“I could be (too loyal), could be. It is difficult when you achieve something so good, you want to give them one chance, two chances, three chances. Maybe now, it is too much.” – Claudio Ranieri
One chance, two chances, three chances. Claudio Ranieri remained devoted to the players who helped deliver his defining triumph – to a fault, in the end.
That loyalty wasn’t reciprocal.
In a move met with widespread condemnation, Leicester City fired the affable Italian on Thursday, a scant nine months after the bespectacled bench boss orchestrated the most improbable title victory in the history of English football, and arguably world sport.
It didn’t come as a complete surprise, in truth.
Related – A necessary casualty: Ranieri sacked to save Leicester’s season
Rumblings about a player revolt persisted for some time as the Foxes, seemingly still drunk on last season’s success, saw their current campaign devolve from a limp title defence – one that was even expected, though not to such a degree – into a full-scale disaster that may yet end in relegation.
Many neutrals who hopped on the bandwagon a year ago, their hearts won by the 5,000-1 underdog, now staunchly hope it does.
The architects of the greatest fairy tale world football has ever seen now sit one measly point above the drop zone with 13 matches remaining – by the time Leicester hits the pitch Monday against Liverpool, it could be in the bottom three, depending on results elsewhere.
The situation is dire. But it was Ranieri’s mess to overturn. He earned that right.
Generally speaking, football – and sport in general – is no place for sentimentality. There’s too much money at stake. Surely this, though, should have been different. Some things transcend conventional process.
“After all that Claudio Ranieri has done for Leicester City, to sack him now is inexplicable, unforgivable, and gut-wrenchingly sad,” former Leicester striker Gary Lineker tweeted after the news broke.
Leicester’s players, and owners, will be signing cheques and counting cash for the rest of their lives thanks to last season’s heroics. And Ranieri was chiefly responsible.
Regression hit hard
Robert Huth and Wes Morgan have the combined mobility of the Ranieri statue that fans were once petitioning the East Midlands city to build, and yet the manager turned them into the bedrock of an almost impenetrable backline.
This season, as they reverted to type, he stuck with them.
Danny Drinkwater earned a call to the England squad. Jamie Vardy scored 24 league goals. Riyad Mahrez was named PFA Player of the Year. The latter pair, who garnered all the plaudits en route to hoisting the trophy, combined for 41 Premier League goals last season. They have eight right now.
Ranieri stuck with them too. They deserved that trust, and he obliged.
Did the mild-mannered Italian, hailed as a genius while overseeing those successes, suddenly become a buffoon as things started to crumble? Unlikely.
Regression simply packed a more vicious punch than expected. Leicester, which defied both logic and statistics last season, was always going to fall back down to earth. And Ranieri knew it.
As performances decayed and his collection of unspectacular players struggled (chiefly Morgan and Huth), Ranieri did his damnedest to make it work. Without midfield terrier N’Golo Kante – who looks like the most important player on the planet, and whose absence is touted as the crucial factor in the Foxes’ remarkable shift in fortunes – the coach chopped and changed tactics and personnel, trying to fix what was clearly broken.
For that, he was lambasted. Should he have remained steadfast with the rigid 4-4-2 that Premier League opponents from mighty Chelsea to lowly Swansea were exposing? Of course not. And he didn’t. It didn’t matter.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Part of his perceived stubbornness is loyalty, but it also stems from a simple lack of options – and it’s important to note that isn’t solely his fault. Sure, some of the club’s transfers have been abysmal: Luis Hernandez could walk through Leicester right now and nobody would recognize him; Nampalys Mendy has been so ineffectual that calling him a dollar-store version of Kante would be a gross insult to dollar stores; Ahmed Musa has proven to be little more than a very fast human being.
And Ranieri is partially to blame for all that.
But Ranieri also, according to reports, pushed the club hard to sign Michael Keane last summer from Burnley, seeming to anticipate that Morgan and Huth, who have a combined age of 65, would not be able to go Super Saiyan once again this season.
The manager can only do so much with the talent he has to work with. It’s fair to say he exceeded what was expected overall.
Pity that ownership didn’t see it that way.
A more capable replacement?
Perhaps the next manager will be more lucky. Whoever it is, he certainly won’t come in with a sparkling track record.
The scrap heap of available options is filled with tacticians that range from entertaining – used primarily in its derisive sense – to downright atrocious.
Alan Pardew, he of the elegant visage, is a better dancer than he is a football manager.
Roberto Mancini? Meh.
Nigel Pearson is rumoured to be the players’ choice to return: the same Nigel Pearson heralded for the “great escape” from relegation that saved the club in 2015. The same Nigel Pearson who courted controversy at every turn and guided the club to the almost untenable position that necessitated a miraculous escape to avoid the drop. That Nigel Pearson.
It’s late February. This is the standard of manager that’s available. That’s what happens when you make the cutthroat decision to give your bench boss the boot at this point of the season.
A poorly timed decision
Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha has now burned much of the club’s goodwill thanks to the decision itself, and the nature of its delivery; Ranieri was fired upon arrival back from Seville, after a match that has no bearing on the team’s standing in the Premier League and, in addition, still has the Foxes in with a very real chance of reaching the Champions League quarter-finals.
In a statement praising Ranieri and expressing that the club would “forever be grateful” to him, Leicester vice-chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha said, “We are duty-bound to put the club’s long-term interests above all sense of personal sentiment, no matter how strong that might be.”
Related – Where it went wrong: 5 flash points that spelt the end for Ranieri
Long-term interests, of course, refer exclusively to financial gain – and that’s fine. It’s a business. But ownership must have forgotten that clubs continues to exist in the Championship. Relegation isn’t the death knell it’s often made out to be.
You’d think this group, which has owned the yo-yo outfit for seven years, would know that better than most.
It’s impossible not to feel like the 65-year-old Ranieri has been let down, a convenient scapegoat who deserved far better treatment; from the Thai owners who pledged their “unwavering support” just weeks ago, and, primarily, from a group of players who come out of this ordeal looking like spoiled and ungrateful children.
The culpable parties
None of this is to say Ranieri – whose charisma, charm, and amiable relationship with the media have benefitted him greatly in the wake of his firing – didn’t make mistakes.
Demarai Gray looked many times like the only Leicester player interested in trying to save this rotten campaign, and yet he started just six Premier League matches, garnering a total of 719 minutes.
If asked, Ranieri will likely admit the electric 20-year-old deserved more minutes. He erred. So does everyone else. Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, even, have made mistakes this season.
Crucially, though, their players still believe – in their managers and their respective projects.
The same can’t be said about Leicester. The most clear indication of that came from outspoken shot-stopper Kasper Schmeichel after the Foxes’ 2-1 defeat to Sevilla on Wednesday, which proved to be Ranieri’s final match in charge.
“It’s not about playing for the manager,” Schmeichel said dismissively when asked about the team’s willingness to get behind Ranieri during the harrowing spell. “It’s about playing for the whole club – for the fans … for our owners, and most importantly for ourselves, we owe this to ourselves.”
Oh, it’s definitely all about themselves. How quickly they seem to have forgotten.
It’s curious, as well, that none of Leicester’s players have come out with messages of support for a man who delivered so much, and did it all while handling himself with the utmost class.
Fleeting thing, loyalty.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)