United in sorrow following the death of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, grief-stricken Leicester will make an emotional return to action at Cardiff on Saturday.
Thai billionaire Vichai was among five people killed when his helicopter crashed outside Leicester’s King Power Stadium following last Saturday’s match against West Ham.
The tragedy rocked the football world, with Leicester’s stunned players joining mourners who turned the King Power into a shrine with flowers and tributes to the charismatic Vichai.
With his vast investment and boundless enthusiasm, Vichai was the inspiration for Leicester’s incredible Premier League title triumph as 5,000-1 outsiders in 2016.
While results on the pitch pale in comparison to the trauma of Vichai’s death, Claude Puel’s side will play this weekend for the first time since the crash.
Tuesday’s League Cup home game against Southampton came too soon for Leicester, who postponed the tie to allow more time for the city to come to terms with the accident.
But they have agreed to play the Premier League fixture in south Wales in a bid to start the healing process.
A minute’s silence will be observed before kick-off at the Cardiff City Stadium and players will wear black armbands in Vichai’s honour.
“Playing football has not been on our minds this last week but for this weekend and all matches after we will play to honour and remember a man who did so much for our club,” Puel said.
“The result is not important, but our desire to give our best to honour our chairman, that is the most important thing.”
As the shrine to Vichai grew bigger by the day, thousands of fans were joined throughout the week by former boss Claudio Ranieri, who led Leicester to their Premier League crown, as well as members of Vichai’s family and the club’s players.
Leicester stars Kasper Schmeichel and Jamie Vardy were visibly upset when Vichai’s devastated son Aiyawatt, the Leicester vice-chairman, made his way round the team to shake hands and receive hugs of condolence.
Reflecting the sense of shock around a city that benefitted from Vichai’s charitable donations as well as his commitment to the football team, Cliff Ginnetta, chairman of Leicester Supporters’ Club, said: “This has shaken everyone to the core. He was the boss, he was part of the fabric.
“You saw him in the stands, always with his scarf on, and it’s amazing the difference he made and how he was so respected by the fans.”
Puel had worked with Vichai for a season and a half, giving him plenty of time to understand how the Thai businessman had become part of the fabric of the club.
– ‘He truly was loved’ –
“Vichai made Leicester City into what it is. He made it a family and made a dream. He invested in the club, the city and in the people,” he said.
“He truly was loved by everyone. All the players are devastated. It’s a difficult moment.
“To see all of the messages and the flowers and shirts outside the stadium this week show how many lives he touched.”
Leicester’s fairytale reign as English champions is a glorious memory that will stand forever as a tribute to Vichai’s eight years as owner.
But his death leaves Leicester’s future shrouded in uncertainty as fans wait to discover who will take the reins in the boardroom.
Aiyawatt spoke emotionally about continuing his father’s legacy and, if he does take over, he will need the kind of sensitive touch that Vichai displayed to guide Leicester through such a turbulent period.
“I’m extremely proud to have such an extraordinary father. From him, I have received a very big mission and legacy to pass on and I intend to do just that,” Aiyawatt said.
“He loved his family. He made Leicester City into a family. And nothing would make him prouder than to see how the Leicester City family that he built is supporting each other through a time of such sadness.
“Today, he has left me with a legacy to continue and I will do everything I can to carry on his big vision and dreams.”
For now, Leicester will focus on finding solace on the pitch.
Puel’s team, currently 12th in the Premier League, are without a victory in their last three games.