Sky Sports News reporter Rob Dorsett reflects on the funeral of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and how Leicester move on from the tragic events of October 27…
Thousands of flowers, all perfectly white – Jasmin, Lilies, Lotus flowers, Orchids – lining the 100m bridge that leads to the Wat Debsirin Temple entrance. Elaborate displays that are constantly tended by armies of helpers. Every wilted petal quickly removed. No bloom left without water to drink, in temperatures exceeding 32 Celsius. Collections of incense sticks, burning constantly, are regularly replaced when spent. Entering the Temple where Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha lies is a sensory experience like no other.
Once inside the Temple, there is a huge portrait of Khun Vichai surrounded by yet more elaborate and spectacular floral displays, along with ceremonial fans offered by the great and the good of Thailand’s families. The Thai Prime Minister has visited his funeral, so has the Thai Princess. The British Ambassador….Thailand’s most capped player – the list of dignitaries goes on and on. And then there’s the funeral casket – an 8ft high, solid gold eight-sided urn, given by the King of Thailand as the final resting place for a diminutive, humble, quiet man, whose importance to the world far outweighed his stature.
Standing in front of this opulent shrine, it is impossible not to feel the sheer importance of Khun Vichai, within his home country.
As it is in Bangkok, so it is in Leicester.
No one is now in any doubt about Vichai’s standing within the football club he owned, and just how vital he was to its success. Jamie Vardy called him Leicester’s father – the squad as a whole called him “The Boss”.
So what now for Leicester, in the aftermath of this man’s passing?
There is a huge void to fill. It’s a question that many a Foxes fan has asked, since the tragic events of October 27. The fear is that the club could become rudderless, directionless in the absence of its patriarch.
But there is more than a little reason for optimism. The key people who run the football club are still in place.
Chief executive Susan Whelan never seeks the limelight, but is resolute and shrewd when it comes to business. She hardly ever does interviews but knows King Power intimately, having worked in the upper echelons of the multi-billion pound business for years, before Vichai hand-picked her, as one of his most trusted executives, to run his new football club in 2010.
She has been devastated by the accident having known Vichai for longer, and more closely, than anybody else in Leicester. But her leadership – within minutes of the helicopter crashing on that Saturday night – has been nothing short of staggering. Her clarity of mind, and decision making when others were in chaos, has been recognised with all the club’s employees. She has inspired, controlled, and motivated a workforce that was left shell-shocked by an unexpected tragedy. That speaks volumes about her strength of character and bodes well for the club’s stability going forward.
Jon Rudkin, the director of football, knows the club better than anyone. He first started working as the club’s academy manager and, several times since, has been appointed caretaker manager when the main man has been sacked. He also helped develop Emile Heskey, Jeff Schlupp and Andy King.
But since the Srivaddhanaprabha takeover in 2010, he has been almost constantly at Vichai’s side. A key adviser and insight-giver into the workings of English football, and “the Leicester way”. Alongside Whelan, he can continue to offer the industry-insider’s knowledge, and the recruitment strategy, that is so vital to a successful club.
Before Srivaddhanaprabha’s death, there was intermittent speculation about the future of manager Claude Puel. In the aftermath of Vichai’s passing, you have to say his position is more secure than ever.
He was the first Leicester voice to speak following the tragedy, and he did so with a quiet dignity which won him many new admirers, both inside and outside the club. His whispering, thoughtful style of speaking suited the sombre mood perfectly.
But more than that, his words were considered, honest and apt. He has grown in the eyes of Leicester’s bosses and shown himself very able to lead the squad of players at a time when they really needed someone to lead. It was Puel who asked the players what they wanted to do last Monday morning when they reported back for their first training session. They chose not to train.
Instead, Puel allowed Kasper Schmeichel to take the lead in the group discussions – the sharing of emotion, and the first digestion of the weekend’s events. Sometimes, the best leadership is knowing when to step back, and Puel knew there were others in his group who had known Vichai for much longer, hurting more acutely and could speak more appropriately at that time.
Puel asked the players whether they wanted to attend the funeral ceremony in Bangkok, explaining that it would mean an exhausting schedule, with 25 hours of flying, which would allow only 36 hours in the country. All the players said they wanted to go. Puel accepted their wish, even though it was not the best physical preparation for his team, with Saturday’s game against Burnley in mind.
He has shown great emotional intelligence in allowing his squad to make decisions for themselves. Treating them like grown-ups and respecting their wishes at an incredibly difficult time. As a result, his bond with the players can only have been strengthened, as has his relationship with his bosses.
And Vichai’s successor is a man who stands above all others, in importance to Leicester’s future success. And he knows it.
Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha is the key to Vichai’s legacy. On four separate occasions I saw “Top”, as he is affectionately known by the fans, make very public visits to the huge shrine at the King Power Stadium, to read the messages, and share the grief of the fans. He knew that at this difficult time, he could not hide away to endure his own, private grief. He needed to be visible – alongside the fans.
So there he was, twice with his mother, Vichai’s widow. Again, with Claudio Ranieri, on his first return to the club where he won the Premier League title. And once more on his own, a more private pilgrimage. This is a man even smaller in stature than his father, but clearly a very strong man. A man that has impressed everyone with his composure and dignity since the personal tragedy that has torn his family apart.
It fell to Top, to give the first official words from the football club, in the aftermath of the helicopter crash. In his statement, he spoke knowledgeably and reassuringly of the new responsibility that had been thrust his way. A responsibility not just to keep the football club afloat, but to make it better, stronger, as his father would have wished.
Top gets it. He truly understands the club. While it was his father who took all the big decisions, for the last eight years, Top has been much more visible in Leicester, and much more involved in the day-to-day running of the club. He does the interviews – occasionally – that his father never did. Communicating his vision, the Srivaddhanaprabha vision, of what the club wants to be.
He, of course, takes over as the head of Vichai’s £2.6bn business empire – King Power, which is a huge retailer in Thailand and the East as a whole. There has to be a concern that, in the short term at least, he might be distracted with all he has to learn and do within the family business, eating away at some of the time he would like to focus on football.
But any distraction from Leicester will not last long. For all his business interests, Leicester was Vichai’s baby. He made it clear to Aiyawatt it is a key priority – something that must be nourished, championed and invested in. Aiyawatt has told Leicester’s fans he wants the club to thrive, and progress further, in honour of his father.
Every other promise the Srivaddhanaprabha family have made to Leicester, they have kept. It would be wrong to doubt Aiyawatt’s desire and determination now.