Leicester City played with great will and nerve to beat Cardiff City on an emotive day as the Foxes returned to action for the first time since the death of their owner in a helicopter crash.
On an afternoon when football seemed both an irrelevance and a form of release for Leicester’s grieving players and fans, the two clubs united to remember Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and the other four people who lost their lives on 27 October.
Leicester’s players were visibly moved during a minute’s silence and, after the laying of wreaths before the match, there were further tributes including the unfurling of banners shared between the two sets of fans, who joined forces to create a stirring atmosphere of rare solidarity.
Once the match at Cardiff City Stadium was under way, it was contested as fiercely as any Premier League fixture with chances at both ends in a goalless but competitive first half.
Cardiff’s Victor Camarasa struck the crossbar with a free-kick and Jamie Vardy felt Leicester should have had a penalty when his shot appeared to hit Sol Bamba’s arm.
However, the Foxes were not to be denied and, after Demarai Gray’s scored with a low finish early in the second half, there was a huge outpouring of emotion as the entire team celebrated together before running over to their travelling supporters.
After scoring, Gray removed his jersey to reveal an undershirt on which the words ‘For Khun Vichai’ were emblazoned as a tribute to Srivaddhanaprabha, whose name the Leicester fans continued to sing for the rest of a highly charged and poignant afternoon.
After the final whistle, the Leicester players and backroom team stood and applauded with their fans long after the game had ended.
The Foxes move up to 10th in the table while Cardiff drop into the relegation zone in 18th after Newcastle beat Watford 1-0.
Srivaddhanaprabha, who died in the crash outside Leicester’s King Power Stadium following their previous league game against West Ham, was an owner revered and loved like few others.
The Thai billionaire bought Leicester in 2010 for £39m, cleared their debts and oversaw the club’s promotion to the top flight four years later. They then beat odds of 5,000-1 to claim the Premier League title in 2015-16 in one of the greatest sporting stories of all time.
His death – along with those of Nusara Suknamai, Kaveporn Punpare, pilot Eric Swaffer and his partner Izabela Roza Lechowicz – was described as the darkest day in the club’s history.
The tragedy cast a shadow over the entire city, evident in the outpouring of grief throughout the week from players, staff and supporters.
Having postponed Tuesday’s Carabao Cup tie against Southampton, this return to action gave Leicester the opportunity to pay their respects on the pitch.
It was a decision to which the club gave deep consideration, consulting the Srivaddhanaprabha family and the players, who Vardy said were determined to honour their owner’s name with a display of strength.
They were wholeheartedly backed by their travelling supporters, most of whom were wearing t-shirts bearing an image of Srivaddhanaprabha’s face and the words ‘The Boss’.
During the pre-match warm-up, Leicester’s players were even given a standing ovation by Cardiff’s fans, such was the sense of harmony as the two clubs stood shoulder to shoulder in such extraordinary circumstances.
The Foxes rose to the occasion admirably, harnessing the emotion of the occasion and using it to fuel a powerful performance.
Next, the players will fly to Thailand to attend Srivaddhanaprabha’s funeral as Leicester – the club and city – continues to grieve.
Leicester manager Claude Puel had said beforehand the result was “not important”, while his Cardiff counterpart Neil Warnock acknowledged football can seem “irrelevant” in the aftermath of such a tragedy.
However, they fully supported the decision to play and, after the solemnity of the pre-match tributes, Cardiff City Stadium was at full volume as the game started at a ferocious pace.
The hosts set the tempo, pressing their opponents and trying to force them into mistakes.
That approach almost bore fruit after half an hour, with an unsettled Leicester defence fouling Harry Arter on the edge of the penalty area and Camarasa striking the resultant free-kick against the crossbar.
After a tricky period in which England centre-back Harry Maguire left the field injured, Leicester eventually got a foothold in the game and had an excellent chance to score when Wilfred Ndidi headed wide from a corner.
The Foxes felt they should have had a penalty just before the interval but, although Vardy’s shot on the rebound appeared to hit Bamba’s arm, referee Lee Probert ignored the visitors’ furious protestations.
It did not prove to be a costly decision for Puel’s side, who made the decisive breakthrough 10 minutes into the second half.
Ben Chilwell sped into the penalty area and clipped a perfectly weighted cross to Gray, who carefully guided his half-volley low into the net to spark emotional celebrations which will live long in the memory.