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Regular readers of this Blog will know that I have a particular affinity with Leicester City Football Club, more popularly known as ‘The Foxes’ in the UK.
Leicester City is owned by Asian Football Investments, a Thai consortium led by Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha (formerly Vichai Raksriaksorn), Chairman of one of Asia’s leading travel retailers, King Power International Group. The latter’s Senior Executive Vice President Susan Whelan is Chief Executive of the club.
Last year, Leicester City Football Club Foundation named The Moodie Report Foundation (dedicated to funding cancer research) as one of its official charities, while we in turn donated US$50 to charity for every goal the Foxes scored.
We also offered a US$5,000 bonus if the team won promotion to the Premier League, where they would meet giants of the game such as Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Crystal Palace.
Alas, after a strong early showing, the Foxes faded, squeaking into the play-offs where they lost out in the final seconds of the first round.
This year has been a very, very different story. Hardened by last year’s experience, the Foxes have been on the run since early in the season, at one stage threatening to run away with the Championship. In what should be a business case study for football clubs throughout the land who sack managers with the same alarming alacrity with which a despot kills opponents, Khun Vichai did not dismiss Nigel Pearson for what amounted in business terms to a disappointing final quarter after nine months’ excellent trading. Instead he backed his man and backed his team, knowing they would be better for the experience.
Of late, rivals Burnley have closed the gap but, critically, with only the top two teams gaining automatic qualification, the Foxes enjoy a 13-point advantage over third-placed Queen’s Park Rangers. The latter have only eight games left and even in the unlikely event that they win them all, Leicester City would still only need 11 points from their nine games to win promotion on goal difference.
A walk in the park, as it were? Try telling that to Susan Whelan whose nerves are jangling like a thousand newly minted coins in a King Power shopping bag. Never more so than on Tuesday night, when two of the Moodie team, myself, my son Declan and Publisher’s Assistant Helen Pawson, visited the King Power Stadium for what looked like a certain easy win against lowly Yeovil.
But teams fighting for their lives can be doughty opponents. Just as Leicester are set for promotion, Yeovil are battling imminent relegation and right from kick-off they gave as good (and much of the time better) as they got.
Cue a first-half goal for the visitors and a worried-looking Susan Whelan at half-time. In stress terms, being CEO or Manager of a football club must be right up there with tight-rope walking and bomb defusal. In monetary terms alone, promotion to the UK Premiership represents a multi-million Pound bonanza. In kudos, image and global exposure terms it is simply priceless. And for Khun Vichai, it would the culmination of a dream, a fantastic reward for his belief in and commitment to the club that the King Power-led consortium acquired in 2010.
So, to say the least, the stakes are frighteningly high. As the game wore on, and on, it was clear that this was an off-tune night. The Foxes, perhaps tired from Saturday’s match, were not so much on the run, as treading through treacle.
However, as everyone knows (and if you don’t, I’m telling you), when in trouble, call for the Kiwis. My confident prediction at half-time that New Zealand international Chris Wood would come off the substitutes’ bench and save the day, proved true, albeit in the most unlikely circumstances.
Deep into injury time, the Foxes threw everyone into the Yeovil penalty box for a corner kick, including goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. Up there too was substitute Wood, a tall, powerful man who looks as though he would not be out of place in his country’s all-conquering, All Blacks rugby team.
[Martin Moodie and Susan Whelan in the Foxes’ lair]
The ball came in. Chaos. Schmeichel, son of former Manchester United and Denmark goalie great Peter, rose imperiously to head the ball goalwards. It hit the crossbar, bounced straight down… over the line, or not? Time seemed to stop. The referee appeared to play on as the roar of the Leicester crowd rose to the level of a thousand jumbos flying above the stadium on an East Midlands night.
As players from both sides scrambled for the ball, it was that theoretically impossible prospect, a flying Kiwi, Chris Wood, who rose fastest and highest, nodding the ball in for perhaps the most valuable goal he will ever score.
In John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, pandemonium is the name given to the capital of Hell. At the King Power Stadium, the word represented pure heaven. Looking at the face of Susan Whelan and listening to the ear-shattering ecstasy of the crowd, one realised what legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly meant when he said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
And so, with a ghosting run from a man appropriately called Kasper, the sound of Wood on leather, and just the right amount of Kiwi polish, Leicester stole the unlikeliest of points to maintain their irresistible upwards momentum. On Saturday, they play near rivals Burnley, in a crucial away game that may decide who wins promotion as Champions.
Susan’s nerves may resemble a bunch of documents put through the office shredder but – and you read it here first – the club that Khun Vichai bought are going up as Champions. The giants – Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester and… Crystal Palace await. This time the Foxes really are on the run.