When the passing of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was confirmed late on Sunday evening, it was a real lump in throat moment for fans across the country, and indeed across the world. Even those with no affiliation to Leicester City were filled with great sadness by his death, as if he were a family member or close friend.
That was perhaps down to the outpouring of heartfelt tributes and testimonials to the Thai billionaire. Vichai was a generous, kind-hearted and humble man, but it is devastating that it was his passing that led to the wider football community learning this much about him.
It many ways, Vichai was the perfect football club owner. He was a very private man, a quality that is often criticised in owners, and hardly ever gave media interviews, but his presence was more than felt in his actions and generosity.
Having purchased Leicester City in 2010, he cleared the club’s debt and then invested over £100 million to get them promoted from the Championship four years later. There need be no reminder of what happened next as the Foxes won the Premier League at 5000/1 odds in 2016 before reaching the Champions League quarter-final the next year in the greatest underdog story in the history of British football, if not British sport.
The club’s fans were always at the heart of what Srivaddhanaprabha did. In the title-winning season he supplied free doughnuts and beer to all supporters, to celebrate his 60th birthday earlier this year he gave away 60 free season tickets, and he bought breakfast and scarves for fans on multiple away trips.
In the Leicester community, he donated £2 million towards building a new children’s hospital in Leicester, £1 million to the city’s university medical department and £23,000 to a fan who was raising money for research into MECP2 syndrome, his son’s rare genetic disorder.
It would have been difficult to ask for much more. Vichai was almost too good to be true at times. There were no publicity stunts, he attended the majority of games and he put the fans first. He ran the club in an ideal manner. Other owners could take note.
Reading about him reminded me in many ways of Sir John Madejski, and how lucky we were that he was our owner for as long as he was. He was our perfect owner.
Sir John bought the Royals for 10p in 1990 when all 20 members of the playing staff had been put up for sale, a reminder of just how bad the financial situation at Elm Park had become. He instantly saved the club from bankruptcy, and set it on a road that would have been unimaginable a few years before.
The Auto Trader founder was the major contributor to a new £40 million state of the start all-seater stadium that opened in 1998, which coincided with the creation of the club’s academy, again largely funded by Madejski. This has since gone on to produce 45 first team players and ten full internationals. Of course Madejski’s crowning moment was promotion to the English top flight for the first time in Reading’s history in 2006, the team breaking the record points total in the process.
Off the pitch, Madejski’s generosity has met no boundaries. In 2004, he invested £3 million towards creating a new space at London’s Royal Academy of Art and donated a further £2 million to a new garden at the Victoria & Albert museum a year later. A lecture theatre at the University of Reading and a gallery at the Museum of Reading also bear his name after similar financial injections. His £2 million sponsorship of an academy school less than two miles from the Madejski Stadium showed his dedication to improving education in a deprived area. It came as no surprise that he was knighted for services to charity in 2009.
The much-discussed ‘Reading Way’ centred around Madejski, and his transformation of the club into an institution that was at the heart of the town. He genuinely cared for the community and for the supporters, and that’s what endeared him so much to the fanbase. Much like Leicester City would not look the same without Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Reading FC would not look the same, or even be in existence at all, without Sir John Madejski.
In the modern era, with increased foreign investment and owners being business-centric as clubs become commodities, characters such as Sir John and Vichai are a rarity.
In fact, Vichai almost took over from Sir John at the Reading helm in 2007. The Thai businessman is thought to have approached the Royals during their first spell in the Premier League, only for his offer to be declined.
In 2007, King Power approached Reading, who was in the PL that season. John Madejski was the owner then. He wasn’t interested in Vichai’s offer and said “If you have no experience in the Football industry, it’s best if you stay out of it, you won’t be successful.”— Man (@mannyyylfc) October 29, 2018
Vichai’s overseeing of that historic 2015-16 season at the King Power Stadium gave supporters of all Football League clubs hope. Hope that winning the top flight in an era of five or six powerhouse teams could be done. He allowed us to dream that the impossible could become possible. For that, he cannot be thanked enough.
So may Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha rest in peace, along with Nursara Suknamai, Kaveporn Punpare, Eric Swaffer and Izabela Roza Lechowicz. The thoughts of everyone here at The Tilehurst End are with all those affected by this terrible tragedy.