Claude Puel speaks of Leicester's incalculable grief
‘Vichai made Leicester City into what it is. He made it a family, he made it dream’
Leicester City manager Claude Puel looking at the floral tributes to the five victims of the helicopter crash which killed Leicester City’s chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
Outside Leicester’s King Power Stadium, five days after the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and the four other people on board, hundreds of mourners continued to lay wreaths, and there was a 20-minute queue to sign a book of condolence. Inside, Claude Puel spoke publicly for the first time about incalculable grief and about somehow moving on.
“The tragic loss of five lives has left us all numb with sadness and shock,” the Leicester manager said. “Vichai made Leicester City into what it is. He made it a family, he made it dream. He invested in the club, he invested in the city and he invested in the people.
“He truly was loved by everyone inside and outside the club. Personally, it was a privilege to work for him, and I will cherish the belief he showed in me and the great moments we shared.
“Seeing all of the messages, flowers and shirts outside the stadium this week shows the amount of lives he touched. He leaves behind a legacy that will be remembered forever and a vision the club and myself, as manager, will take forward.
“I, myself, have never been prouder to be manager of this club. In such difficult circumstances, the togetherness shown by the whole club, from the staff, players and fans, has shown what a special club this is.”
That came from a handwritten statement Puel had prepared but for most of the following hour the Frenchman, sometimes a hesitant speaker in English, talked freely and eloquently and in exactly the right register.
He described enabling everyone at the club to grieve in their own way, thanked Vichai’s family for their “strength and dignity”, smiled as he related happy memories of being taken to Ascot and loaned a boat by a chairman “who always wanted to please everyone around him” and, finally, he reaffirmed that everyone at Leicester “has a responsibility now to continue his work and to do him honour”.
“Those were the first words of Kasper, that we have this responsibility to continue this way, to perform,” Puel said in reference to Kasper Schmeichel, the goalkeeper who was particularly close to the chairman and witnessed the crash on Saturday. “Kasper lived this situation and he saw a lot of things,” Puel said. A television reporter asked for details; Puel was too tactful to oblige.
‘Give our best’
Technically this press conference was scheduled to preview Saturday’s Premier League match at Cardiff, when Leicester will return to action for the first time since the tragedy. Puel said that to him and the players the game had become both trivial and vital. “The result is not important,” he said, “but our desire, our action, our hope to give our best on the pitch to honour our chairman is the most important thing.”
Also on Saturday, 6,000 miles from Cardiff, Vichai’s funeral, which has been given “royal sponsorship” in Thailand, begins in Bangkok, where it will continue for seven days. Puel said he and many Leicester staff were trying to make arrangements to attend next week. Their Carabao Cup tie with Southampton, postponed in the aftermath of the crash, has been moved to November 27th to help their travel plans.
If Puel spoke with warmth and clarity on Thursday, he said that contrasted with his reaction on Saturday when told about the crash.
“I was in my office in the stadium with my family, friends and staff. Mike [Stowell], my assistant and goalkeeping coach, came in and gave me the news. We remained for a long time together without it being possible to share words. It was silence.”
On Monday he and the players gathered at the training ground – “to speak and share our feelings”.
“The first day was just about sharing our sorrow. It was a long day, but it was important to share all this and listen to all people. When confronted with a tragedy, all people are different, with different reactions.
“I proposed different things to help everyone with different support. Of course the training session was not important; we could not train in this condition. The priority was to talk together. With all the different reactions we felt all the staff and people were together.”
For the rest of the week Puel tried to keep the tone of training light.
“We tried to put in place exercises just to have fun – nothing tactical or anything. It was important just to enjoy, to play. We are lucky because we play football and football is a game. It’s one of the best remedies you can have.”
As well as sadness, many people at Leicester have fond memories of Vichai to share. Puel beamed as he spoke of his former chairman’s qualities.
“It was his spirit, his kindness in all situations. He was close to people but he wanted to please all the time. He was generous, warm. All people could discuss with him. He gave rewards because he wanted people to be happy around him all the time.
“He invited me often to Ascot races and private polo matches. I met Prince William and Prince Harry. He shared all his things with people and staff and players. It was fantastic. I took his boat to Antibes. He loaned it to me for three days to take with my family. All the time he wanted to please all the people around him. This is the image I want to keep of him.”