English fans were allowed in the stadiums for the first time since March 2020 for the FA Cup final, and they were welcomed with something special over the weekend. Underdogs Leicester City trumped Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge to win the oldest-ever trophy in club football. Even more heart-warming was the sight of their 35-year-old club owner passionately celebrating with the players and staff after the game.

Aiyawatt ‘Khun Top’ Srivaddhanaprabha is the chairman of Leicester City FC, and the owner of Thailand’s King Power business conglomerate. He took over these responsibilities in tragic circumstances. On October 27, 2018, his father Vichai was involved in a helicopter crash outside the King Power Stadium following Leicester City’s home match against West Ham United.

The next day, it was confirmed that Vichai, along with the other two passengers and the pilots, had lost their lives in the crash. The King Power Stadium was flooded with tributes by players along with football fans.

The Moment

Before the game, one of the stands in the stadiums was adorned with a huge banner of the late Vichai. During the build-up to the game, Leicester manager Rodgers explained how the team would be playing in Vichai’s memory. Vichai was alive when the club defied all odds to win the Premier League in the 2015-16 season.

 

At full-time on Saturday, his son watched on along with the returning supporters. After the team and staff lifted the FA Cup trophy in a burst of white and blue streamers and pyrotechnics, the Thai businessman quietly made his way onto the pitch.

Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel noticed his presence and pulled him into the celebrations. He hugged player after player before greeting Rodgers, who he met in a long embrace.

“I don’t think there is a club more connected from top to bottom as what we see with this club,” commentator and former Manchester United player, Rio Ferdinand remarked as the duo shared their emotional moment.

“In a time where the relationships between owners, players and fans are so fractured, to see what we’re seeing here is so refreshing,”

The Relevance

What made this even more special was the stark contrast in which player-owner relationships have fallen apart elsewhere in English football recently.  The so-called big six of Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham, were complicit in the formation of the now-disbanded breakaway European Super League.

Ever since, fans have asked for more transparent ownership of these clubs. #GlazersOut is probably one of the biggest football trends globally, as a result of massive protest by Manchester United fans to free themselves of the club’s American owners. They claim that the Glazer family has robbed the United off one billion pounds in the last decade and a half.

 

Although not as intense, fans of other clubs like Liverpool have also protested apathetic ownership. “There will be some big clubs out there, and some I played for who will be jealous and envious of these owners,” Liverpool midfielder Joe Cole said on commentary after the FA Cup final.

“You can be absent owners, but this is what you want, this is what football is about, the collaboration between everyone at the club.”

The Club

FA Cup winners Leicester City have time and again demonstrated their challenge to the ‘big six’ clubs, with a more connected owner-fan dynamic. They currently sit third in the Premier League standings.

They are only behind both the Manchester clubs, and will look to feature again in the Champions League after the 2016-17 season, on the back of being English champions.

It was the high-point of the club’s Thai ownership, since the August 2010 takeover.

In 2014, they had gained promotion from the second tier, after a 10-year absence from the first division.

Within the next two years, they were crowned champions, and have now established themselves as a consistently determined club in the top-tier.

 

The investment and recruitment strategies at the club have largely been lauded, and the appointment of Brendan Rodgers as the manager a couple of seasons back was considered the beginning of a new era.

Aiyawatt remains involved in the team’s future planning as recruitments have reportedly begun already for the 2021-22 season. It’s a depiction of intent as well as robust administration.

 

As a Chelsea fan told me recently, “Leicester are a team that you don’t hate losing to. The club is run like a family.” And in large parts, the credit goes to Aiyawatt and his late father Vichai.

Image source: Twitter/LCFC, Twitter/Adam Smithy