Despite all his previous experiences with football clubs, Matthew Mills was taken by surprise when he came to Leicester City FC in the summer of 2011.
By then he'd had stints with Southampton, Coventry City, Bournemouth, Manchester City, Colchester United, Doncaster Rovers and Reading. And yet, he was surprised. By the constant presence of the club's chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.
"He (Vichai) was very involved with the club. Every game he would be there at the stadium. He would come down to the dressing room. He would also speak with players one-on-one at the training ground," Mills tells Firstpost.
Currently playing his trade for Indian Super League club FC Pune City, the 32-year-old played at Leicester in the 2011-12 season, even becoming the club captain for the season. Vichai passed away when his helicopter crashed outside Leicester's King Power Stadium right after their match against West Ham United a fortnight ago.
Mills reveals he found about the accident when his wife sent him pictures of newspapers from back home."My reaction was just disbelief, really. I then spoke to my wife’s dad, Matthew Elliot, who’s an ex-Leicester City legend. He was walking out of the stadium at the time and saw everything happen."
"The relationship that I had with Vichai was unique, in the sense that he would often visit the training ground and have one-on-one chats with the players. He was always really interested in knowing about the players and their families," he says before adding: "All my meetings with him were very personable. He spoke about his family, asked me questions about my family. He’d do everything he could do to make you feel settled and part of the environment that he was trying to create."
After his stint at Reading had come to a disappointing end – the team lost to Swansea in the Championship Playoff final – he came to Leicester hoping to find a club where he could start anew. Instead, he found a home. "For me personally, he was the chairman who brought me to the club under manager Sven-Goran Eriksson."
"After the heartbreak in the Playoffs final with Reading, he offered me a chance to join Leicester on a four-year contract, which changed my life. It gave me and my family security. From my interactions with him, I could tell that he was a genuine guy who just wanted the best for everyone at Leicester City."
"Everyone knows he had made a massive financial commitment to redevelop the club's training ground. But he was really trying to make it feel like home, so players would want to stay behind after training. You had large rooms with TVs, PlayStations, pool tables…he wanted to people to stay back after training and interact with each other. He knew that when the going gets tough on the pitch, if you have that camaraderie off the pitch, it could go a long way. It made everybody feel part of something."
Mills says what also took him by surprise was the things Vichai would do to foster a team environment. "We did a lot of team bonding activities as he really wanted to create a family environment. We would have people come in and do team bonding sessions. One day we had to build bridges, the other day we were playing fun games. He loved to see you smile. He took us to horseracing one day. Even gave the guys some money to have a gamble. He really got his enjoyment from seeing other people happy."
Vichai's grandiose gestures towards players when Leicester won the 2015-16 Premier League title are well documented – he is said to have given sports cars to the players. But Mills says he was equally benevolent when the results were not good.
"During my time at the club, he would take us out and give us money to spend, bet on horses. One of my friends who was part of the squad which won the Premier League said they were also given watches. When they went to Thailand, they were given vouchers to spend on things. It’s incredible the number of things he’s given away. He was the type of person whose happiness was gained by seeing other people happy. You can see that not just by the gifts he’s given but by his gesture of pulling together the club to win the Premier League title which made a lot of people’s dreams come true. Not only at the club, but also in the city," says Mills.
Vichai was equally generous to the fans, giving away 60 free season tickets for fans to mark his 60th birthday. That is perhaps why in this day and age – when supporters are perpetually at loggerheads with club management and owners – 20,000 Leicester fans marched from the city centre to the King Power Stadium for the Burnley game on Saturday. The gesture is in tune with the genuine outpouring of grief that has been witnessed in the city as it mourns the passing of a man who not only helped the city's beloved club to an improbable Premier League title, but also made charitable donations to the city's hospitals and university.
"If you’ve seen the outpouring of emotions in the past few weeks, you’ll know that he won’t just be remembered for winning Leicester the Premier League title. It’ll be everything that comes along with it…the charitable donations, the way in which he’s brought the club together. He has united the club. Their history will forever bear his name. That is ultimately his legacy, the ability to bring the whole city together. And achieve greatness by winning the Premier League."
It is fitting then that the city of Leicester has come together to mourn Vichai's passing. As a family.
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Updated Date: Nov 10, 2018 16:25:25 IST