Two days ago the great unwashed throngs on various Leicester City social media sites were in a divided mood over the current City manager and frankly it was becoming tedious.
Constant “Puel in!”, “Puel out“ in a boring Facebook hokey-cokey had me on the verge of resigning from certain fan groups. But, I reminded myself, it’s how the love of your footie club sometimes manifests itself. Passions glow white hot. Fiery words. Abusive tones. But love of the club is the common thread holding all together.
Two and half years ago the Leicester fairy tale had reached its zenith. The Leicester fiesta! The carnival of joy! But, after bombarding all and sundry with my various writings and posts on this event, I resolved to dial back a bit. Too much gloating, I reasoned.
But things change and this one has to be penned. No gloat. No joy.
So why Puel out? Because Claude Puel lacks the charisma of.. oh let’s say, Claudio Ranieri and doesn’t smile as much as the Italian did, he hasn’t cemented himself in the affections of fans at the King Power. And with recent results strictly average, it was clear that the weekend game, at home to West Ham was, if not a must-win, certainly three points needed for the under-fire gaffer.
Since the great title win it’s been pretty much yer bread-and-butter Leicester mid-table mediocrity. Nothing to get excited about.
Often a great moment – like the 2016 title- the bright positive ‘yang’, will be balanced with a negative, dark ‘yin’. One thing is sure, despite the failure to defeat West Ham, Puel won’t be sacked this week. It won’t even be mentioned. A dark yin has visited.
I awoke early Sunday morning to follow the Leicester West Ham game. It was an excruciating watch. Down to ten men, but a goal up, West Ham defended doggedly as City threw everything but the kitchen sink at them. However eventually after finding a kitchen sink, in the form of Wilfred Ndidi, his shot defected into the net and saved us a point in the last minute.
It still felt kind of like a loss though, especially when poor Daniel Amartey, the Leicester right back, had to be taken off on a stretcher, his leg in a brace having suffered a serious-looking ankle injury. And 1-1 wasn’t going help Puel keep his job.
I turned off the telly, had a coffee then assembled my tools for some home weekend warrior building work but before starting had a quick glance at my phone. A message from a UK friend hit like a ton of bricks. “Owner’s helicopter has crashed in flames on King Power car park. Sounds as serious as it gets.”
At one or two of the Leicester games I’ve attended, I’ve seen the blue and white helicopter land and take off from the centre of the pristine King Power pitch. The owner of the club, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, leaving the stadium in it, like he did after every Leicester home game.
Vichai bought the club for £39 million in 2010 and it was promoted to the Premier League in 2014.The Thai businessman, owner of the King Power duty free company, became chairman the following February.
On the 8th of May 2016 I had the immense pleasure, along with 32,000 other City fans in saluting the team, manager, Vichai and his family as they paraded the Premiership trophy around the stadium after the Everton game (I’m sure the owner gave me a personal wave). One of the top five days in my life I wrote at the time, a pure moment of delight.
I’m sure he waved at me.
For the always-smiling Vichai I’m certain it was the same, perhaps multiplied by a factor of 35 million. I was merely a fan, he’d taken a punt and spent those millions of pounds, plus more, taking a run-of-the-mill Championship side to the Premiership, then to ultimate glory.
His generosity wasn’t confined to buying a bunch of highly paid players kicking a football for our edification. He invested heavily in the Leicester area, including the hospital. He gave free beer, water to the fans and sometimes goodie bags. I have one of those bags at home here, found on my seat before a home game and kept as a precious momento.
A few days ago, driving to Auckland with a mate, I idly commented on the exotic BMW i8 sports car in front of us. “Do you know, Craig, the owner of Leicester football club, whose surname I can never pronounce, gave each City player one of those cars when they won the Premiership?”
Yep. Worth £100k each and every car was coloured Leicester City cobalt blue of course.
Under Vichai’s watch the club, players and fans alike, have really become a tightly knit family, as trite as that sounds. It’s true, ask any foxes fan. Even though the family members occasionally squabble over team selection and whether to keep the current manager, there is a fierce loyalty to the owner, the patriarch.
I met James Sharp, Leicester reporter when we were both interviewed by UK Sky TV after the 2016 victory parade. He said today in the Daily Mail “Without Srivaddhanaprabha none of this would ever have been possible. And he and his family have embraced Leicester as a city as much as they have the club.
Over the past few years they have donated millions to local causes: £2m towards a new children’s hospital. Another million to the city’s university medical department.
For a man worth nearly $5 billion, it’s not life-changing sums of money. But to the people in Leicester who might need it one day, it certainly is.”
Sharp added. “Since Srivaddhanaprabha became chairman the club has only gone one way. Up. A Championship title, the Premier League title and a Champions League quarter-final.
He had to make some tough decisions along the way, too. But you don’t become a billionaire businessman by letting your heart rule your head.”
Hardheaded perhaps, But unlike some of the managers City have employed since the title win, or chairmen at rival clubs (think Newcastle United), you won’t find many fans knocking Srivaddhanaprabha, and not just because they can’t spell his name either.
Having said that, even something as infinitely tragic as this event attracts the bottom feeders. I’ve spotted one or two posts from trolls. And searching the Wikipedia site for information on the owners I spotted vile comments about Vichai on his page. I won’t repeat them here but there are very sick people out there.
But the majority of people, football fans and others, from other clubs and from around the world have posted sympathetic, kindly comments. It’s moments like these that bond people. Rivalries are put aside and that is heartwarming.
Tributes left at the King Power today. Photo: Dipak Gohil.
A London mate reminded me that we bumped into Vichai outside the ground at Stamford Bridge after the last game of the season. Richard, a Chelsea die-hard, said “Remember, we saw him, he was walking to his car. He was truly a man of the people, so loved by the Leicester fans. Tragic loss.”
At this time of writing it seems unclear actually who has died, although certainly the much admired Chairman was one. And equally tragically, the pilots, plus the other two occupants and perhaps even people on the ground. Hope not but I’ve seen posts from Leicester saying one or two fans, worryingly, hadn’t returned from the game. There was even briefly a mention that Puel might have been on the chopper, but swiftly discounted .
England legend Peter Shilton witnessed the crash. His wife Stephanie, 50, said: “We are both in shock on our way home. It happened straight in front of us as we were leaving the ground”.
James Sharp again. “To Leicester City supporters, like me, he is the man who allowed us dream, to stand at the top of the mountain, and give hope to every other fan of every other club that anything is possible.”
So this column is my epitaph to a kindly man, a smiling face, the enabler of dreams and perhaps this also serve also as an epitaph to the greatest era in the history of Leicester City. The carnival is over.
The shared loss.
Life will go on, football seasons will come and go, they’ll probably erect a statue to Vichai, but at the King Power Stadium, life will never be the same. It can’t be. But thank you sincerely, Vichai. You won’t be forgotten.
Rod de Lisle.
Categories: English/UK Football
Rod de Lisle
Waikato based follower of Leicester, Hamilton Wanderers, Allwhites and Phoenix, roughly in that order. Underdogs all. I pen stuff that I feel I'd like to read myself but there's no accounting for taste, eh? Some of my opinions occasionally may be factually correct, sorry about that.