It is two hours before kick off at Leicester City's King Power Stadium, and outside, bathed in warm spring sunshine, small groups of supporters are gathering in their club shirts and blue and white scarves. The team buses are parked up, and dozens of stewards are in position in their hi-vis jackets.
Inside, it is a hive of activity. As we walk along corridors and through concourses, the club's Irish chief executive is greeted warmly by staff. Susan Whelan smiles, greets them warmly by name, and stops to talk. For all its extraordinary recent history, of unexpected highs as champions and trophy winners, and tragic lows, this club seems to have retained its friendliness.
For the 58-year-old, from Howth, Co Dublin, this match day is busier than most. The club's owner and chairman, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, known as Top, is visiting from Thailand. The pair have just met to discuss current issues, including the proposed statue in honour of his late father, Vichai, who bought Leicester City in 2010.
The hardest bit is the fact that there is so much that is outside your control
Whelan's career has been one of unexpected journeys. She first worked for Aer Rianta at Shannon Airport at the start of 25 years in the duty-free industry, which took in Thailand, Russia and destinations beyond. In 2010, she landed here, in England's East Midlands, as one of the most senior figures in the world's most watched and wealthy soccer league. A year later, the owner asked her to become chief executive.
As she looks out at the immaculate pitch and – for now – the empty seats, it is obvious how much she enjoys her current role. “Of course I love it. The buzz of a match day is very important. Being able to do the charity side of things, the business, the retail, the hospitality, it’s quite all-encompassing and it’s really great fun.”
She says she quickly learned what makes running a soccer club different to other businesses: “It’s how much it means to so many people. It’s so important to remember that. It is for the community and for the fans and that is something that is really important. The visibility of a football club is very different to other businesses from that point of view.”
After attending Manor House girls' school in Raheny, she began her career setting up duty-free businesses for Aer Rianta International. In 1994, the job took her to Bangkok, Thailand's capital, where she first worked with Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, a wealthy Thai businessman who led the family's King Power business empire. Instead of returning to Ireland, she decided to stay and join the business in Thailand.
She later met her English husband, Robbie, an architect and soccer fan who sits alongside her during today's match, at a work conference in Singapore. The couple spend their time between Leicester, a home in west London, and Howth.
After she and Robbie moved to the UK, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha bought Leicester City and soon asked her to run it. She didn't hesitate: "To me, whatever the family business was, I would get involved in it. This was an extension of the family business basically." First up was a pre-season game against Real Madrid. "It's gone from there."
She compares running a Premier League club to leading in other business sectors: "I think the hardest bit is the fact that there is so much that is outside your control. You have all of the infrastructure in place for success and all of the things that should guarantee success, but because it is sport there is no guarantee of the outcome.
“I suppose that’s what makes it exciting, but in other businesses you have a lot more levers you can pull to influence what the outcome is. When it’s sport it’s not quite as easy.”
Something has definitely worked. Against all odds, Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016. It was one of the greatest sporting shocks, a thrill for sporting romantics everywhere, sustained over a long season against far bigger, richer, more glamorous rivals.
Last year, Leicester added the FA Cup to the trophy cabinet, another first for the club. The team are competing in Europe again this season under manager Brendan Rodgers, formerly of Liverpool and Celtic.
I ask about that epic 2015-16 season, and at what point she believed Leicester could become English champions as the sporting world watched in amazement: “It really was only at the very last minute that we felt it could actually happen. With sport, and with the team and with the club it’s very focused on the next game, the next game, in set stages rather than a very long view of time, so it was building all through that season. It was extraordinary.”
Leicester is one of the UK's most diverse cities, with a population of about 330,000. Vast crowds turned out to cheer the team, and she still loves watching footage of the trophy being lifted, and the concert that followed, including Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli singing in a blue Leicester shirt.
Off the pitch, the tragedy came in 2018. A helicopter carrying Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and four others crashed shortly after taking off inside the stadium following a match. All of those on board died just yards from the ground.
She pauses, and slows down: “That was a terrible, terrible tragedy. Nothing would really prepare you for that eventuality to happen. It was very important equally that we didn’t let him down with everything at that time and since that time, to really make that legacy a reality, and hopefully we’ve continued to do that for him.”
The club’s charitable foundation has been renamed after its late owner, and it funds local causes, including supporting hospitals during the pandemic. “I always say to my own team that we have to be about more than football. You can’t win every single weekend and you have to represent something that is bigger than a single result or set of results. We’re very fortunate that we can make – it sounds very cliched – a positive difference to people’s lives sometimes. You hear someone is unwell and you can invite them down to the training ground.”
Whelan grew up in Howth with her late parents Valerie and Geoff, and her brother Stevan and sister Amanda, who both still live in Dublin. “I wouldn’t have imagined that I would end up doing this,” she laughs. “I was very lucky, I had a fantastically supportive family and I always use the expression that they gave us the wings to fly. I had that confidence to go forward to do things in different parts for the world, and I’ve been so lucky to have had the career I have had.”
Her club has ambitious plans, including to increase the stadium’s capacity, and to build a smart hotel, student accommodation and a new retail space. She says her aim is to keep the club “sustainable and stable”, and to increase commercial revenues so they can continue to compete on the pitch, at home and in Europe.
In 2021, Whelan was named the Premier League's CEO of the Year, and she has received an honorary degree from Leicester university. When the game starts, she watches nervously from the directors' box, behind the owner, living every shot and save. This season has been up and down for the team, littered with injuries to key players. Today, Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans makes his comeback from injury, to warm applause.
She describes a prudent business model not seen at every English soccer club: “We built it up slowly because we never wanted to be subject to terrible crises if there was a change in our league position. People depend on us for their mortgages, for their livelihoods, for all of those things.”
During the pandemic we didn’t let any of the staff go, we didn’t furlough them, we kept them together, we got them doing outreach stuff into the community to keep them occupied and doing something beneficial.”
Be brave, don't be afraid, never be afraid. Take the opportunities and enjoy the challenges
Whelan doesn’t think she is treated differently as a woman at the top of the men’s game. “I really haven’t thought about that. I think in the early days, maybe. In the early days my husband used to say that when you went into boardrooms people might have made a beeline to talk to him. But no, I just get on with it.”
The billionaire owner and chairman, who is 36, watches the game from his seat at the front of the directors' box with great enthusiasm, shaking hands with the fans around him beforehand, and leaping from his seat in delight at two fine Leicester goals. As well as owning the club, Top now runs King Power. Whelan has known him since he was a boy who came into the Bangkok office after school to see his father. When midfielder James Maddison scores a superb free kick, he turns and acknowledges the owner in celebration. At the end of the game, a 2-1 win over Brentford, Rodgers gives a thumbs up to the owner, who waves back in approval.
There is still hope of a trophy to add to the Leicester cabinet in the Europa Conference League. The chief executive, overseeing the club’s progress and plans, ends with this advice on how to succeed in the right way: “Be brave, don’t be afraid, never be afraid. Take the opportunities and enjoy the challenges. I think it’s an Irish characteristic, and you see how successful Irish people can be when they are overseas. It’s sometimes like facing a brick wall – we never try and knock that wall down, we’ll go over it or around it or under it, and we’ll still get from A to B, but you don’t have to rip the place down to be successful.”