A year after Leicester City lost Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, how are the club moving on?
By Rob Dorsett
Last Updated: 27/10/19 12:00am
His face is the first thing Leicester City's players see at the Belvoir Drive training ground and the last thing as they leave for the field on home matchdays.
A year after his death, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha's presence and influence at the club is still great.
Vichai was a quiet man who avoided the media spotlight. I only ever spoke to him on a handful of occasions, when he was always polite and shy. Away from the cameras, however, when he was with the players, he was known to be the life and soul of the group.
In the months since his passing, I've heard more and more stories about him. Kasper Schmeichel talks animatedly still of how he always knew when "the boss" was in the changing room, even if out of sight, because there would be the bubble of banter and laughter.
The goalkeeper also remembers a squad night out in France when Khun Vichai sat the two biggest club security guards together on a tiny, intimate table for two - candles lit - much to their amusement, and when the chairman ordered a solo guitarist to serenade the couple, it brought the house down; the perfect punchline.
Captain Wes Morgan is adamant Leicester would not have won the Premier League without Khun Vichai, not because of his money but because of his vision to create a "family" within the squad, and a wider sense of community among staff and supporters. Without that unity, Morgan is certain the Foxes would not have been the force they were when they won the Premier League title in 2016.
Speaking to Sky Sports News in the run-up to Sunday's anniversary, centre-back Morgan recalls the day Leicester lifted the trophy and how he - as skipper - ushered the Thai gentleman to the front for the lap of honour. He thrust the trophy into Vichai's arms and encouraged him to accept the applause the whole squad felt he deserved.
And it has only really been since his death that the public have learned how much Khun Vichai had done for the local area. Just last week, Leicester Children's Hospital named two intensive care wards after him in thanks for £2m in donations. Similar money was given to De Montfort University and Leicester Cathedral.
People who have no affiliation with football speak with fondness and gratitude towards him, many of whom came in their hundreds to lay flowers at his shrine. They, like Leicester's supporters, still mourn his passing and offer thanks for his generosity.
Yet in the upper echelons of the club and in the world of business, Khun Vichai had a reputation for being shrewd, tough and even ruthless. He never shied away from the hard decisions - the sacking of title-winning boss Claudio Ranieri just nine months later chief among them.
In this regard, Vichai's son Aiyawatt is continuing his legacy, also confronting the big decisions head on. Just four months and a day after the chairman's death, while his body still lay in state in Bangkok, Aiyawatt knew Claude Puel had lost the dressing room, so made the brutal choice to sack him despite huge affection built between them for the dignity the Frenchman showed after the crash.
And Aiyawatt - nicknamed 'Top' - believed Brendan Rodgers was the man to take Leicester to the next level, making a shrewd move to prise the ex-Liverpool manager away from Celtic, one of the biggest clubs in the UK and where Rodgers was enjoying a multiple title-winning reign.
It was also Top's decision to sell Harry Maguire to Manchester United for nothing less than a world-record fee for a defender. While sad to lose a jewel in the Leicester crown, he knew it was just good business. And he also knew it was bad business to pay what he felt was over-the-odds for replacements, such as Bournemouth's Nathan Ake or Burnley's James Tarkowski.
Aiyawatt has also accelerated plans for a new £100m, state-of-the-art training ground, which the club believe will be one of the best in Europe. Before his father's death, plans were simply at the artist's impression-stage, but now building work is well under way and the squad plan to move in next June.
Many Leicester fans I spoke to had feared for the club's future in the absence of their talismanic owner. But far from stalling, Leicester's ambitions have soared since Khun Vichai's parting, largely because Top is determined to repay their affection for his father, to whom he feels he owes it to continue the Leicester dream in his memory.
And so far this season they are certainly prospering, hot on the heels of the champions Manchester City and fresh from making history with the top league's biggest ever away win - a 9-0 thrashing of Southampton on Friday night - putting them third in the Premier League and only five points behind leaders Liverpool after 10 games.
Before kick-off Rodgers was adamant it is ludicrous to think of Leicester being title contenders, but it seems that - privately at least - Leicester's bosses will be disappointed if they do not make the top six this term. The squad is arguably stronger than the title-winning side of 2016, and it shares a similar unity despite a number of personnel changes.
That is a glowing tribute to the foundations that Khun Vichai put in place, and that his son Aiyawatt is now developing.
Even though we have yet to hear the completed report from the Air Accident Investigation Branch, and the inquest into the five deaths has yet to begin, there are positive signs that Leicester are moving on. While there are many questions that still need to be answered, there are no longer any questions about how Leicester will fare in Khun Vichai's absence.
The tragedy seems to have brought the players, the staff, and the supporters even closer together. The healing goes on; but the players now talk of the good times they shared with "the boss" with smiles on their faces, rather than bowed heads and furrowed brows.
As is so often the case, it is the fans who find the best expression of affection, and for Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha the Foxes faithful have made a song sung regularly at the King Power, that was particularly loud on the hour-mark at St Mary's on Friday with Leicester astonishingly up 7-0. And it goes like this:
"Vichai had a dream,
"He bought a football team
"He came from Thailand
"Now he's one of our own.
"We play from the back,
"And counter attack,
"Champions of England,
"You made us sing that."