Claudio Ranieri is back, but how will he fare this time?
Italian appointed Fulham manager for first Premier League job since Leicester
New Fulham manager Claudio Ranieri holds aloft the Premier League trophy after winning it with Leicester City. Photo: Carl Recine/File Photo/Reuters
Hi Claudio. Welcome back to a place you loved, and where you were loved. The Ranieri of the Premier League, regarded in different moments as a gentleman, a tinkerman, a caricature joker, a miracle worker, an expert at somehow maintaining composure when form has faltered and the axe has lurked, returns with the words “risk free” ringing around him. Ranieri has seen enough in 32 years of management across five countries to smile wryly at such notions before he gets to work.
Preconceptions have followed Ranieri around for long enough – way longer than the infamous reaction to his supposedly leftfield appointment at Leicester City (and we all know how that turned out). A certain amount of optimism from the Fulham hierarchy, who chose Ranieri to follow Slavisa Jokanovic, is understandable. But there is no sense jumping to the question of whether Ranieri can recreate something resembling the phenomenon he oversaw at Leicester in his new role at Craven Cottage.
Almost 18 months ago Ranieri joined Nantes in France among considerable fanfare. The president, the Poland-born tycoon Waldemar Kita, championed the idea that he masterminded a coup by recruiting a head coach associated with magic dust. Nantes had impressed under their previous coach, Sérgio Conceição, and when he left to join Porto Kita craved a big name. Ranieri more than ticked that box, so soon after Leicester’s Premier League heroics made them a touchstone for any modest club with giant dreams.
Everyone in Nantes was excited. Everything started awash with promise. Ranieri was instantly popular with the public and inspired the team to climb as high as third in the table. They were settled in the top five for a while after the winter break. But by February the honeymoon picture began to crack. Neither party seemed in it for the long haul. Ranieri was linked with the Italian national team. Results started to slip. Over the course of the season Nantes scored only 36 goals from 38 Ligue 1 games and the initial spark of excitement fizzled out as bland football took hold.
Freedom to work under an involved president became an issue. Kita is an extrovert face in French football, the type of owner who is full of grand statements, likes to befriend the players, doesn’t hide the fact he has favourites and relishes the kind of interest in team affairs that can border on interference. Ranieri never complained in public but it was obvious these were not his ideal conditions to coach. Three wins in the second half of the season meant that Ranieri’s departure after one season at Nantes was not unexpected. He remained elegant and liked but left without sensational memories. “The first part of the season was fantastic,” he said. “Then we were inevitably disappointed: me, president, players, supporters.”
Expectations that he could do a Leicester with Nantes were always on the fanciful side. Partly because the law of averages that has a team succeed at odds of 5,000-1 suggests it is not likely to happen again in a hurry. And partly because Ligue 1 is not easy for those outside the establishment to crash through. Outside the usual suspects (the superpower Paris Saint-Germain, with Monaco and Lyon normally leading the sub-elite) the top three has seldom been gatecrashed in the past five years. Nice pushed their way to third in 2017 and Lille did the same in 2014.
And so to Fulham. Even during that unforgettable adventure with Leicester, when his team were top a third of the way into that extraordinary season, he was fixated with reaching 40 points before he would even consider thinking about anything else. “Our goal right now is to maintain the Premier League. Be solid with two feet firmly on the floor,” he said then.
Those sentiments echo along the banks of Thames as he begins his 18th job in management with his team in a parlous state. Rock bottom, haemorrhaging goals, having almost forgotten how to win, this is a job that requires that Ranieri characteristic of shaking things up quickly. He is a specialist at bringing a new manager bounce – that spurt of improvement – by sharply analysing his resources and making adjustments while trying to motivate. “I like a project,” he says. Just as well.
Fulham represents a homecoming of sorts. Not only does it bring him professionally back to the Premier League, personally it also takes him back to a part of the world he enjoyed. He was very happy living in west London during his spell with Chelsea in the period that just preceded the arrival of Roman Abramovich.
The variety of experience he has packed into his managerial career, having to cope with the twin imposters of triumph and disaster along the way, means he is under no illusions. “We have to play like we are desperate – not every match, every second,’” Ranieri once said of his philosophy. “The day my players relax I get crazy. They know that. I think I am a nice man but also I am demanding.” Fulham’s chances of recovery this season depend on the extent to which his players will be able to respond to that. – Guardian service