Khun Vichai: One year on from former Leicester City owner's tragic death

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha is still adored by Leicester City fans. (Credit: Getty Images)

The Wat Traimit temple is a lavish place of prayer housed within Bangkok’s Chinatown district.

Thousands of Buddhists and tourists flock to see the world’s largest golden buddha statue which sits at an imposing nine-foot and is valued at around £200 million. Very few realise that behind the temple’s grandiose gates is also a poignant Leicester City shrine.

Detached from the crowds, past a few modest stores selling Buddhist trinkets and down a winding back-alley strewn with flowers, is a private homage to Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha – the late Leicester City owner who so tragically died aged 60 on October 27 last year when his private helicopter crashed as he left the King Power Stadium following a 1-1 draw with West Ham United.

The private room, formally a Foxes reliquary celebrating their miraculous Premier League triumph in 2016, belongs to the temple’s assistant abbot Phra Prommangkalachan.

It contains a small photo of Srivaddhanaprabha, special white and gold pennants with Leicester’s crest in the centre surrounded by Buddhist symbols of good luck and even a signed programme from the Foxes title parade ahead of their final match against Everton. It’s a game remembered for Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli’s spine-tingling performance.

Monks still hold fond feelings for Leicester and their players. (Credit: Ben Jacobs)

“I was at the Everton match and it was magical,” says Prommangkalachan. “Vichai was a wonderful and kind man and will be in our hearts and prayers forever. What he did for the city and people of Leicester will never be forgotten.

“This room will always be special. It contains many happy memories and unfortunately one very sad one, but that’s just all the more reason for us to keep sending Leicester City good karma.”

As a devout Buddhist, Srivaddhanaprabha – or Khun Vichai as he’s more commonly called – regularly prayed at the Wat Traimit temple and took his Premier League squad there to visit, too.

After purchasing the club in August 2010, he asked Prommangkalachan and a team of around 10 monks for regular spiritual support. They sanctified the King Power Stadium, buried religious images under the turf and, as the push for the most brilliantly improbable of Premier League titles intensified, made regular visits to Leicester to both bless the players and meditate during games in a makeshift ‘temple’ next to the referees’ room.

“Our job was to put the players in the right frame of mind to win the Premier League,” explains 67-year-old Prommangkalachan, who became a monk aged 15. “We would pray before and during matches, and Khun Vichai would often join us. He was very devout.”

“It took some getting used to at first,” admitted Leicester midfielder (and current Rangers loanee) Andy King in a 2016 interview. “But I think it brought us closer together as a team. Footballers are also very superstitious. The blessings only take a few minutes and it’s something that’s just become part of our routine and we look forward to.”

A year on and Khun Vichai’s heart-breaking death is still raw. His son Aiyawatt, known as Top, has now taken over as chairman. Brave, genial and business savvy, the image of him sitting next to his father’s empty seat on matchdays is a constant reminder of Khun Vichai’s absence.

Counterfeit Leicester shirts are a common sight in Thailand. (Credit: Ben Jacobs)

Understandably, Top has never spoken in detail about the crash. He was in Thailand at the time, along with his sister Voramas, having missed a rare Leicester game. Since 2012, you can probably count the number of home matches he hasn’t attended on one hand. But he did admit ahead of last weekend’s 2-1 win over Burnley that the past year has been challenging.

“[It] has been extremely difficult for me and my family,” he wrote in the club’s official programme. “As we come to terms with the loss of my dad, the support we have received from the Leicester City family, the people of this city and the football community has been a continued source of strength.”

“Top was the natural successor but nobody could have criticised him if he decided not to step up from his role as vice-chairman,” adds Leicester-born journalist and broadcaster Geoff Peters. “The way he handled the very public and tragic nature of his father’s death was quite astonishing. He’s shown the most immense strength.”

Whereas much attention will be placed on the terrible events that unfolded after the West Ham game a year ago, Top does also have fond memories of another match against the Hammers from April 2015.

Then bottom of the table Leicester won 2-1 to kickstart a ‘great escape’ that would see them win seven of their last nine games to miraculously avoid relegation under Nigel Pearson.

King scored the winner that day to catalyse an incredible turn of fortunes. He was a personal favourite of Khun Vichai, who took significant joy in the fact King shared his name with his own duty-free company, King Power. Momentum continued into the following season under Claudio Ranieri and the rest is history.

“That West Ham victory was such an important one for my father,” says Top, who first watched Leicester on television when they beat Middlesbrough to win the League Cup with his dad in 1997. Khun Vichai immediately fell in love with the Foxes because they played in ‘King Power’ blue.

“We were bottom of the table and it was his birthday. He needed the players to give him three points as a gift. All the players sent him messages before the game. He asked them to win for his present and they did and then kept doing so until the end of the season. We survived and actually felt like champions at the time. And the next season we become champions. My father saw this as more than just a coincidence.”

A shrine to Leicester City near the Wat Traimit temple in Thailand. (Credit: Ben Jacobs)

According to Prommangkalachan, Khun Vichai was quite superstitious. Ahead of big games he would often fly to Leicester on the same plane as his team of monks and pray or meditate for up to 45 minutes before kick-off then make his regular wander into the home dressing room to shake hands and talk pleasantries. He didn’t need to say much because his disarming smile conveyed a powerful message as strong as any pre-match talk.

Khun Vichai fast became like a father figure to many of the players, including Kasper Schmeichel (who witnessed the crash) and Jamie Vardy.

When Vardy first joined Leicester in 2012, he struggled to transition from non-league football to the Championship and turned to alcohol.

Khun Vichai stood by him – even when he came to training drunk – and asked his son to keep a close eye on him.
“I went to talk to him myself”' Top revealed in 2016. “I asked him, ‘Do you wish to end your career like this? Do you want to stay here like this? We'll let your contract run out then release you. Don't expect a better career path.’ After that, he simply quit drinking and started working hard in training. He was a new person.”

Khun Vichai was also, in many senses, a father-like figure to Leicester fans and even the city of Leicester at large. His arrival and departure to every home game in his private blue helicopter – which landed and took off from the centre circle like clockwork an hour after full-time – became a symbol for the club’s patriarch entering or leaving his ‘house’. That’s what made the circumstances of his death even more heart-wrenching.

“The helicopter was something fans had gotten used to over the years,” says Peters, who has covered over 400 Leicester games, including as a club commentator for LCFC TV. “Khun Vichai was not a part-time owner. He had a long-term plan and there were bumps along the way on the field, but we never got the impression he wavered in his dream to see the club move forwards.”

Khun Vichai (centre) celebrates Leicester's incredible Premier League title triumph in 2016. (Credit: Getty Images)

Leicester have also done their best to move forwards and the club deserves huge credit for the dignity with which they have handled the past year.

The site of the accident has now been transformed into a memorial garden, which officially opens on Sunday. A fountain with eight water jets, Khun Vichai’s lucky number, will form the centerpiece. Floral tributes laid by fans last October will be composted to support the growth of the garden, which will depict both a fox and an elephant to reflect Leicester’s nickname and Khun Vichai’s Buddhist faith.

"From the scene of a tragedy, we aim to build something peaceful,” explained Leicester’s chief executive Susan Whelan. “Supporters of today and of future generations can remember what one man's vision did for this club."

Meanwhile, back in Bangkok, King Power’s headquarters are a little more subdued than they used to be, but there are still match parties planned and more will be added to the calendar if Leicester are still around the top four come the business end of the season.

In a short space of time, and long before Leicester won the Premier League, Khun Vichai made watching Leicester games into a social event in Thailand.

King Power erected giant cutouts of players outside their offices, which have an outdoor hosting space with a big screen next to a serene pond. Former Leicester striker Shinji Okazaki (a known name across most of Asia) was perhaps the most used during his time at the club, but Schmeichel and Vardy can also be seen.

Acrobatic Foxes cheerleaders and face-painters would greet around 500 exclusive guests, usually for an evening brunch. Filbert Fox sometimes braved the humidity, too, to make a cameo.

Shirts are still available to buy on match days. The Premier League-winning kit from 2015-2016 has never been reproduced, though, and actually ran out halfway through that season due to demand, but knockoff Vardy jerseys are out in force at the famous Chatuchak Market and have become collectors’ items in their own right.

Khun Vichai's son, Top, stands next to his father's empty seat during last weekend's tributes at Leicester's King Power Stadium. (Credit: Reuters)

Wearing a Leicester shirt in Bangkok is to some extent a badge of high-society and around two million Thai supporters (or in many cases just ‘admirers’) lined the streets when Khun Vichai brought the Premier League trophy home in the summer of 2016 proving Leicester’s title win made genuine waves in Thailand.

At Wat Traimit, a handful of shopkeepers, who sell souvenirs and prayer braclets outside of Prommangkalachan’s private residence, still wear their Leicester shirts to work. They don’t speak much English, but take obvious glee in chanting player names like Morgan, Mahrez and Kante. It’s unclear if they even realise the latter two have departed, but their passion is nonetheless infectious.

“There is a lot of love for Khun Vichai here,” says Prommangkalachan. “Thailand has a soft spot for Leicester, but also a huge respect for Khun Vichai’s strength and wisdom. He didn’t just bring Leicester to Thailand, but Thailand to Leicester and never once forgot his faith, culture or roots.”

Khun Vichai was indeed known for his extraordinary generosity. He gave away 60 free season tickets to mark his 60th birthday in April 2019 and fans were frequently treated to free beer, doughnuts and away-day travel.

He also donated £1 million to the Leicester Royal Infirmary and £2 million towards a new children’s hospital, which will now bear his name. He did so quietly, without courting the spotlight.

The scene following the helicopter crash which killed Khun Vichai on October 27th 2018. (Credit: Getty Images)

The Leicester City-run Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha Foundation will now continue his legacy and Leicester fans also regularly fundraise in his name, including a charity walk last weekend. Foxes supporters have always strived to do something proactive and positive rather than just mourn in silence.

“At the first home game against Burnley, two weeks after the tragedy, a video montage of Khun Vichai was shown on the big screen at the King Power Stadium,” says Peters. “Fans initially sat in silence. And then, from nowhere, spontaneous applause broke out. As that happened, Khun Vichai came on screen applauding supporters in the stadium. The timing was incredible. It was like he was thanking those there in the moment. Desperately sad yet unbelievably beautiful in the same breath.”

Despite a year of coming to terms with the tragedy, as a club Leicester are arguably in a stronger position than ever – both on and off the field. Qualifying for the Champions League is a very real possibility and with gifted youngsters like James Maddison and Ben Chilwell, manager Brendan Rodgers has fantastic potential and English talent to work with.

A new £100 million training ground will also be completed next year and there are plans to expand the capacity of the King Power Stadium to 40,000 seats.

“These developments were all part of my father’s dream for Leicester City,” says Top. “It’s a dream that belongs to all of us now and it will be my honour to lead the club as we pursue that dream together.”

Kasper Schmeichel was one of the Leicester players who formed a close bond with Khun Vichai. (Credit: Getty Images)

Humble Khun Vichai never courted the media, but before he died he gave a rare interview revealing his refreshing style of pressure-free ownership.

“We have to make the team better and better,” he said in May 2016 from Thailand. “I can confirm we are going to keep this club forever. I want to make the team very, very strong, but I won’t go too fast. It’s about going step by step. We don’t put any pressure on our players, just make them enjoy playing.”

Top is very much continuing the sage approach of his father and it is clear Leicester are enjoying their football, too. With the right foundations, owner and support there is absolutely no reason why they can’t have another fairy tale season.]

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