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Guest MattP

Too few owners respect their clubs’ traditions – Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha did.

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Quite a moving piece from Henry Winter in the Times, I do hope a big part of his legacy could be that more owners want to be like Khun Vichai, it would be better for all of us if that happened.






Good ownership of a football club is not simply about making the right decisions with managerial appointments, player recruitment and investment in facilities. It is also about instilling the right values or respecting principles and traditions that have served the club so well.


It is why Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s tragic death has caused such widespread anguish. Some fans of opposing clubs are going on Leicester City fans’ forums to express their condolences and talk of how much they admired Vichai. He was the owner they all wanted, “The People’s Billionaire” as one fan called him.


Other owners should really look and learn from Vichai’s bond with supporters, players and staff at Leicester, where he always felt more custodian than chairman. Too few owners truly respect their club’s traditions. Vichai did. The Thai businessman held Leicester customs in high regard because of his innate humility and maybe also because he hailed from a country where values, culture and the past are respected greatly.


In the directors’ lounge at Leicester, Vichai and his son Top had boards put up chronicling the club’s participation in FA Cup finals in 1949, 1961, 1963 and 1969, all lost, but still all part of the club’s long heritage. Another board marked League Cup finals in 1964, 1965, 1997, 1999 and 2000. They have boards celebrating managers and players, and a board with names of chairmen dating back to the Victorian era.


The Premier League feels at a crossroads as it heads towards substantial upheaval when its chief executive, Richard Scudamore, for so long the driving force, leaves at the end of the year. As when any leader stands down, a period of flux and uncertainty is inevitable, and increasingly disenfranchised supporters will fear certain owners flexing their muscles, demanding more of the broadcast revenue, sidelining matchgoers further.


The Premier League post-Scudamore could also provide an opportunity for a reboot, for a new start if owners follow Vichai’s example and engage properly with fans. This might be the most naive of wishes in such a brutal, commercial world but Vichai demonstrated it was possible to be philanthropic as well as business-minded. His kindness made Leicester even stronger, even more of a unified force.


Good owners can certainly be found in the Premier League, such as Dean Hoyle at Huddersfield Town, Tony Bloom at Brighton & Hove Albion, Shahid Khan at Fulham, John W Henry and Fenway Sports Group at Liverpool, Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City, Mike Garlick at Burnley, and Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. Steve Parish cares passionately for Crystal Palace while Bill Kenwright may have his shareholding in Everton reduced but never his love of the club.


But there are others, Mike Ashley at Newcastle United, Stan Kroenke at Arsenal and particularly the wretched Glazer family at Manchester United, influential figures who lack sufficient respect for the unique footballing institutions they control. Kroenke’s full takeover has broken the hearts of those Arsenal fans who gripped their share certificate as a cherished symbol of their devotion. Ashley and the Glazers are reviled for their cold grip on famous clubs.


When Malcolm Glazer passed away, The Times covered the news in 470 words, including statements from his clubs, the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a brief “thoughts with the family” post from United. Clearly, these were very different circumstances but the real contrast lies in the immense affection and respect in which Vichai was held, in pages of tributes as well as the carpet of flowers. Vichai cleared debts, not introduced them. He connected with fans, not alienated them. He learnt about the club.


Vichai had every right to bring in new ideas, however quirky they might seem to English eyes, and he invited Buddhist monks from the temple he attended in Thailand to pray at the King Power. Before the monks arrived, Vichai and Top asked senior figures at the club, “Is this OK?”


Vichai didn’t meddle with Leicester’s soul, didn’t mess with the colours, as Vincent Tan tried at Cardiff City. Vichai and Top were also aware of the mistakes made by Assem Allam at Hull City, basically not understanding nor respecting club lore.

Leicester remained as friendly as ever, just better organised. Key people like the legendary former player and general keeper-up-of-spirits Alan Birchenall still held court from his memorabilia-filled office at the heart of the training ground. Birch embodies Leicester: selfless, community-spirited, and defiant with a dash of humour. Vichai kept an eye on Birch when he fell ill last year. Class.


When Claudio Ranieri was overseeing training on his birthday, Vichai appeared at Belvoir Drive with a cake. “He was as a second father to me, so ‘simpatico’,” Ranieri told Italian media yesterday. Imagine Rafa Benítez and Ashley even swapping birthday cards. Unlikely.


No Arsenal player would talk of Kroenke as Kasper Schmeichel spoke of Vichai with that powerful posted eulogy, containing such lines as: “I always admired you as a leader, as a father and as a man. You made me feel like nothing was impossible. This club, this city is a family. And that is all because of you.” The Glazer children would never be embraced by players and staff as Vichai’s family were at the King Power Stadium yesterday. The Glazers need heavy security when they visit Old Trafford.


Vichai was incredibly proud to become Leicester’s owner. When they were promoted to the elite division, Top said to his father: “You are going to be the owner of a Premier League team, and there are only 20 teams in the Premier League, the top league in the world. People around the world are going to watch your team play at Old Trafford, everywhere.” His father beamed with pride.


Top also told me in an interview to celebrate that promotion four years ago that “we give our hearts to the club”. It is poignant to recall his words about Vichai. “He loves football. I love football. Me and my dad are very close and we watched English football since I was six or seven, every team, every night that we could, every week. I still love Eric Cantona. I love everything about him. I play football myself. I play up front. I played in a staff game.” Top was too modest to mention he scored a hat-trick. Modesty seems a family trait.


Top explained what underpinned his father’s humility, namely the way he worked his way up from little, fashioning the King Power empire through sheer hard work. Vichai never forgot his roots because, Top said, “he built the business from nothing. He suffered before. He had no money before.” So when he made it, when he had money, Vichai shared his success, spreading joy with his commitment to Leicester.


How many owners or co-owners beyond the Hoyles, Blooms, Parishes and Kenwrights and a few others are fully embedded emotionally in their clubs as Vichai was? He cared deeply. When Leicester won the Premier League in 2016, and Andrea Bocelli stood in the centre circle singing Nessun Dorma, the giant smile on Vichai’s face captured his delight in the club. Smartly dressed, in a fine suit and club tie, Vichai applauded Bocelli’s virtuosity as well as his players’ achievements and the fans’ ceaseless support.


Some other owners should see that an important part of Vichai’s legacy was how to treat people. When Leicester entered the Champions League, and headed off on a European tour, Vichai was there in Bruges, walking around in his Leicester polo shirt, chatting with fans who adored him. He was there in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid before the Atletico match to talk with supporters. “The People’s Billionaire” was an owner who cared, and a reminder to some of those who rule other clubs that compassion, connection and a sense of community are vital human qualities which bring respect, even love.


Edited by MattP
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