IT IS sad when a good guy gets the axe, particularly when public opinion is so positive about his achievements, but there should be no surprise about the sacking of Claudio Ranieri.
Leicester City, in their current position, would probably be parting company with any manager, let alone one that led them to the most unexpected title win since Ipswich Town’s triumph in 1961-62.
The fact that he gave them their finest hour, and rekindled the belief in the “fantasy” of football, may have warranted the Leicester board giving him the benefit of the doubt for one last attempt at pulling his team out of its malaise, but football doesn’t work like that anymore.
The fear of losing Premier League status was the driver of Ranieri’s sacking. Financially, relegation is a disaster for a club – the revenue streams when you’re a Premier club are something like x8 greater than the Championship. And with Leicester having won the Premier, you can be sure that the players who lifted the title have been handsomely rewarded with contracts that may look out of place at the step below. In other words, Leicester undoubtedly need to stay in the top flight.
There’s no question that the team and the club overperformed in 2015-16, but then so too did Ranieri. In a long career, he had never won a major championship until last season. He was good at getting promotion and he won the Coppa Italia in 1996 and the Copa del Rey in 1999. In his four seasons with Chelsea, he finished sixth twice, fourth and then – in the first Abramovich era campaign – second. He wasn’t treated especially well at Stamford Bridge as the term “dead man walking” was in play from the moment the Russian took over. Rainieri just wasn’t the right type of figure the new, monied and brash Chelsea wanted.
However, this is a man who is rarely out of work. He’s considered to be a nice guy, smart and humble. He was probably just as surprised by Leicester City’s success in his first season with the club.
While that title win was a seismic shock, what is surprising is that people are open-mouthed about their collapse. Look at their squad and you know that aside from one or two players, it is not an upper quartile band of players. It should have been expected that the best they could hope for was lower mid-table, especially as they did not – apparently – strengthen their squad during the summer.
Have Leicester become unrealistic in how they view themselves? Nigel Pearson, Ranieri’s predecessor, planted the seed for the Italian when he kept them up in 2014-15. Pearson was then sacked over his son’s role in a racist sex tape made during the club’s post-season tour of Thailand. Leicester had been bottom at Christmas but hauled themselves up to 14th. If Leicester had been relegated, Pearson would probably have been disposed of.
Finishing 14th would surely be welcomed by the end of 2016-17 – Leicester, after all, have scarcely made the Premier League their default position since 1992. This is their 11th Premier season and prior to promotion in 2014, they had spent a decade outside the top division. What does this tell us? That Leicester have still some work to do before they can consider themselves to be one of the major clubs. Therefore, it is unlikely there will be a queue of really top names for Ranieri’s job, and how will potential candidates see the role – after all, if you win the Premier (something Leicester are unlikely to do again in the medium term), you still don’t have a safe seat. It’s the sort of scenario you find at clubs that demand perpetual success.
Which reminds us that history amounts to nothing when it comes to the contemporary game. Those clubs that perpetually talk about their history and fly banners celebrating past glories, do so because their future is uncertain and unrewarding. Football today is all about the next game, the next season. A manager’s lifespan with a club is no more than two years and change. Ranieri, if he had stayed in control, would probably only have had another season at best.
We should not forget the enormous achievement of Leicester City in 2015-16. To the neutral, it was a joy to behold. But equally, it was a one-off and most people in football appreciate that. The team’s collapse, not all down to Ranieri, owes a lot to the extreme efforts of pulling off an upset. It has happened before – the team of 2015-16 may well be shot. That doesn’t mean that the manager needed to be shot, too, but this is football, where common sense and logic is not normally part of the script. Ranieri deserved the opportunity to put things right because there’s no guarantee that the current batch of players will suddenly produce better form in the hands of a new tracksuit. It’s a shabby tale, unfortunately.