Claudio Ranieri: The fairy tale’s over


_84297388_claudiothumbs_getty
In May 1993 an emotional Brian Clough waved goodbye to Nottingham Forest’s City Ground. His Forest team had just lost 2-0 to Sheffield United and been relegated to the Second Division. Clough had already announced his retirement before the game. It was a sad farewell to a man who had taken an unfashionable midlands team in the second tier and turned them into back to back European champions. Forest it could be argued, had been too sentimental, choosing to back a manager whose time had passed. But who could bring themselves to sack the greatest manager in the club’s history?
a
The same dilemma did not seem to be a problem for the modern day directors of Leicester City. Claudio Ranieri, like Clough, is a manager who achieved legendary success with an unlikely club in the midlands. He too will be remembered for the sad manner in which he ended his tenure at the team he performed such miraculous feats. But Clough’s doomed last stand at least had some dignity. The sudden and unceremonious removal of Ranieri will be remembered primarily for it’s ruthlessness.
a

When Leicester won the title last year, it was the ultimate sporting fairytale. It was, as was frequently pointed out, a story so unlikely that if it was a film script, you’d roll your eyes at the implausibility of it all. Somehow, this team of relative unknowns, led by a manager more famous for his quirks than his achievements managed to win it all. Football is prone to self-mythologising and exaggeration but this really was an incredible story. At its heart was the manager, humble and unassuming, almost a caricature of a kindly Italian grandfather. Leicester’s inexplicable road to glory had many heroes, but perhaps Claudio Ranieri was the one that most embodied the image of the likeable underdog achieving the impossible.

a
But life, unlike fairy tales, goes on. Football, especially at the top level, can be a coldly unemotional environment despite all the sentimentality that surrounds it. Stripped of all the misty eyed elegies about “the people’s game,” the modern day Premier League is a relentless money making machine. The sums involved are fantastical while the prestige of owning a team is a sign of power and wealth almost unparalleled in the sporting world. Like any industry that attracts vast sums of money, it is an unforgiving place. What you did for us yesterday is irrelevant and what you do for us today will be judged with cold, calculating efficiency. Past glories, adoration from the fans, goodwill from the press won’t matter if those in charge decide others could do a better job of protecting their investments.
a
Above all clubs are desperate to keep their seat at the Premier League table. The reward is a slice of the pie of football’s richest and most watched club competition. The cost of failure, to slip into the Championship, is astronomical. With so much at stake, owners have little time for managers who seem unable to guarantee their club’s continued presence at the top.
a
This is a lesson that many football fans take as a given. The Premier League is not short of critics amongst its traditional fan base. They are not impressed by the self-attributed tagĀ of “best league in the world” and the breathless praise of the “product.” They see an entity that is happy to trade its soul for ever growing profits. Players are mercenaries. Owners are money men with little connection to the average fan. Managers are never more than a bad run away from getting their P45. This has not stopped the same people reacting with incredulity and scorn to Ranieri’s dismissal.
a
Social media has been filled with accusations of ingratitude and heartlessness levelled at Leicester. Famous voices have joined the chorus of condemnation, Gary Lineker seeming depressed and Jamie Carragher attacking the players.
a
The players are quickly emerging as the villains in this drama. Rumours abound that Ranieri had fallen victim to that most fatal and cliched managerial hazard; losing the dressing room. Senior players, according to the papers, were the main factor in bringing about Ranieri’s downfall. Both Craig Shakespeare and Jamie Vardy have denied this. However, the horse has well and truly bolted and the public reaction to this speculation has largely been one of consternation.
a
Despite a lack of any real information about what actually went on behind the scenes, the Leicester players are finding themselves the principle targets of public disdain. The allegations of a “player revolt” seems to have left a particularly bad taste in the mouth. Only a year ago these same figures were being proclaimed as refreshing antidotes to the traditional stereotype of the arrogant, disinterested and mercenary Premier League star. Now, in the light of allegations of forcing Ranieri out, they are being pilloried as the worst of modern football. Whatever they say to the contrary, a general perception seems to be forming that a group of the playing staff colluded to stab Ranieri in the back (et tu Wes?).
a
Perhaps, as Carragher suggested, the team should have looked closer at their own failures rather than turning on the architect of their spectacular success last season. Vardy has attracted the most criticism, if he only because he was the most celebrated during the good times. But other players must be glad their output isn’t being held up to the same level of scrutiny. It’s unlikely the judgement would be much kinder. Whatever tactical or management issues can be pointed to, there’s no getting away from the fact that Leicester’s precarious current position largely comes down to the players not being good enough.
a
But this interpretation is slightly hypocritical. If Ranieri deserves so much credit for taking the team to the title then surely he also has to accept much of the blame for taking them to the edge of the relegation zone. Fair or not, the ultimate responsibility for a team’s performance belongs to the manager and Leicester’s has been shockingly bad. Leicester’s only win of 2017 came against Championship side Derby County in the FA Cup. Any crumbs of optimism that could be taken from this result were then undermined by being knocked out by League One Millwall in the next round.
a
It may well have been the Millwall result that was the final straw for the owners. Ranieri’s last game was a 2-1 loss away to Sevilla, not ideal, sure, but hardly a disaster either with a second leg to come and an away goal. Getting dumped out of the cup by a team two divisions below with players calling for a change hardly bodes well for a looming relegation battle.
a
Leicester01
a
With this in mind, the decision to remove Ranieri cannot quite be dismissed as totally ludicrous. We may not like it, it may seem cruel and it certainly adds an unwelcome bitter aftertaste to a story that seemed so sweet just a few months ago. But football is, as anyone who takes any interest in it has heard ad infinitum, a results game. Leicester want to remain in the Premiership. Relegation is a big blow economically and a source of agony for fans. Take away the title, and Ranieri’s sacking would be a non event, a footballing inevitability as sure as the sun rising in the morning. If you don’t win games, if the players don’t want to play for you, you’re gone.
a
But that’s the problem. You can’t just forget the title. At least you shouldn’t. Ranieri’s case is exceptional. Leicester may very well never win a major trophy in any of our lifetimes. The prospect of Leicester City actually winning the Premier League was a laughable idea even as they topped the league in the first half of last season. It is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest and most improbable achievements in sporting history.
a
Does this mean Raineri is untouchable? That any failure must be forgiven because of what he once achieved? No. Had Leicester been relegated on his watch, he would have little reason to feel hard done by if he was removed. But his achievement was truly staggering, the first top division title in Leicester’s 133 year history. Who knows how long they’ll be waiting for the next one?
a
Surely delivering that must be worth something? Is it so naive to assume that something so astounding might afford a manager at least one more full season in charge? Under Ranieri, Leicester went from Premier League also-rans to a club renowned around the world, however brief that moment may prove to be. In 10, 20 years time, we will still be talking about that season. Will anyone care if Leicester stayed in the league the next year or not? Will anyone be discussing how much money the club got as a result of staying up? Will fans excitedly reminisce over a series of steady mid table finishes?
a
But perhaps that’s a good thing too. Things, all things, sports, life, rarely end as neatly and as happily as we’d like. Success, in general, is fleeting. Few sports teams have embodied that principle quite so spectacularly as Leicester today. But the achievement will remain and Ranieri will always be a part of the legend. The rest will be a footnote. The Tinkerman can leave with his head held high. As for Leicester City, the glory days are over. With the smiling Italian departed, this will no longer be that same side that captured a jaded football public’s imagination. Everything comes to an end, but it’s a shame it had to be like this.

 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *