The Architect of Improbable Glory

As the football world mourns the untimely and abhorrently tragic loss of Leicester City’s owner and chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, it is an opportune time to reflect back on and revisit one of his greatest sporting achievements.

111 years after the existence of Leicester City Football Club, the Foxes surprisingly won the Premier League. The 2015-2016 season isn’t merely a tale of improbability, it is, when taken into context, an anthem of impossibility. To render it a miracle is misguided as miracles tend to imply a more immediate triumph. This success was planned. Expected? No. Prayed for? Certainly. Miraculous? In a way. Mind blowing? Without question.

I am a firm believer in the tenet that it is the players who win you your titles. Because they do. But they of course have help. The Manchester United dynasty entailing over two decades of wanton dominance stretching across the globe was aided and administrated by Sir Alex Ferguson. The presidents of Real Madrid campaigned on and then followed through with signing and collecting players no other team could afford. But in the end, the matches have to be won. And it is the footballers who eventually do all the talking (or kicking, if you will).

And this was the case for Leicester. The players all played the best season of their careers, which inevitably dictated the table. But, that team was assembled with thought and precision (and luck) and with the distinct aim of thriving in the Premier League. And the person directly responsible for this transformation was Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.

A billionaire revered in both his home country of Thailand and in England as a magnificent, if somewhat reclusive, man, Khun Vichai built a team for a season that will never be forgotten. He took Leicester City from the second tier Championship to the most jaw dropping story in British football history.

To put the title winning season in perspective, it is imperative to note how the club fared in the two terms beforehand. In 2013-2014, Leicester City won the Championship comfortably. They spent all of the 2014 portion of that season at the top. They secured promotion with six matches to go and they won the title with two matches to spare. 102 points were amassed. 40 of the 46 league matches ended in victory or a draw. David Nugent had 20 total goals. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, defender Wes Morgan and midfielder Danny Drinkwater all made the team of the season. More importantly, that trophy propelled them into the Premier League where the main objective, undoubtedly for now, was survival.

This was a team with a bug for winning who now were allowing themselves an opportunity to just dream a touch.

The 2014-2015 season was where destiny started to churn. Leicester on September 21, 2014 faced Manchester United at home. United went up 3-1 after an hour. What followed is something that will stay in my memory for as long as I live: in a span of 21 minutes, Nugent, Esteban Cambiasso, Jamie Vardy and Leonardo Ulloa would all score and send the King Power Stadium into delirium as the Foxes unthinkably trotted out as 5-3 victors. It was stunning. Players from rival teams publicly ridiculed United for this embarrassing collapse. It didn’t seem possible. How could they have pulled this off? This fact was exacerbated by Leicester subsequently not winning a single match again until December 28th of that year. They languished at the foot of the table winning only once in the first THREE months of 2015. So if you’re keeping score at home, from late September and during the months of October through all of March, Leicester City won only two matches (against lowly Hull City and Aston Villa in a thirteen day span to boot). And then…the magic started stirring in the cauldron.

What eventually turned out to be a preview of the title winning form from the Foxes, Leicester ended the 14/15 campaign with seven wins out of 9 to stave off relegation and finish in 14th! That earlier comeback versus United plausibly no fluke. The greatest of escapes. Manager Nigel Pearson, however, would go on to lose his job (after a fallout involving non football reasons as well) and Khun Vichai saw an opportunity to revamp and build upon the foundation of this marvelous finish.

First order of business: Claudio Ranieri was brought in as the new manager. The Italian had a CV filled with massive clubs coached throughout Europe. They were brief stints but he had put in years at vaunted places such as Fiorentina, Valencia, Chelsea, Juventus and Monaco. He had won cups, but never a league title. The fans were excited about this new direction (and Ranieri’s close friendship with absolute legend Andrea Bocelli). And then on August 3, 2015, Khun Vichai with the guidance and blessing of Ranieri would change the course of Leicester City’s story forevermore by spending a now unfathomably low £5.6m on a 24 year old midfielder named N’Golo Kanté from Caen. That £5.6m will go down, along with price tags like the £1.2m Manchester United spent on Eric Cantona from Leeds United and the £3.5m Arsenal gave to Milan for Patrick Vieira, as one of the greatest buys in the league’s (sports?) history.

What happened next cannot even be properly articulatedLeicester DESTROYED the entire league. A massacre. All of the heavy spending titans couldn’t even compete. Just think about that for a second. A league where Manchester City had just spent £55m on Kevin de Bruyne and £49m on Raheem Sterling on their way to splashing a ludicrous £153.5m in the summer of 2015 transfer window was manhandled by a minnow, comparatively speaking. For further evidence, Leicester City spent £26.7m that same offseason. But it was money tactically spent.

Leicester lost just three times the whole season: home and away to Arsenal and away to Liverpool. They didn’t lose in the last TEN weeks of the season! They beat Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City at least one time. They conceded more than two goals only once (eventual runners-up Arsenal notched five behind a 48 minute Alexis Sánchez hat trick early on in the season). They won the league by ten points. It wasn’t even remotely close.

Leicester were knocked out of the FA Cup and League Cup early doors, which certainly allowed them to rest and stay focused on the title. Their stars remained fit for the entirety. Schmeichel and Morgan started and played in all 38 Premier League tilts, Kanté appeared in 37, Riyad Mahrez in 37, Vardy in 36, Shinji Okazaki in 36, Drinkwater in 35 and Robert Huth in 35. That’s the goalkeeper, central defence, central midfield and attack accounted for. Titles are awarded to the most consistent teams and Leicester stayed injury free and rode the bluest of waves to deserved acclaim (and a free performance from Bocelli at the last home game). 

Vardy scored 24 league goals, Mahrez 17. En route, Vardy went on a record setting streak of scoring in eleven consecutive matches! That blistering form and those goals would prove truly vital. The pot was secured and the plaudits cascaded from there: Ranieri won Premier League Manager of the Season, Mahrez the Players’ Player of the Year and Vardy the Writers’ Footballer of the Year. Morgan, Kanté, Mahrez and Vardy made the Premier League Team of the Year. Kanté broke into and eventually started for the French team that would go on to win the World Cup in 2018. Vardy broke into the England team that would go on to the semifinals of that same tournament.

It was legitimate brilliance. The globe watched in awe just waiting for Leicester to eventually capitulate. But they never did. They kept on going. And with players on nobody’s radar. Khun Vichai oversaw the purchases of every member of this squad (except Andy King who joined in 2006 and has been with the team through three divisions unbelievably winning them all as he made 25 league appearances in the Premier League title winning effort). He made household names out of a crop of footballers who seemingly came out of nowhere. But that’s the thing. They didn’t. This was a well crafted team consisting of players all hitting their stride at the exact same moment. Stars were born. And everyone began to line up. Drinkwater and Kanté would leave for Chelsea (Kanté currently one of the best players in the world). Mahrez to Manchester City. Vardy, adroitly plucked from Fleetwood Town by Srivaddhanaprabha, was heavily pursued but would stay as the elder statesmen of the club. Schmeichel, coming off a dominant World Cup for Denmark, is currently on the radar of every gargantuan team in existence.

What a ride that was. A memory all of us will always have.

Khun Vichai cleared Leicester City’s debt. He was at the games. As was his family. He would show up to training. He hoisted a trophy no one thought possible. He was this club through and through. And now Khun Vichai is gone. He will be celebrated for eternity. His legacy is one of pure glory. Rest in peace.

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