As the final whistle blew at Sunderland to mark another victory for Leicester City this season, the cameras all cut to one man walking into the tunnel alone, holding back tears. Claudio Ranieri, a serial victim of the managerial sacking merry-go-round that has come to characterise modern football, was on the verge of the miraculous, with Leicester just three wins away from a title triumph.
The sporting world still cannot quite believe what they are seeing. Ranieri’s appointment as Leicester City manager last summer was met with widespread mockery by the media. ‘The Tinkerman’ last managed the Greece National team, only to lose his job after suffering a humiliating 1-0 defeat by the Faroe Islands in a Euro 2016 qualifier. What followed were underwhelming stints at Atlético Madrid, Inter, and at Juventus where Jose Mourinho famously called him a “70 year old who hasn’t won anything and is too old to change his mentality”.
Leicester fans hoping to build on their heroic relegation escapades from the previous season were perhaps right to feel anxious. Nothing captured the bewildered thoughts of supporters more fittingly than Gary Lineker’s short tweet of “Claudio Ranieri? Really?”
Although the 64-year-old’s reputation has been that of a ‘nearly’ man, there have also been signs of under-appreciated promise. At Monaco, his reward for getting a newly-promoted side to 2nd in Ligue 1 was resignation by ‘mutual consent’. Most Brits probably remember Ranieri from his reign at Chelsea where he converted the middling club to Champions League mainstays, and in 2004 the Blues finished 2nd in the league, pipped by the infamous Arsenal Invincibles side. How was such an achievement received by the board? Well, Roman Abramovich unexpectedly terminated his contract. The most heartbreaking nadir of Ranieri’s career, however, was at his hometown club Roma where, after amassing 23 consecutive wins, his side slipped up at the death to hand Mourinho’s Inter the treble. Second place yet again, Ranieri resigns.
Fast forward nine months and Leicester are sitting pretty at the top of the table and not a single vitriolic headline is to be found about him in the press.
Many would point to the consistent performances of Vardy, Mahrez, and Kante being the reason for such a reversal of opinion; others would say the so-called giants of the league underperformed, and there was even talk that the racist orgy that led to previous manager Nigel Pearson’s departure was a blessing in disguise. While there are varying amounts of truth in such statements Claudio Ranieri is, in microcosm, Leicester’s season.
A man far removed from the antics of the modern footballing world, the Italian’s insouciant persona has helped nurture a group of misfits into a dogged brotherhood, putting individual glories aside to function as a unit.
Jamie Vardy is now one of the league’s top strikers. N’Golo Kante, who spent years plying his trade in Ligue 2, now has a France cap to his name. Ranieri recently wrote in The Players’ Tribune, saying that when he “arrived on the first day of training, and [he] saw the quality of the players, [he] knew how good they could be.”
He has remained true to his principles, and it has taken until now for it to bear fruit. In a time where managers can evoke as much of a cult following as never before, and where tactics are dissected by thousands of sources, a club like Leicester should not succeed; not with ‘iron will’, ‘hard work’, or ‘togetherness’ alone.
Yet our anachronistic ‘old man’ is showing everyone how this is done – and he got his team playing a cheeky 4-4-2 along the way.
It is a Cinderella story, but not in the rags to riches sense. Is there luck involved? Absolutely. But there has also been a huge amount of talent that has given Leicester City their fairytale ending.
Image courtesy of FOOTBALL RELIGION