In their dream time, when Leicester City were about miracles and wonder, and tragedy was the furthest thing from anybody’s mind, the club’s owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, stood in the directors’ box at the King Power Stadium and gazed down at the joyous scene unfolding in front of him as Claudio Ranieri led Andrea Bocelli to the centre circle.
The manager and the singer stood there for a moment, surrounded by ballboys and club staff as Ranieri tried to hush the crowd. The Premier League trophy was with the two men on the dais, ready to be presented to the team later at their coronation as champions, after they played and beat Everton that bright spring afternoon in May 2016.
They were surrounded by bouquets of flowers and smiling faces and the kind of happiness that feels as if it will never dim. And then Bocelli began to sing Nessun Dorma. None Shall Sleep. It seemed to encapsulate in a moment all the beauty football could bring. And anybody with a heart, anybody who loved football, felt the tears welling up inside them.
But tragedy will partner that success as Leicester players and staff stand with Cardiff players to mourn Srivaddhanaprabha’s passing on Saturday
Two-and-a-half-years later, two groups of men gathered around another centre circle in another city. The Cardiff City players stood on one side. On the other side were the Leicester team, their substitutes and most of their backroom staff, their arms linked, their heads bowed. Everybody was included.
There were flowers again but this time it was a wreath. And this time, there was no singing. Just a minute of silence. A picture of Vichai appeared on the big screens at either end of the Cardiff City Stadium. ‘A great son of Thailand, may you rest in peace,’ a message read beneath his image. On the hoardings around the ground, another message flashed up. ‘Together with Leicester,’ it said.
Kasper Schmeichel (second left) struggled to hold back the tears during the minute’s silence
In the midst of the silence, Kasper Schmeichel, the Leicester goalkeeper, who was one of the first on the scene of the crash that killed Vichai, two of his assistants and two pilots at the King Power Stadium last Saturday night, wept openly. And anybody with a heart, anybody who loved football, felt the tears welling up inside them.
Nigeria’s Kelechi Iheanacho (4th from left) and Wilfred Ndidi (9th from left) joined teammates in paying tributes
Tragedy is a part of Leicester’s history, too, now. Tragedy will always be the partner of the miracle of that Premier League title triumph of 2015-16. That was one of the greatest sports stories ever told but when the man who made it all possible died in the wreckage of his helicopter soon after the 1-1 draw with West Ham last weekend, all that joy was joined with pain. Leicester’s home Carabao Cup tie with Southampton last Tuesday was postponed in the aftermath of the crash and so this foray into Wales was the first time the club had played since. It was the first time they had tested their readiness to deal with their grief as their players tried to do their jobs and play the game Vichai loved so much.
This is a stadium that usually provides a hostile reception for visitors but this time was different. When the Leicester players ran out for the warm-up, wearing white T-shirts with a picture of Vichai on the front and the words ‘The Boss’, they were warmly applauded by the Cardiff supporters. On the back of the shirts, there was another tribute. ‘Khun Vichai. You Will Be Forever In Our Hearts,’ it read.
Foxes fans pass a huge banner which displayed the words ‘RIP Vichai’ around the ground
And when the teams emerged from the tunnel before kick-off, a giant banner featuring the Thai flag, the badges of Leicester and Cardiff, and the words ‘RIP Vichai’ was passed above the heads of Cardiff fans towards to the Leicester supporters behind the goal. Another travelled from the Leicester end towards it until they met.
The Leicester squad show a united front wearing the special tribute shirts before the game
No one quite knew what to expect from the game. No one really knew whether they were coming to watch a match or just show solidarity. The images of the Leicester players in distress last week asked obvious questions about whether they were psychologically ready to play. The message from them and their manager, Claude Puel, was they wanted to compete to honour their owner.
Cardiff were unsure how to approach it, too. Neil Warnock had wondered if maybe his players would feel guilty about trying to beat men who were still in the midst of suffering.
The unavoidable way of looking at this game was that it was 90 minutes of grief interrupted. After the match, the Leicester squad travelled to Cardiff airport to catch a plane to Bangkok so they could attend Vichai’s funeral, which began on Saturday.
Before it, as Schmeichel and the rest of the Leicester players sought comfort in the solidarity of team-mates, it was obvious that they were still in mourning.
How does a team deal with something like this? Try to push all thoughts of the tragedy away? Use the idea of honouring Vichai as motivation? Or forget about football, damn the result, get it over with and get out of there? In the end, Leicester used a mixture of all three. Those who thought they might crumble, though, were proved utterly wrong.
As BBC Radio Leicester presenters sat in the press box wearing their own T-shirts commemorating Vichai, the players refused to allow the tragedy that has befallen their club to overcome them. In the gloom of a south Wales evening, the white shirts of their fans, all bearing the same image of Vichai, shone out from behind the goal like a beacon.
The result was not important but the spirit that Leicester showed in achieving it was. They certainly fulfilled their promise to honour Vichai with the way they played.
The records will show that Leicester won 1-0 with a second-half goal from Demarai Gray. The reports will tell you that he whipped off his shirt to reveal the legend: ‘For Khun Vichai.’
And they will also tell you, sadly, that referee Lee Probert felt obliged to obey the rules and show Gray a yellow card.
And when the final whistle blew, the Leicester fans sang: ‘There’s only one Vichai.’ And the players gathered around Schmeichel and hugged each other as if maybe they had achieved the first step in some kind of catharsis.
Then the players and Puel and other members of Leicester’s staff walked slowly over to the fans and stood in front of them in a long line. The players applauded the fans and the fans applauded the players. It stayed like that for 10 or 15 minutes, as if no one wanted to say goodbye.
‘Champions of England,’ the fans roared, referencing Vichai’s greatest gift to them. ‘Champions of England, you made us sing that.’ And still the players stayed. Still they gazed up at the supporters as if they were taking strength from them and their loyalty.
Finally, another flag appeared and the players gathered around as their fans sang ‘There’s only Vichai.’ It was a picture of their owner with the Premier League trophy. ‘Thank You, Vichai,’ the message next to it said.
In the tunnel, Schmeichel stopped to talk. He was clearly fighting hard to hold himself together. ‘You come across in your life very few people that hit you and really impact you and he had a really big impact on my life,’ Schmeichel said. ‘He’s a man we’re immensely proud to have known.
‘We are thinking about his family. We are all really hurting but I can’t imagine what they are going through. We wanted to do it for him and his family tonight. We hope that we did his family proud.’ And anybody with a heart, anybody who loved football, felt the tears welling up inside them.
– Daily Mail