Leicester pay tribute to tragic owner in emotional victory
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