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