No words can soothe heartbreak, which is why Leicester has fallen silent. It is a city stunned, a city grieving.
On an October day cold enough to freeze breath, little was said as players and staff of Leicester City gathered, heads bowed, outside the King Power Stadium to observe the ever-increasing field of flowers, shirts and scarves now serving as a memorial to the club’s owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.
Amid the hushed tones and the rustling of cellophane wrappers containing countless flowers, the former England international Jamie Vardy placed a consoling arm around Srivaddhanaprabha’s son, Aiyawatt, as the pair gazed at the messages written in tribute to the beloved billionaire killed in a helicopter crash on Saturday.
With emotions still raw, it was a warm, instinctive gesture from the club’s leading striker, comforting a young man who, in tragic circumstances, is expected to continue his father’s legacy.
“I hope Aiyawatt takes encouragement from the fact that we’re broken as a club, broken as a city, but we’ve come together before,” journalist and Leicester city fan Geoff Peters told CNN Sport. “We came together when we won the Premier League and we’ll come together again.”
Kasper Schmeichel, one of the English Premier League club’s longest-serving players, a goalkeeper signed under Srivaddhanaprabha’s ownership, had led the players as they lined up around the periphery of the tributes. The Dane had apparently seen the fallen helicopter in flames on the perimeter of the stadium in the hours after the league match with West Ham.
First, he sunk his face into his coat and, as the 31-year-old allowed himself to read some of the messages of condolences which had spread around a large picture of the man Schmeichel himself has said “gave hope to everyone that the impossible was possible,” he covered his mouth with his hand, overwhelmed with grief. It will take time for these wounds to heal.
There was none of the boisterousness associated with a crowd of this size which usually ambles outside this East Midlands ground. Those who spoke did so at a whisper. Though hundreds encircled the players, there were no barriers separating dazed fans from the soccer stars who were given space to silently pay their respects before applause briefly rippled around the congregation.
The sense of loss palpable, this is a family tragedy which has affected a city, affected sport.
Before morning had turned into the bitterest of afternoons, the 12 boys trapped for 18 days in a flooded cave in Thailand had come to pay their respects, laying a wreath on the concourse and bowing their heads in unison. Their gesture generating tears on a day when it was difficult not to weep.
Srivaddhanaprabha death has touched many. Among the impromptu shrine of flowers and candles were not only garments in the Leicester blue, but Liverpool and Juventus shirts, a Celtic flag placed on the railings, a message from the city’s rugby team. Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa fans, regional rivals united in grief, had left messages too, while a Wolverhampton Wanderers fan had taken the day off to travel an hour and to pay his respects to a billionaire who had transformed not only a football club but a city.
Scribbled on hundreds of scarves and shirts were the words “thank you,” simple yet emotive, evoking memories of Leicester’s against-all-odds Premier League triumph in 2016, made possible by the largesse of the now much missed 60-year-old who bought the club in 2010 for $49 million when Leicester was in English football’s second tier.
Srivaddhanaprabha, who made his fortune in duty-free shops, oversaw the most glorious period of Leicester’s history – a Premier League title, a Champions League quarterfinal, success few fans would have dared imagined when he took over and cleared the club’s debts. “You brought happiness to the club,” wrote one fan on a shirt. “You made us fearless.”
A private man who stayed out of the limelight, Srivaddhanaprabha will be remembered for more than football. He donated millions to the city’s hospital and university and was generous to the fans, giving 60 free season tickets to fans to mark his 60th birthday. Foxes supporters have plenty of acts of benevolence to look back on.
“No match at Leicester City will ever be the same again,” said local Member of Parliament Keith Vaz on hearing that his friend was one of five killed as the Thai’s helicopter bearing the team’s colors spiraled to earth and burst into flames outside the stadium.
Leicester’s cup match against Southampton on Tuesday has been canceled and question marks remain over whether Saturday’s league tie against Cardiff will go ahead. But expect Leicester City to pull through. As Schmeichel posted on Twitter: “We now have a responsibility as a club, as players and fans to honor you.”
Should the pain not engulf him, the heir to the King Power empire is Srivaddhanaprabha’s son, affectionately known as “Top.” Father and son would normally attend home matches together and had he not been in Thailand on business, Aiyawatt would likely have been in the helicopter that fateful Saturday evening.
With tears filling his eyes, lifelong Foxes fan Nigel Manning scrambled to find solace. “I know it’s a sad thing to say but at least his son wasn’t on the plane,” he said. “He’s not the sort of person who will walk away and that’s the only thing we can be thankful for today.”
As Vardy’s supportive gesture showed, Aiyawatt and his family are much loved in these parts.
“Aiyawatt is massively involved in the club,” added Peters.
“Some people said there was a good cop, bad cop routine between them and Vichai was the bad cop. Nigel Pearson had been sacked by Vichai but we’re led to believe that the son asked whether that was the right decision and he listened to his son and kept him on as manager.
“With nine games to go they were seven points from safety, won seven of the last nine games and it was the great escape. From being nailed on relegation to being 5000-1 outsiders to win the Premier League. Would that have happened if the vice chairman had not talked his dad around?
“He knows the club, he knows the inner workings of it, he’s deeply embedded in it. He’s very much an integral part of the family working at this football club. It’s a grim, horrific time for everybody. It will never get back to normal, but it will get back to some normality.”