Leicester's fairytale enhanced by football’s Prince Charming
Foxes manager Claudio Ranieri’s class off the field matches the brilliance of his side on it
Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri. Photograph: Richard Sellers/PA Wire.
Leicester City arrive at the giddy place this weekend and who isn’t shouting for them? Ask any casual sports fan about what they think of the Foxes’ undreamt-of charge towards their first ever league title in the club’s 132 year history and it won’t take long before they make some kind of observation about the essential decency of Claudio Ranieri.
Among the many things the charming Italian veteran is proving this year is that it is possible to take charge of a big-time football team without behaving like an oaf. It is possible to win and lose without displays of petulance and temper and attacks on referees, on journalists, on opposition managers. It is possible to behave with a bit of class and still win.
It is only mid-February and the shift in attitude towards Leicester may have come a little too soon. The 2-0 victory over shambolic Liverpool, followed by the 3-1 submission of Manchester City, made it obvious that Leicester have no intention of behaving like they are supposed to by scuttling off the main stage.
Tomorrow’s visit to the Emirates has been tagged as the match with will sort out fantasy from reality. But even if Leicester do conjure another result to confound all expectation, they still have an awful lot to do on the long, 12-match turn from home which includes an away visit to Manchester United at the end of April and a final-day visit to Chelsea.
That Leicester could clinch the title at Stamford Bridge would be the most fabulous outcome of all, given the humiliating treatment Ranieri endured during his final year at the club in 2004. The Italian guided Chelsea to second in the Premier League and to the semi-finals of the Champions League, despite the fact that the club’s new owner, Roman Abramovich, was publicly courting Sven Goran Eriksson.
As Ranieri anticipated, he was brusquely sacked, ending a four-year involvement in which he had transformed the initial scepticism of the home fans into genuine attachment. He chronicled his affection for Chelsea in a memoir, Proud Man Walking, and donated the proceeds of the book to the Great Ormond Street children’s hospital.
In an interview with Ed Vulliamy a full four years later, Ranieri responded to the notion that he had assembled the personnel and provided the super-structure that made it possible for José Mourinho to reap the rewards, by saying: “I didn’t say that. You did. But thanks.” And he followed up with a loaded remark. “Without the first years, I don’t think that Abramovich would have bought Chelsea.”
The basic, human difference between Mourinho and Ranieri was made painfully clear when Mourinho responded to the Italian’s reasonable assertion that Mourinho was all about winning with this withering retort in 2008. “He’s nearly 70 years old and has won a Supercup and another small cup. He’s too old to change his mentality now.” Ranieri was in his mid-50s then. The attack made Mourinho sound bullying and stung and insecure. Ranieri let it rest.
When Ranieri was appointed as manager of Leicester City before this season, the reaction was lacklustre. Gary Lineker complained that the appointment was “uninspired” and noted that it was amazing that “the same old names keep getting a go on the managerial merry-go-round”.
A piece in the Guardian praised Ranieri’s geniality but issued a stark warning to Foxes fans: “If they wanted someone to secure their place in the Premier League, they may have gone for the wrong guy.”
The line was perfectly in keeping with the prevailing feeling as the English league opened up for what has become its blood-sport season, with clubs culling managers with increasing swiftness.
After all, Ranieri had just dusted himself down from the low-point of his managerial career, dismissed as manager of the Greece national team after a brief and disastrous stint which forced the Greek association to issue an apology for selecting him.
And now, Mourinho is like a ghost without a home, on the outside of the window looking in as Ranieri seeks to lead his team to what would surely be the most unlikely league title in the history of English football. The style has been as arresting as the thrill of it.
The calmness and humour and, most strikingly, the easy grace with which he has handled this sustained winter in the spotlight have served to make his peers look cartoonish in comparison. With each week now, that spotlight will intensify and so too will the pressure. Tomorrow brings a sideline reunion of Ranieri and Wenger, who have remained on friendly terms since the Italian left London.
Beginning of the end
In theory, Wenger and Arsenal look best placed to capitalise on this weird and compelling league season. If Leicester lose at the Emirates, it will be interpreted as the beginning of the end of the fable.
The two clubs were already connected in one of the quieter but more significant story lines of the week. Arsenal have secured the services of Leicester scout Ben Wrigglesworth, the man who brought Riyad Mahrez from Le Havre for £400,000 – or what most of the marquee names in the league would call pocket money.
The emergence of Mahrez – and his ability to render opponents who cost tens of millions of pounds irrelevant – is just one of the many ways in which Leicester’s season has forced the elite end of English football into a crisis of identity.
Leicester keep on winning as the heavyweights flounder and nobody is quite sure what to make of it. Is it merely one of those improbable wonder stories? Does it mean that the English league is overhyped, overpaid and overrated? What does Ranieri’s season say about the cult of the manager? How many more players like Mahrez are out there while super clubs hold obscene auctions for a carousel of established players? And, of course, the most interesting and puzzling question of all: could Leicester really win the league?
Tomorrow will tell a lot but from here on in, the atmosphere in the King Power Stadium is bound to become more anxious as the home fans grapple with the fact that they are reaching the high point of what, in all probability, will be the one chance in their lifetime of seeing the Foxes win the Premier League – whether they are six years old or 60.
Claudio Ranieri’s demeanour – his ability to convey the illusion that what his team is doing isn’t, in some glorious way, insane – has been crucial to their story. It gets tougher all the way but regardless of how it spins, you can be guaranteed that the Italian will conduct himself with respect for both himself and for others. Proud man walking, indeed.