On a bitterly cold Sunday outside the King Power Stadium, Bernie Webster tried in vain to hold back the tears.
He is one of hundreds of Leicester City fans who had flocked there, shaken and stunned by the news that the helicopter belonging to the team’s revered chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha had crashed following Saturday’s match against West Ham United. All five people on board the helicopter are believed to have died.
Fans of all ages laid shirts, flowers and scarves. One child cried as she held her parents’ hands, one man couldn’t find the words to express his despair.
Most stood in silence as they thought about the Thai billionaire who means everything to this provincial English football team in the country’s East Midlands.
“The guy loved the club, you could tell he loved the club,” said 67-year-old Webster, of the man who bankrolled one of the most improbable sporting triumphs of all time.
“And he must’ve loved the people.”
Srivaddhanaprabha took control of Leicester City in 2010, when it was in English football’s second tier.
Four years later, the club was back in the Premier League. Two years after that, it won the league for the first time in its history, overcoming preseason odds of 5,000-1.
But Srivaddhanaprabha is not just revered for his sporting achievements. His family donated $2.5 million towards the building of a new children’s hospital in the city.
And the fans gathered around the stadium are as keen to talk about philanthropy as they are on-field glory.
“What he’s done, not just for this club but for the city,” said Webster. “The money he’s put in the hospital… An absolutely amazing man.”
A unifying theme among many of the tributes is gratitude. Scores of balloons, shirts and flags marked with the words “Thank You.”
On and off the field philanthropy
A drum wrapped in a Leicester scarf carried the message: “A massive thank you for everything you have done for all of us at LCFC. You will be sadly missed.”
Ajay Pancholi was one of the many Leicester fans who had gathered outside the stadium on that May night in 2016 when the club’s title triumph was confirmed.
He smiled as he remembered being among fellow jubilant Leicester fans, driving down to the stadium with his cousin at 10 p.m. and not leaving until 1 a.m.
Pancholi was back in the same spot Sunday out of admiration for Srivaddhanaprabha.
“Today isn’t about football at all,” said the 36-year-old. “As an individual, he’s almost like an honorary Leicestarian here. He’s done huge amounts for charity, the local area.”
“You’re looking at a human being here,” he added. “It transcends football. It’s a loss to Leicester as a place rather than just the football club alone.”
’A great human being’
Pancholi is a Leicester season ticket holder with his father, Ilesh. Both had been at the stadium less than 24 hours earlier for the 1-1 draw with West Ham.
“Yesterday, as soon as the match finished we got into our cars and we were listening to Radio Leicester,” recalled 59-year-old shop owner Ilesh.
“As soon as we got home there were news flashes that the helicopter has crashed and it was unbelievable, devastating.”
“I can see a lot of people here who are not stadium supporters but they are Leicester City,” he added. “They live here and they love Leicester and they love what the owners of Leicester have done for them.”
While Ilesh was wearing a royal blue Leicester City woolen hat and scarf, Ajay was not sporting the club’s colors.
“I’m not wearing my shirt today, because I’m not representing Leicester City fans,” explained Ajay.
“I’m coming as a person who’s in shock at what’s happened to another person. I intentionally didn’t (wear Leicester colors) because that’s not what I’m here representing today. I’m here in honor of respecting a great human being.”