The last 24 hours have been almost unbearable. Confirmation has finally arrived that Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, chairman and owner of my beloved Leicester City Football Club, has passed away following the tragic helicopter crash after yesterday’s match.
This blog is simply an exploration of my reaction to his passing. I wanted to explain why the passing of this apparent stranger hit me so hard. Anyone connected with Leicester City Football Club will understand, but those outside of our family may not realise.
I was at EWW Wrestling in Hastings last night. I should have been watching my new friends and training partners taking part in some great matches and celebrating the 20th anniversary of a wonderful promotion that already feels like family. Indeed, I was, but my heart and my mind was elsewhere.
Football is full of big-time Charlies, egotistical owners, and mercenaries that only see pound signs.
Khun Vichai was none of that.
The Srivaddhanaprabha family took control of Leicester City when the future looked bleak. There are a million and one articles out there explaining the difference between Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and other super-rich owners of football clubs, so I’ll not go into that here, but I will say that I felt an air of suspicion at yet another multi-millionaire from abroad purchasing what is potentially a rich man’s play thing.
The first few years of ownership passed without too much drama. Sure, there was the ill-fated appointment of Sven-Goren Eriksson, but the owners’ ability to make change when it was clear that things were not working out was reassuring. While other foreign owners were hiring and firing left, right and centre, this appointment looked like a statement to the outside world rather than a considered long-term strategy. Although there were some concerns at the shortness of the reign, the firing combined with the re-appointment of Nigel Pearson hinted towards a more stable future based around efficiency rather than glamour.
Around this time I had just started to discover the teachings of Buddhism. While I don’t call myself a Buddhist, and indeed don’t attach myself to any religion, the teachings started popping up in various places in my life when I least expected them. In actor training, in improv lessons, in counselling training, and in conversations with friends. This was around the time that I started to look back at the people in my life that I most admired, and work out what it was about them that I liked. I was making a conscious effort to become someone that I liked.
I started to notice that the things that I admired in people formed a large part of the teachings of Buddhism: compassion, empathy, non-judgement, calmness, serenity, happiness, a desire to end suffering, and a concern for the most vulnerable.
It was one thing to find these attributes in the world of the arts, and within my new friends in the liberal city of Brighton & Hove, but it was another to find them suddenly implanted within the football club that I had held so close to my heart while growing up. A beacon of masculinity, prejudice and frustration.
It wasn’t necessarily the obvious acts, like bringing in Buddhist monks to bless the stadium, that had an impact on me. It was the calmness and the silence in times of difficulty. So many football club owners will panic after a few bad results, and start making comments to the press – usually in support of their manager, even if they end up sacking them a few days later. It’s known as the dreaded vote of confidence for a reason.
But the Srivaddhanaprabhas have never done that. They don’t feed the speculation, they don’t put additional pressure of their employees, and they don’t take big decisions lightly.
Nigel Pearson’s first full season back in charge ended with defeat in the play-offs, and there were calls for him to be sacked. This was at a time when owners of footballs clubs – particularly those owned by foreign investors – were starting to pull the trigger on managers left, right and centre at the slightest hint of failure. Some City fans wanted the change and many didn’t.
From the club? Silence.
The transfer window slammed shut (it always slams shut) and the only signings were a handful of uninspiring free transfers. Again, voices of discontent could be heard within City fans.
Again, silence from the owners.
That season, Leicester City stormed to the Championship title, winning the league with nine points separating us and second placed Burnley.
The patience and calmness of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha had proved the difference.
Then came the great escape. In 2014-15, Leicester were bottom of the Premier League and on a terrible run of form. Calls for the head of Nigel Pearson were getting stronger, but the owners could see that performances weren’t actually that bad, and that with a bit of luck more than a handful of losses would have been turned into wins. By March, City fans had all but resigned themselves to relegation.
Then in April it happened.
Seven wins in the last nine matches.
We stayed up.
It was a miracle. No one thought it possible, but it was like everything that Nigel Pearson had been trying to drill into the team had just clicked together at the right time. The players started playing with confidence, we started to get a little bit of luck, and, well, Pearson did his own work distracting the press from what was happening on the pitch.
Again – the owner’s decision to stand by his manager during some very testing times had proved fruitful. There had been calls for Pearson to be sacked, but the voices were not loud. It was almost like the fans had full trust in the board and were happy to tow the line.
That NEVER happens at a football club.
And then of course there was the title-winning season. There’s nothing I can say about that that hasn’t already been said. The celebrations, the party, the city coming together, were not accidents. Vichai had created a community within City fans. No – more than that – a family.
That day on Victoria Park, surrounded by people from all backgrounds, ethnicities and religions, was one of the happiest of my life. Seeing the players arrive, lift that trophy, and then dance to Kasabian (OK you can’t have everything), I felt a part of something special. Even though I’d been 165 miles away from it for most of the season.
I haven’t even mentioned his generosity. The free pies, pints, scarves, bus travel. The fact he had time for everyone. The fact he would always be smiling, and was always happy to stop for photo. The fact he poured millions into the city’s struggling hospitals and charities.
I watched a live video this morning from outside the King Power stadium. People were leaving flowers and messages of love and support were coming in from all over the world. I badly wanted to be there, but I was grateful that one member of the LCFC family was sharing their experience so that fellow Foxiles could experience the atmosphere.
The impact that Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha has had on the city of Leicester will live on forever. I truly believe that not only has he revitalised a football club, he has shown an entire city a new way of living.
A way that is positive, supportive, and generous.
And that will be his legacy.
RIP Khun Vichai. Thank you for everything.