held above the heads of the home fans.

Here was shared ac­knowl­edge­ment of what the chair­man had done for the game well be­yond the bound­aries of Leicestershire. As the Cardiff City owner Vin­cent Tan wrote in the match­day pro­gramme, the Pre­mier League ti­tle win he had de­liv­ered in 2016 “gave every team, player and coach the be­lief that the im­pos­si­ble was in fact pos­si­ble”.

Be­fore the game, the Leicester City play­ers warmed up in T-shirts with Sri­vad­dhanaprabha’s pic­ture and the sim­ple cap­tion “The Boss”. In the stands, the vis­it­ing fans all wore the same at­tire in trib­ute to the man who had given them so much.

As kick-off ap­proached, a thick, poignant si­lence hung over the sta­dium. Tan’s son laid a bou­quet on the halfway line. As the home play­ers gath­ered in the cen­tre cir­cle, Leicester’s sub­sti­tutes, coaches and sup­port staff all stepped out on to the pitch to join the start­ing 11. Sch­me­ichel stood in the mid­dle of it all with tears run­ning down his cheeks.

Af­ter the im­mac­u­lately re­spected minute of quiet was over, as a vis­ceral roar filled the air, the Leicester con­tin­gent gath­ered in a group hug while their goal­keeper gave an an­i­mated speech. As he spoke, the vis­it­ing fans chanted: “There’s only one Vichai.” Then came the foot­ball, si­mul­ta­ne­ously a triv­ial di­ver­sion and yet the very rea­son the man they so ad­mired had fetched up in Leicester in the first place. And he would have been in Cardiff for this match. He went to most of his club’s away games. He would have been up in the di­rec­tors’ box, sit­ting along­side Tan, a Far East­ern owner whose re­la­tion­ship with his club’s fol­low­ers has been more equiv­o­cal than his. While the Leicester owner was uni­ver­sally ad­mired from the mo­ment he took con­trol in 2010, Tan’s dog­matic im­po­si­tion of a change to red shirts when he bought Cardiff around the same time was wholly de­spised. In the last cou­ple of years, how­ever, through diplo­macy led by the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Mehmet Dal­man, re­la­tions have healed. Now the re­stored blues of Cardiff, like Leicester, are a club where ev­ery­one is head­ing in the same di­rec­tion.

But for all the co­he­sion off it, on the pitch Cardiff proved well be­hind their vis­i­tors. There seems lit­tle hope of a Sri­vad­dhanaprabha-style fairy tale at the Welsh cap­i­tal at any time soon. Leicester may have been hor­ri­bly dis­tracted all week, but their play­ers here showed to­tal con­trol. Given the cir­cum­stances, theirs was a per­for­mance of ad­mirable pro­fes­sion­al­ism.

“It is fan­tas­tic to fin­ish this sit­u­a­tion with a good win,” said Puel. “At the end it was fan­tas­tic to share our feel­ings with the staff, the fans. I’m so proud of my play­ers.” He has a point. It may have only been three points, but in the man­ner Sch­me­ichel and com­pany de­liv­ered vic­tory, was the con­sum­mate trib­ute to the man they called Boss.

To­gether in grief: The minute’s si­lence in hon­our of Vichai Sri­vad­dhanaprabha, and (below) match-win­ner De­mari Gray

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.