Remembering Khun Vichai
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
Imagine stumbling across a prestigious elephant polo tournament on the banks of the Chao Phraya river in Thailand only to meet a quiet stranger intent on not only buying your boyhood football club, but transforming it into a Premier League contender.
I first met Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in 2010. Several of the Srivaddhanaprabha family partook in elephant (and regular) polo, often rubbing shoulders with royalty, including Prince Harry and Princess Eugenie.
Back then Milan Mandaric still owned Leicester City, but formative talks had started for the King Power International Group to take over.
Khun Vichai, as he was affectionately known, spoke only broken English, but smiled when asked if he was serious about buying Leicester – a warm, infectious grin that would become his primary means of connecting with football fans and communicating both genuineness and joy.
Being in radio at the time, my first task when talking to the family was to clarify how to correctly pronounce Srivaddhanaprabha. “Sri-wattana-pra-pa,” said Khun Vichai’s amiable son Aiyawatt, who soon became Leicester’s vice-chairman. “Could you repeat that please?” I replied, frantically scrambling for a pen. “Probably best I write it down…” he laughed.
Aiywatt, or Top as he’s colloquially known, would later confirm a deal to buy Leicester was a very realistic possibility. His superstitious father had first fallen in love with the club after watching Martin O’Neill’s Foxes win the 1997 League Cup against a Middlesbrough side captained by Nigel Pearson, following a thrilling replay at Hillsborough.
It was surreal, surrounded by elephants stockier than Marcin Wasilewski (and worth more than Jamie Vardy) and dignitaries softly sipping whisky, to be reminiscing about Steve Claridge’s iconic shin-high volley which claimed the trophy in extra-time. 6,000 miles away from little Leicester and there I was explaining why Emile Heskey was nicknamed ‘Bruno’ to a family with lofty ambitions.
When the opportunity arose, Khun Vichai moved swiftly. He perhaps wasn’t a fervent Foxes fan just yet, but he clearly had a soft spot for the club and saw its massive potential. He also adored the fact Leicester played in ‘King Power’ blue. The decision to table a formal offer took less than half-an-hour.
A takeover for £39 million was officially announced in July 2010 after a playoff semi-final loss to Cardiff City on penalties and, in another twist of fate, Khun Vichai’s home debut then came against Middlesbrough – a 0-0 draw in which Andy King hit the bar.
It would take Leicester six games to register their first league win. Fittingly that also came against Cardiff, with King scoring twice in a 2-1 victory – the perfect player to get Leicester off the mark, sparking headlines back in Thailand of ‘King Power’.
That victory proved a false dawn, though, as the Foxes would lose their next three matches, conceding 12 in the process, prompting devout Buddhist Khun Vichai to get guidance on how to send Leicester good karma. He was extremely superstitious, often seeking counsel from Chinese monks at Bangkok’s Wat Traimit (Golden Buddha) Temple.
Khun Vichai was somewhat familiar with a gypsy curse cast on Birmingham City’s nearby St Andrew’s stadium back in 1906, which led then boss Barry Fly to urinate on all four corners of the pitch to try and lift it. He was amused by Fry’s antics, but sought a more spiritual fix, turning to his most trusted monk, Phra Prommangkalachan, who would fast become part of the furniture at the King Power Stadium.
After sacking Paulo Sousa (who he inherited from Mandaric) and a fruitless spell under Sven Goran-Eriksson, Khun Vichai made the inspired decision to re-hire Pearson from Hull City in November 2011. His third manager in just 15 months would prove to be one of the most important in Leicester’s 134-year-history.
According to former chief-executive Lee Hoos, the club would never have had to ride such a tumultuous managerial merry-go-round had Mandaric told Pearson about the imminent Thai takeover in 2010. The pair had a tetchy relationship, so Pearson opted to leave for Hull having been informed there was no war chest to get Leicester back into the Premier League any time soon.
After Mandaric departed, Leicester became one of the Championship’s biggest spenders and Khun Vichai was not only generous with his cheque book but wrote off £103 million in debt, too. That placed the Foxes on a firm financial footing for the first time since falling into administration in 2002.
Under Pearson results dramatically improved and despite playoff heartache to Watford in the 2011-2012 semi-finals (the name ‘Troy Deeney’ still gives Foxes’ fans the heebie jeebies), Leicester returned to the Premier League the following season for the first time since 2004, storming to the Championship title with an astonishing 102 points.
“Winning the Championship was incredible,” said Khun Vichai in a rare interview from Bangkok in 2016. “Our hearts were broken after losing to Watford. The response was fantastic.”
Khun Vichai’s audacious pledge to spend £180 million and qualify for the Champions League within three years was met with derision, but Leicester’s chairman had the last laugh.
It took just two seasons to win the Premier League and in the months that followed the Foxes enjoyed glamour friendlies against Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain and hosted Sevilla and Atletico Madrid in Europe.
Yet football’s finest fairy tale actually started the previous campaign with the so-called ‘Great Escape’, which began on Khun Vichai’s 57th birthday. Pearson’s Leicester beat West Ham United 2-1, thanks to a dramatic late winner from King, who was proving somewhat of a lucky charm for King Power. The Foxes would go on to win seven of their last nine fixtures to inexplicably survive.
“West Ham was such an important game for my father,” revealed Top back in 2016. “It was his birthday and he needed the players to give him three points as a gift. All the players sent him messages. He asked them to win for his present and keep doing so until the end of the season. We survived and felt like champions. The next season we become champions. My father saw this as more than just a coincidence.”
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. During the off-season Khun Vichai was forced to sack Pearson. He had previously resisted the urge despite a run of poor results, a touchline fracas with Crystal Palace midfielder James McArthur and the infamous ostrich rant. But the final straw came when Leicester embarked on a goodwill tour to Thailand where Pearson’s son, James, was filmed in a racist video.
Khun Vichai, and King Power, never confirmed whether that incident contributed to Pearson’s unexpected exit. The official line was simply “fundamental differences in perspective” caused the change.
Khun Vichai openly conceded he lost plenty of sleep over the decision. He always refused to divulge the precise reasons behind it, but club sources say the bullish manner in which Pearson protested his son’s sacking – as you’d expect from any father, but not necessarily the club’s manager – led to an untenable working relationship. But the fact Khun Vichai later offered Pearson an ‘olive branch’-job at Leicester’s Belgian sister club OH Leuven shows he didn’t hold grudges and remained loyal to those he trusted.
Pearson’s sacking inadvertently catalysed one of the greatest sporting miracles as Claudio Ranieri – a surprise appointment in July 2015 – led Leicester to the 2015-2016 title. Fans at the time often debated whether Pearson might have achieved the same feat, a question he’s always (and understandably) declined to answer since leaving the club.
“I believe winning the Premier League was our fate,” said Khun Vichai during the celebratory parade in Bangkok. “Claudio was fantastic, but I think we would have won it with Nigel. Our players are very special. Claudio and Nigel deserve praise for this.”
Leicester primarily won the title thanks to 41 combined goals from Vardy (24) and Riyad Mahrez (17). Conspiracy theorists also point out the Foxes phenomenal form coincided with the reburial of Richard III’s remains at Leicester Cathedral. But for Khun Vichai the Foxes’ “13th man” was Prommangkalachan. Originally I had questioned whether the Chinese monk was his “12th man” but he cut me off with the brilliant retort, “No, 13th… after the fans.”
Hoping to bottle the karma from the Great Escape, Khun Vichai asked Prommangkalachan to bless the pitch during pre-season. Around 10 monks would frequently visit the King Power Stadium, especially after Christmas when the title, or at least a top-four finish, looked increasingly realistic. They would set up next to the referees’ room and meditate during matches. Each player was also given a personal mantra and Khun Vichai
would frequently appear in the dressing room, around 30 minutes before kick-off, to watch them be blessed.
“It took some getting used to at first,” admitted King in an interview from Los Angeles before Leicester lost 4-0 to Paris Saint-Germain in a pre-season friendly in 2016. “But I think it brought us closer together as a team. Footballers are also very superstitious. ‘The Boss’ is our lucky charm. The blessings only take a few minutes and it’s something that’s just become part of our routine and we look forward to.”
Long before the final push for the Premier League Khun Vichai was present at almost every game, quite the contrast to many aloof foreign owners, including former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra during his ill-fated spell at Manchester City (2007-08).
He was determined to bond with the Leicester fans.
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 father of the club entering his house.
That’s what made his death in a crash leaving the stadium after October 2018’s 1-1 draw with West Ham even more heart wrenching.
Khun Vichai was constantly thanking supporters for their loyalty. Most recently, to mark his 60th birthday last April, he gave away 60 free season tickets as well as free beer and donuts during a 2-1 loss to Newcastle United. He had previously rewarded supporters with free breakfasts and scarves. Flags and clappers were also put on every seat for the Premier League title procession against Everton as well as every Champions League home match at a cost of close to £50k per match.
Away day travel was frequently subsidised, too. Foxes’ fans who attended the 1-1 draw with Manchester United in May 2016 – when Leicester almost sealed the title – will remember Khun Vichai and Top running over to affectionately greet them at full-time and staying in the away
end posing for pictures for over 20
minutes. United’s stewards had to kick them out of the ground and they were practically the last people to leave Old Trafford.
The players were also treated like Khun Vichai’s own sons. He surprised them with £100k BMW i8s to celebrate the title and was often seen wining and dining them at London’s most exclusive restaurants. He even lent Kasper Schmeichel his helicopter when the Danish goalkeeper was asked to cut short his holiday in order to film an advert for the club.
What also made Khun Vichai special and unique was his love for not just the football club, but the city of Leicester. He did tireless work in the community, including donating £1 million to the Leicester Royal Infirmary and £2 million towards a new children’s hospital. He did so quietly, without courting the spotlight.
Yet there was without doubt a flamboyant, showman-like side to him, too. He enjoyed horse racing – frequently taking the players to Royal Ascot – and gambling. Almost immediately after Leicester won the Premier League he reportedly won around £1.5 million playing roulette at a local Leicester casino.
Back home in Bangkok he also turned watching Leicester games into a social event, often drawing a similar crowd to those who attended the polo. King Power decorated their headquarters with giant cardboard cutouts of key players. Shinji Okazaki was always a popular choice. Acrobatic cheerleaders and face-painters would then greet around 500 exclusive guests, usually for an evening brunch. Filbert Fox even braved the humidity to make a cameo sometimes.
King Power also sold shirts on match days, although they had run out of stock by March 2016. Knockoff Vardy and Mahrez kits were also available at the famous Chatuchak Market and soon became collector’s items in their own right. Wearing a Leicester shirt in Thailand was essentially a badge of high society.
But what started as an elite Foxes club soon
became a Thailand-wide fad. When Leicester brought the trophy to Bangkok, thousands were waiting at the airport for their 0500 arrival and close to two million lined the streets to get glimpse of the trophy during the bus parade.
And when Khun Vichai and Ranieri joined Christian Fuchs in a rendition of “dilly ding, dilly dong…” (a song themed around one of Ranieri’s best-known catchphrases) there was a roar almost as loud as when Eden Hazard’s goal against Tottenham secured Leicester the title itself.
Watching Khun Vichai in his home environment was fascinating. Like a protective and doting dad he always ensured his players felt relaxed and sampled Thai culture. They stayed in the Pullman hotel, right next to King Power HQ, and he hosted a private dinner for them away from the public glare. And when asked what his aims were for the club going forward, having exceeded all expectations, his answer was simple.
“No expectations. No pressure,” he beamed. “Win or lose, I want everyone to enjoy. The players must enjoy [the moment]. Football can bring joy and sadness. So when the joy comes, enjoy it.”