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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Britain’s most diverse city mourns a football chairman who put Leicester on the map

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and four others died in a helicopter crash last week

Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, right, with the Premier League trophy which the club won in 2016. Action Images via Reuters
Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, right, with the Premier League trophy which the club won in 2016. Action Images via Reuters

The concourse outside turnstile 57 of Leicester’s King Power Stadium is largely quiet on a bitter weekday morning.

Only the occasional gust of wind breaks the silence. While there are few sounds, the area is the most crowded in the city.

Despair has reigned in this corner of middle England for five days, since a helicopter crash killed Leicester City’s billionaire owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and four others.

Thousands of fans gathered outside the stadium have paid their respects to a man who inspired a city.

The crowds are constant, even on the weekday morning. A school bus arrives – the headmaster cancelled morning lessons for those who wished to pay their respects. Others have taken days off work, and travelled the length of the country.

The 60-year-old was the unassuming hero of an unlikely story in which a plucky underdog football club conquered the richest soccer league in the world.

Fans say it was his vision and generosity that propelled the tired midland city to the Premier League title in 2016. “He dared us to dream, and then he made those dreams come true,” said Bill Joy, his arm around his teary wife Kay outside the stadium.

Leicester is one of the most diverse cities in Britain but one that came behind its Thai benefactor.

Just six years after the billionaire bought Leicester City Football Club for a measly £22 million (Dh105 million).

He poured millions more of his fortune from running duty free shops into the club. With a new management, the owner presided as the club was transformed into a league winning side.

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Read more:

Leicester's trip to Cardiff fraught with emotion as club come to terms with Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha's tragic death

Son of Leicester City owner vows to continue Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha's 'big mission'

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It was an unpromising place to choose. Statistics indicate that all is not rosy in Leicester, disposable income sits among the lowest in the country, and unemployment marginally went up last year, bucking the national trend.

The glow of the club’s run, in which it defied odds of 5000-1 to win the Premier League, is still palpable in a sense of pride and unity in the otherwise struggling city.

“Skin colour, gender, age – none of them mattered at the Foxes, it’s the same in the city,” said Gurj Mann, who bought his 6-month-old bull dog clad in a Leicester shirt, to the ground. “He put us on the map - I was in Thailand last year, everyone recognised my Leicester shirt, they knew Jamie Vardy – it was mad”.

Many of the thousands of messages left for the man fans dubbed Mr Chairman describe him as a friend, or a family member, an indicator of how personally much of the city is taking the loss.

“We are all hurt, it’s like a death in the family,” said Vijay Sangam, who works in a shop on Narborough Road, a street named Britain’s most diverse in 2016 in a study by the London School of Economics.

“I don’t want to think about what’s next for the club, we are so far away from how things felt in 2016,” he added.

Mr Sangam points to his generosity when it came to funding various infrastructure projects throughout the city- often completely unrelated to the football club. He gave millions to the university’s medical department and to the exhumation of the body of Richard III after his burial site was discovered in a city car park.

But it was about far more than the money, adds Mr Mann. “He came to every home game, do you know any other club owner that does that?”

he asked.

“He was from so far away, but he was able to bring this city together”, says Mr Joy. Like many Mr Joy was born elsewhere as his Irish accent betrays.

Praise has also been direct to helicopter pilot Eric Swaffer, who bought the falling craft down in an empty car park as the aircraft failed, avoiding any casualties on the ground. His partner - Izabela Lechowicz – who was also crewing the helicopter died in the crash too.

Aviation experts have labelled his actions heroic - residential areas, hotels and retail outlets pepper the areas adjacent to the stadium, a different ground zero might have spelt even greater disaster.

Saturday will see Leicester face Cardiff City, in the club’s first game since the tragedy. It will also serve as the first game in a new era, not just for club, but city too. Whilst the man who made his billions in duty-free shops will not be there in person, his memory is going nowhere.

Mr Mann for one is sets out his hopes that the glories are not all in the past.

“We gotta carry on his legacy, have to hold our heads high. In a way, I think this might bring us even closer together.”