In the darkest moments you find out what you’re made of. Some will crumble whereas others will anchor themselves on the positives and rise again. Take Sunderland for instance. For years and years we crumbled. Supporters beaten into apathy, team lacklustre on a good day, effortless on a bad day, boardroom disengaged and drawing up battle lines with the fans.
Then on a gloriously sunny day against Wolverhampton Wanderers the supporters found their inner hope. A depleted attendance stripped of the “never again” supporters basked in hope. You see the seasons that preceded that were all about surviving or escaping the clutches that reached up from the reported pits of hell that lay below us in the table. We succumbed. On that day against Wolves though League One no longer seemed like the pits of hell. As Wolves sang “We’re going to Man City you’re going to Shrewsbury” you felt a collective “so what” go up from the Sunderland fans. We were no longer on that hamster wheel where the best we could ever hope for was mid table and a bit of a cup run. We had the chance to enjoy football again. Just imagine if that engagement with supporters, that sensible business plan, a club identity had come sooner. Just imagine if our great escape under Dick Advocaat had produced a Premier League winning campaign the following season. Farfetched? Our last home game that season was against Leicester City. We drew. That meant that Leicester were finally safe. We would have to wait for a result at Arsenal to confirm our safety. The following season Leicester won the league.
In Leicester’s Premier League run they leapt off a huge springboard with a big opening day win against... well us. That season would see media comparing the noise of the Leicester home crowd to an earthquake as their celebrations were picked up by geological equipment. What is it that turns a club from relegation candidates to champions? Perhaps the answer isn’t all that straightforward. Perhaps it’s more than one thing. There was however a huge catalyst for change. That catalyst was Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. He took control of the club from Milan Mandaric. The change was not instant and he didn’t throw money at the problem. He became part of Leicester City. In the brief time following his passing we have seen tributes pouring in from players and have discovered how close he was to many of them, even travelling to Nigeria to watch Wilfred Ndidi play in a World Cup qualifier. He rewarded his players with blue Lamborghinis for winning the title.
This connection with the team and supporters mirrors what we are seeing develop at Sunderland at the moment. We probably have a better understanding of the impact a chairman can have than most. Our owners occasionally use helicopters to travel. Football divides us into our loyalties and sometimes it takes a tragedy like this to cleanse the rivalry. Reaction from supporters of all clubs has by and large been heart-warming. We don’t know what Leicester fans are feeling right now. We certainly don’t know what those close to the chairmen are feeling but here at ALS we would like to offer our deepest condolences to all those close to Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, a man who made the impossible possible and ripped up the rule book on who was entitled to win the Premier League.