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Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha's connection with Leicester ran deeper than miracle Premier League title

Such is the tribal nature of sport that the owner of any team will guarantee instant popularity and affection from the club's supporters if his or her backing leads to success on the field, but Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha's connection to the fans of Leicester City ran deeper than that.

That is why his tragic death in Saturday's helicopter crash outside the King Power Stadium will be mourned so greatly by the football community, in Leicester and beyond.

Many foreign owners in the Premier League are criticised for being aloof and distant, unconcerned by the feelings and demands of their club's supporters. Some of them watch from afar, rarely, if ever, watching their team in action. But Srivaddhanaprabha was not only a regular at the King Power, attending virtually every home game, but he also connected to the supporters and the team's players in a unique way.

In April 2016, with the team on course for its remarkable Premier League title triumph, Leicester fans were treated to a free beer and donut -- children were given a bottle of water -- to mark his birthday at the home game against Southampton.

Two years earlier, after the team won promotion back to the Premier League from the Championship, Srivaddhanaprabha rewarded the playing squad with caviar and vintage wine at an exclusive London restaurant.

"The owners look after us," club captain Wes Morgan said at the time. Robert Huth, the former Chelsea defender, said the regime was different from anything he had experienced in the game: "I have never had so much help from a club."

A devout Buddhist, Srivaddhanaprabha once gave each Leicester player a Buddhist charm, and they were blessed by Thai monk Phra Prommangkalachan and his team. Srivaddhanaprabha gave prayer space to them next to the referees' dressing room at the King Power.

"It takes a couple of minutes, and if it means they've done as much as they think they can to help the team win, then so be it," midfielder Andy King said. "We enjoy doing it. The club has gone from strength to strength since Vichai has taken over, and we always trust his judgement."

Srivaddhanaprabha prayed with monks before every match he attended -- since day one. Even if they weren't always present at the King Power, they would pray from a Chinese temple in Bangkok.

The monks at the King Power, who had that specific room, usually came in a party of 10. They blessed the pitch in preseason before the 2015-16 Premier League-winning campaign and came to every home game from Christmas onwards and blessed the players. They also prayed constantly during the match, for the full 90 minutes.

After winning the title in 2016, Leicester's players returned to the King Power at the start of the following season to be greeted by 19 blue BMW sports cars, worth £100,000 each, as gifts from Srivaddhanaprabha -- known inside the club by his respectful title of Khun Vichai -- for their parts in the title success.

The 61-year-old was an astute businessman, ranked the fifth-richest person in Thailand by Forbes Magazine, having made his £2.5 billion fortune as the founder of the duty-free consortium King Power International.

He bought an executive box at Chelsea -- the team he and his son, Aiyawatt "Top" Srivaddhanaprabha, supported in Thailand -- before he completed a £39 million takeover of Leicester, then in the second tier, in 2010.

Srivaddhanaprabha first watched the Foxes play when they beat Middlesbrough to win the 1997 League Cup, and he claimed he "fell in love with Leicester" because "the colours were the same as my company's" and also because buying a Premier League club "wouldn't be challenging enough."

Srivaddhanaprabha was a keen polo player -- elephant polo in particular. It was after a tournament near Bangkok in 2009 that he decided to buy the club. He watched late 1-0 win against Middlesbrough but still felt aggrieved the team the team Leicester beat to win the League Cup in '97 had outclassed them for large parts of the game. He saw it as a sign to pursue their interest. The following summer, he owned the club.

He wrote off £103 million in loans to make the club debt-free before funding the incredible rise to glory that culminated in the 2015-16 Premier League title.

Leicester began the season as a 5000-1 shot for the title, having narrowly avoided relegation in what was described as the "Great Escape" in the previous campaign, but Srivaddhanaprabha's decision to appoint Claudio Ranieri as the club's manager in the summer of 2015 proved to be a masterstroke. Ranieri, the well-travelled Italian, previously managed in Italy, France, Spain and England without being able to win a domestic title, but despite his appointment being mocked by many -- former Leicester player Gary Lineker tweeted "Claudio Ranieri? Really?" -- Ranieri delivered a sporting miracle with the quiet backing of Srivaddhanaprabha.

The aftermath of the 2016 title success has seen Leicester struggle to recreate their glory days, but Srivaddhanaprabha's financial support has continued, and the club retain ambitions to return to the European stage and challenge once again for domestic silverware in the cups.

As the news broke on Saturday night, the first wave of tributes arrived at the stadium. By Monday morning, hundreds of flowers and shirts had been laid on the concourse outside the ground, with jerseys from rival clubs a sign of the wider impact this tragedy has had on football. 

"A City in Mourning," read the front page of the Leicester Mercury on Monday, as Leicester and the wider football world comes to terms with such a heartbreaking accident.

Trevor Palmer, spokesman for the Oakham branch of the Leicester City Supporters Association, told ESPN: "It's incredibly sad. As a family, they were always very approachable and friendly with the fans, and we always believed we had the best foreign owners in the Premier League.

"It's not just about the money they spent on the team or the stadium or even the Premier League title win, which they helped us achieve. Vichai would subsidise a lot of away trips for the fans. We had a trip to Watford where he funded travel, and because it was cold, he also provided free hats and scarves for us all.

"That would have cost nothing to a billionaire, but those little things mean a lot to fans who pay hard-earned money to watch their team."

Leicester's future will now be uncertain, with the club having to deal with the tragedy of the loss of Srivaddhanaprabha and his fellow passengers in the helicopter crash.

"He was a big supporter of local charities in Leicester too, so he was embraced and loved by everyone in the city," Palmer added. 

"This is a tragedy for the family, but like every Leicester fan, I hope the family remain in charge and look to rebuild the club as a tribute to Vichai."

With Srivaddhanaprabha's son, Aiyawatt, already heavily involved with the running of the club in his role as vice chairman, the family's ownership of Leicester City extends beyond Vichai's connection. But it was his passion for the team that was the driving force behind the club's rise. He was the owner who had the rare ability to earn the affection of the club's employees and supporters, one who knew the importance of being regarded as a member of the family rather than as a detached billionaire.

To many at Leicester, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was the perfect owner.

Additional reporting from Ben Jacobs was used in this article


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