Rainbows, Celebrations, tears as Leicester remembers the Boss
As thousands set off from Leicester city centre on a march towards the King Power Stadium in memory of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the heavens opened. By the time they reached their destination, the sun was shining and a rainbow threw a spectacular arc across the sky.
The changing moods of the weather were symbolic of a day that made the journey across every emotion, from sadness to celebration. There was also commemoration, as fans and club legends remembered the 60-year-old Leicester owner and the four others who died in a helicopter crash outside the stadium after the draw with West Ham United a fortnight ago.
The sweeping blue and white carpet of flowers and tributes that had formed an increasing spread outside the King Power Stadium was relocated to a designated area on Friday in readiness for the return of football to an arena that had witnessed spectacular deeds before this sorrow.
In reality, for the second week in succession, this was not about the result of Leicester City’s football match.
It was about events surrounding it, about a city still in shock and recovery after the death of the Thai businessman simply known as The Boss, whose vision, ambition and investment led to arguably the biggest surprise success story in the history of British sport when Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016.
This was their first match at the King Power since those tragic events and the stadium is still a shrine to Srivaddhanaprabha’s achievements. Thousands of shirts, flags and banners – from the colours of giants Barcelona to local youngsters’ club Dunton and Broughton United FC – make a kaleidoscope of colour as the ground comes into view through the Raw Dykes cutting, the aqueduct for old Roman Leicester.
There was an atmosphere of near silence in the build-up to kick-off as the great and good from Leicester City’s past came to pay their respects.
Former manager Nigel Pearson was among the first arrivals along with former director of football Steve Walsh, before Claudio Ranieri – the humble and popular Italian architect of that title win – entered with his successor Craig Shakespeare and that outstanding Leicester manager of the past, Martin O’Neill.
As they assembled, the thousands were making their way to join them, led by Leicester City stars including England World Cup hero Harry Maguire and James Maddison, who were not involved against Burnley.
The 5,000-1 Walk, named after Leicester’s odds at the start of their title-winning season, made its way from Jubilee Square to the King Power Stadium. Estimates of how many took part varied, but they came in huge numbers.
Snooker player and Leicester City fan Willie Thorne led the speeches, saying: “Today is all about celebrating the life of Vichai. Is there any other chairman in the world who would be so supported? He should never be forgotten.”
He will not be forgotten in these parts. Once inside the stadium, the giant screens flashed up his image accompanied by messages of thanks and tribute from around the globe.
The others who lost their lives, staff members Nusara Suknamai and Kaveporn Punpare, and pilots Eric Swaffer and Izabela Roza Lechowicz, were also remembered.
And even behind the scenes, among those who make the match days at Leicester go smoothly, there was still an unmistakeable air of a club that remains in shock after the events of the last fortnight.
The playing surface was framed by hundreds of shirts, flags and banners, while each seat was bedecked with a blue and white Leicester scarf with “Mr Chairman” on one side and “Forever In Our Hearts” on the other.
Tears started to flow when long-time club ambassador and former player Alan Birchenall, an ever-present pre-match figure here, paid his own personal tribute, saying: “Without him none of this would have been possible. He allowed us to fulfil our dreams.”
There followed a video navigating the Vichai journey at Leicester.
It was initially watched in complete silence – a pin could have been heard, had one dropped – until applause broke out halfway through this very moving record of his time at the club as it showed him mixing affectionately with the players and standing at the front of the bus during the title parade.
There were more tears as those golden, glorious memories were revisited and replayed.
As the tributes continued, his son Aiyawatt laid a wreath for both his father and the forthcoming Remembrance Sunday before a two-minute silence, when the dignitaries were joined by Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore and Football Association chairman Greg Clarke.
When Aiyawatt, known as Top, returned to his usual place, there was the poignant sight of an empty seat to his left where his father had watched the joyous, spectacular events that perhaps even he could not have envisaged when he bought Leicester City.
They had written and shared this story together, this emotive image emphasising that the son will now be inheriting the club his father did so much to shape in his eight-year reign.
In a 100-page memorial match programme, Aiyawatt wrote: “We will never be able to repay what he did for us – for me as his son, us as his family, everyone connected to Leicester City and beyond – but we are committed to honouring his memory and upholding his legacy.
“Our continued growth as a club, our state-of-the-art new training ground and our planned stadium expansion will help realise his vision for Leicester City.”
On the pitch, Leicester were fuelled by raw emotion in the opening half-hour but, inevitably, they lost impetus as the game progressed. These players and so many of the staff have endured physical and emotional stresses in the last fortnight, including a 12,000-mile round trip to Bangkok to attend Vichai’s funeral.
Burnley and their supporters played their part, with manager Sean Dyche dignity personified after the game, revealing he had made a visit to the King Power Stadium on Friday night to pay his own respects.
After the final whistle, Aiyawatt made his way on to the pitch to take the warmth of the Leicester fans who have provided such support – and there was a show of unity, as well as celebration among the sadness, in that final chapter of this day.
Draped in the flag of Thailand, he acknowledged the crowd and they returned his gesture with a prolonged standing ovation while the players remained to join him on a lap of the stadium – along with a clearly moved Ranieri, Pearson and Shakespeare, as well as title-winning defender Robert Huth and Argentine midfield man Esteban Cambiasso, who played his own part in the Leicester story.
It was a fitting conclusion to a moving day conducted with class by Leicester City, Burnley and all involved.
The game itself was, in the wider context, incidental. A low-key goalless draw.
This day, though, was not about that.
It was a day to pay tribute and to remember Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and all he brought to this city. It was a day that did him and Leicester proud.