‘Look! They’ve all worn the away strip for today,’ said the old man in the flat cap behind me. I looked across to my left to the Leicester supporters in the away section and they were indeed wearing the same colour shirts. But it was not the team’s regular grey away strip, rather white tee shirts bearing a picture of their late chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and their tribute to him in a simple two word message, ‘The Boss.’
It was always going to be an awkward match. Over a pre match pint of real ale we wondered how both teams might react, how we as fans would react. Cardiff needed three points from this game in their fight against relegation. I think the Leicester players just needed to get out there and play. I needn’t have worried about the reaction. Cardiff City supporters, for so long considered the bad boys of football, got their response to the tragic death of the Leicester chairman and four other people just right.
As the teams ran out a huge flag, 30 metres wide and 8 metres long, was rolled back from the front seats over the heads of us in the middle section of the Ninian Stand. Either side of the Thai national flag were the crests of the home and away clubs and the words ‘RIP Vichai.’ The low autumn sun was blocked out for a moment as I lifted my hands and helped to roll the giant banner back. It was a moving experience, as if touching the flag added some sort of physical contact to the emotions. The man in front of me dabbed a tear from his eye.
The banner was moved sideways and into the away end. Their flag with a massive Leicester logo on it was passed the other way. Two teams, two sets of fans, two rivals were exchanging battle colours as we all came together to share the grief of a whole town. The minute’s silence was immaculately observed, the referee’s whistle blew and then it was down to business. Some had said that the game itself was unimportant but that wasn’t true. The players certainly didn’t think so and gave it their all. Perhaps under the circumstances it was right that Leicester won. Their goal scorer pulled off his shirt to reveal another tribute to Vichai. Many fans stayed behind at the final whistle and again applauded the Leicester players and staff as their thoughts turned to Vichai’s funeral in Thailand.
It can be trite, a cliché even to talk about people ‘coming together through sport.’ But not for the first time in British football this match made me for one feel part of an extended football family. The game has had its fair share of tragedies down the years. The Munich air disaster of 1958 and the death of Busby Babes is part of Man United’s rich and often sad history. I remember the flickering black and white pictures of the Ibrox Stadium disaster in Glasgow in 1971 where 66 people dies. There was the Bradford City fire in 1985 and just last week at Anfield I saw young men and women who weren’t even born in 1989 make the sign of the cross before the Hillsborough memorial.
As football fans we have a shared culture and a shared history. It may be the ubiquity of the game, its international profile, the six years olds at mini-football to the over 60s walking game, but somehow football has power, the power to bring strangers together especially at times of tragedy, to share a common grief, to share our common humanity.
By Tim Hartley.
Tim Hartley is Vice Chair of Supporters Direct and a member of the board of Cardiff City Supporters Trust..
Follow him on twitter: @timhhartley or on FB: facebook.com/AuthorTimHartley