From tragedy comes sol­i­dar­ity as Leicester unite again in dig­ni­fied tribute to chair­man

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Premier League - By Jim White

For the sec­ond Satur­day in suc­ces­sion, for Leicester City it was what hap­pened af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle that mat­tered. Just as they had at Cardiff last week, the Leicester fans stayed be­hind long af­ter this dis­ap­point­ingly goal-free game had be­gun to fade from the mem­ory. They stayed to ac­knowl­edge their team, their man­ager and above all their own­ers. And the re­spect was mu­tual.

Lead­ing a posse of play­ers and man­agers past and present on a lap of the pitch were Vichai Sri­vad­dhanaprabha’s two sons. Fol­low­ing their fa­ther’s tragic death in a he­li­copter crash out­side the sta­dium af­ter the last home game against Wolves, Aiyawatt and Apichet Sri­vad­dhanaprabha wanted to give their thanks for the mag­nif­i­cent sup­port which had come the fam­ily’s way.

“It was a com­mu­nion with our fans,” was the man­ager Claude Puel’s assess­ment. “To see the for­mer play­ers, for­mer man­agers come back to hon­our the chair­man shows the man he was.”

From tragedy comes sol­i­dar­ity. Over the trau­matic fort­night since their chair­man died, Leicester have shown

them­selves adept at con­nect­ing with their sup­port­ers. With­out ever hav­ing the am­bi­tion to do such a thing, the 2016 Premier League cham­pi­ons have proven to be cham­pi­ons at some­thing else: the dig­ni­fied ex­pres­sion of loss.

Thou­sands marched in a tor­ren­tial down­pour from the cen­tre of the city to the King Power ahead of the game. When they ar­rived at the ground, they queued to view the huge shrine which had bloomed on the con­course and had now been moved to a car park. Sean Dy­che, the Burnley man­ager, had come down to pay his re­spects at the me­mo­rial the night be­fore the game and had been taken aback by its sheer scale.

“You’ve seen it on the telly,” he said. “But that doesn’t pre­pare you for how big it ac­tu­ally is.” In­side the sta­dium, hun­dreds of shirts, rep­re­sent­ing every club in the land, that had been left in mem­ory of the chair­man were placed all around the touch­line. Up in the di­rec­tors’ box ahead of kick-off was a quo­rum of for­mer man­agers, from Martin O’Neill to three hired and fired by Sri­vad­dhanaprabha, Nigel Pear­son, Craig Shake­speare and Clau­dio Ranieri. In the size­able match pro­gramme, past play­ers N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Danny Drinkwa­ter ac­knowl­edged the con­tri­bu­tion of the man known in th­ese parts sim­ply as “The Boss”.

Be­fore a two-minute si­lence mark­ing both the chair­man and Remembrance Sun­day, Alan Birchenall, the long-time host at the King Power, in­tro­duced a poignant video tribute to the chair­man with the words “We all know with­out him the ti­tle would not have been pos­si­ble”. There were a lot of smiles in the film, pro­vok­ing a lot of tears in the stands. Then, af­ter the si­lence, came the roar. And the chant “Cham­pi­ons of Eng­land you made us sing that”.

It was hard for the foot­ball to live up to such in­tro­duc­tion. But af­ter an emo­tion­ally ex­haust­ing fort­night, it was vi­tal for Leicester not to al­low loss to morph into self-pity. Against a Burnley side con­structed around two size­able front­men in an ho­mage to the lost days of 4-4-2, Puel needed his play­ers to be at their most pre­cise.

They started with a flour­ish. Speedy mid­field in­ter­changes be­tween Wil­fred Ndidi, Nam­palys Mendy, and De­marai Gray promised to put Burnley on their heels. In the 14th minute it seemed as if things were go­ing to go the way of the script when Jamie Vardy scur­ried the ball away from Joe Hart and fired sharp and low to­wards goal. But Matthew Low­ton cleared off the line.

From there Burnley be­gan to set­tle. Mar­shalled by Ben Mee their de­fence looked in­creas­ingly se­cure.

As the game pro­gressed, Leicester be­gan to lose grip on their pre­ci­sion. Maybe it was the emo­tional toll, maybe it was the jet lag from the flight to Thai­land for their chair­man’s fu­neral, but noth­ing seemed to fall for them. Early in the sec­ond half, they won a flurry of cor­ners. Rachid Ghez­zal swung them all in ef­fi­ciently enough, but no one in blue could find a fin­ish­ing touch.

This be­came the pat­tern of the game: Gray’s header in the box not car­ry­ing to a col­league, the sub­sti­tute Kelechi Iheana­cho get­ting knot­ted up and han­dling when well placed, Kasper Sch­me­ichel’s fizzed kick out to Ri­cardo Pereira hit­ting his chest and spin­ning out for a throw-in.

Not that any­one could fault their ef­fort. Vardy was chas­ing ev­ery­thing down, slid­ing in, for­ever fer­ret­ing af­ter the ball. But noth­ing came of his work. With half an hour re­main­ing, Puel sent on his sub­sti­tutes to make a three-man at­tack, but still the ball was not get­ting close to any of them, still there was no fi­nal prod­uct. The clos­est they came was when Vardy’s low cross was blocked by Char­lie Tay­lor as Iheana­cho shaped to shoot, and when Shinji Okazaki fired just wide of Hart’s goal.

It meant that a dis­ap­pointed Puel was not to see the goal cel­e­bra­tions he knew his play­ers had pre­pared.

“It is a shame, it is the first game we have not scored at home,” he said. “It would have been nice to mark things with a goal.” Now, with a fort­night-long in­ter­na­tional break, Puel has the chance to breathe, to work out how best to chan­nel the sol­i­dar­ity fill­ing the sta­dium long af­ter the whis­tle.

“We can­not play with just emo­tion,” he said. “We have to have the his­tory in our head, but also the pro­fes­sional at­ti­tude and give our best. The most im­por­tant thing is our at­ti­tude. If we can con­tinue to per­form, then we can con­tinue the his­tory.”

For Leicester, the fu­ture starts here.

Trib­utes: Aiyawatt Sri­vad­dhanaprabha (top, sec­ond right), son of Vichai, the Leicester owner who was one of five peo­ple killed in the he­li­copter crash, lays a wreath for Ar­mistice Day; fans on the Vichai march (above and bot­tom right) and their flo­ral tribute (top right)

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