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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha: Leicester City's hands-on owner who earned legend status for his generosity to club and community

From rewarding his Premier League winning squad with BMWs to donating towards the Richard III appeal, the Thai billionaire quickly earned a place in the hearts of the club's players and supporters

There was a special sort of delivery to the King Power Stadium one day in August 2016. Nineteen identical BMW sports cars, each worth over £100,000 (Dh471,000), amounted to a £2 million present from Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha to the Leicester City squad, a reward for winning the Premier League.

Another owner might have taken the view that, given footballers’ considerable wealth and considering the contracts and commercial opportunities that came the way of Leicester’s title winners, such largesse was unnecessary.

Yet it was a sign of Srivaddhanaprabha’s generosity, both of funds and of spirit, that helped Leicester become England’s most improbable champions. One of the abiding images of him is with the Premier League trophy on their lap of honour.

“He was someone we were proud to stand alongside,” said David Bevan, the Leicester supporter and writer who was the author of The Unbelievables. “Vichai kept a sensible distance for the most part but he revelled in the success he helped create.

"He will always be synonymous with the Premier League title win.”

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The Thai billionaire, who bought a second-tier club in 2010, had spoken in 2014 of finishing in the top five within three years of promotion. Leicester won the league in two.

“It was a staggering achievement earned through hard work, skill and a series of brilliant decisions on and off the pitch,” Bevan added.

“What he has done for Leicester is incredible,” the former Leicester manager Sven-Goran Eriksson told the BBC. “When I came to the club he said he wanted to make it a big Premier League club, there were no secrets about that.”

Srivaddhanaprabha assembled the team behind the team – director of football Jon Rudkin, chief executive Susan Whelan, the transfer specialist Steve Walsh and the manager Claudio Ranieri, a shock appointment who proved an inspired choice – who, collectively, had a unique form of alchemy.

“We try to manage it like a family," said Aiyawatt ‘Top’ Srivaddhanaprabha, Vichai’s son and Leicester’s vice-chairman, in 2016. Families show forgiveness and, while the decision to sack Ranieri was controversial and criticised, it was notable that even after they dismissed his predecessor Nigel Pearson, whose son James had made racist comments on a tape filmed during a tour of Thailand, they hired the Englishman again to take charge of their Belgian club OH Leuven.

Pearson had engineered Leicester’s 'great escape’ in 2016 but, for both footballing and non-footballing reasons, he could have been sacked earlier.

A totemic figure in their title success could also testify to their forgiveness. At the start of Leicester’s historic 2015-16 season, footage emerged of Jamie Vardy using a racial slur to a Japanese man.

“Vichai, our chairman, and ‘Top’, his son, had been so good to me from the moment I first met them,” Vardy wrote in his autobiography. “I will always be grateful to [Leicester], in particular Vichai, for standing by me and recognising that people make mistakes.”

It was a sign, too, of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s influence behind the scenes that he played a part in persuading Vardy to sign a new contract the following year.

He could never be called an absentee owner. “He was always there with his family,” Eriksson said. “I think he saw every game during my time. He took part in it, as did the whole family.”

Srivaddhanaprabha helped bring a special flavour to the King Power Stadium. He paid for fans to have 30,000 Vardy masks for one match when the striker was suspended. He flew in Buddhist monks from a Bangkok temple to bless the players and the ground. He gave supporters doughnuts on his birthday.

“We felt true warmth towards his and his family from their very early days in charge,” Bevan explained. “Vichai was not a typical football club owner. He always felt to me like a custodian, someone who was taking care of our club, which we, as fans, have always appreciated and never taken for granted.

"What really set him apart was his contribution to the city of Leicester. His [£2m] donation to the city’s hospital struck a real chord with fans. It was a special moment to see him awarded an honorary doctorate by the university.”

“He was extremely generous, not only paying salaries and things like that,” added Eriksson. “Out shopping in London and he paid for jackets and things like that. He was very generous with his players and his staff and with the fans and the community.”

While Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha rarely speaks in public – Aiyawatt, who was not in the helicopter that crashed on Saturday, is a little more vocal – they embraced Leicester, and not merely the club.

They loaned the club £100m, which they then converted into shares. They also donated £2m for a children’s hospital in 2016 and £1m to the university’s medical department the following year.

Perhaps most remarkably, they gave £100,000 to the Richard III appeal after the remains of the medieval king, who died in 1485, were found buried beneath a car park in Leicester.

An overseas owner contributed to a city, not just a club, and earned affection in return. It made Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha a role model for other overseas owners and a legend in Leicester.