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Of all the many emotional and joy-filled scenes after Leicester City Football Club won the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, none perhaps rivalled, at least in power, poignancy and symbolism, that of a giant image of the late Khun Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha beamed from a giant screen as the players, management and supporters celebrated below.
‘Our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them,’ ran the words alongside the photo of Khun Vichai, killed so tragically in a helicopter crash close to the club’s ground in late October 2018. Down on the pitch, his son Aiyawatt ‘Top’ Srivaddhanaprabha was celebrating alongside the players, wearing an expression of unrestrainable joy anchored by a smile just about as wide as Thailand.
As I wrote at the time of Khun Vichai’s loss, it was almost impossible to encapsulate the enormity and devastation of his death, most of all to his family, but also to his company, his club, and to the travel retail industry.
Tragedy affects people and institutions in many ways. It could have sparked the decline of Leicester City, it could have been the end of King Power International as a retailing powerhouse. Certainly the retailer faced an onslaught of competitors for its prized duty free concession at Suvarnahbhumi and other Thai airports in the immediate aftermath of Khun Vichai’s loss. But King Power came through that challenge as Leicester City has come through so many of its own.
The team known as the ‘Foxes’ is now well-entrenched as a top Premier League club. It only just missed out on a Champions League place in Europe last season and this year it is on course to remedy that. But Saturday’s triumph – Leicester’s first FA Cup in its 137-year history – tops all that and ranks alongside the club’s near-miracle Premiership-winning 2015/16 season.
Khun Top bears many of his father’s traits, humility and grace high among them. He prefers to leave others to take the centre stage and thus it was particularly delightful to see him down on the pitch on Saturday being surrounded and applauded by the players who had just delivered the glory that the club had coveted for so long.
This was a triumph not only for Khun Top, the club, and its players and supporters. It was also a triumph of legacy as that giant visage of Khun Vichai and the accompanying words implied.
There’s another character that needs to be added to that impressive cast list, a certain Susan Whelan. Susan, well-known in travel retail as Senior Executive Vice President of the Srivaddhanaprabha-owned King Power International Group travel retail organisation, has been CEO of Leicester City Football Club since July 2011. Holding down just one of those roles is demanding; to have succeeded in both is extraordinary.
Of all the great people stories in travel retail – many of them involving the Irish – Susan’s is right up there among the most remarkable. Her taste for retail honed from earning pocket money in her father’s jewellery shop in Dublin as a youngster, she later became a global buyer for Aer Rianta International. It was through the Irish company’s presence in Thailand that Susan met Khun Vichai and began a new stage of her career journey that would take her to previously unimaginable places and heights.
Not surprisingly, then, her joy was as boundless and rhapsodical as that of the Srivaddhanaprabha family, the players and the Foxes supporters when that final whistle blew. What a day this was for her and for all connected with the Foxes. A day when courage was rewarded, when dreams came true, and when a legacy was honoured.