Walking out of fitness training on Thursday evening despite the best efforts of Doris, as any 18-year-old in 2017 would do, I checked my phone for any important messages and a quick scan of social media before the drive home.
As the messages and notifications filtered through, though, there was a sudden feeling of shock, surprise and sadness as I read the breaking news of Claudio Ranieri’s sacking. It was a similar feeling to being told a loved one who was been ill for a while has passed away; it has been coming for a while, but the timing takes you by surprise and coming to the realisation that they are no longer going to be around is an incredibly difficult pill to swallow.
You have the most amazing memories of them before they were ill, but there is sometimes a very steep and slippery slope that your loved one takes which leaves the end result somewhat inevitable, no matter how sad and tough it is to take. The feelings were comparable when I read Ranieri had gone.
Ranieri’s surprise appointment in July 2015, I think it’s fair to say, came under some intense scrutiny but for many, winning the league and defying the most remarkable 5,000-1 odds meant that the lovable Italian had a job for life.
Let me be perfectly clear, last season was unbelievable. Having a season ticket at the King Power when Claudio and the boys swept aside all in their way as they romped towards a sensational first league title in the club’s history was truly remarkable and I witnessed something I never thought would be possible.
I never once dreamt that I would see my team win the Premier League and I will forever, along with all Leicester City fans, hold the memories of last season and also Claudio Ranieri in my heart until the day I die. He is a hero and deserves all the accolades he receives for last season’s triumph as well as a statue outside the ground. And I understand that, for some, winning the club’s first top flight league title means that Ranieri deserves the right to be able to choose when he leaves this club.
Take Burnley. I appreciate they haven’t won the Premier League title, but they have remained loyal to Sean Dyche who has brought them up into the Premier League twice in three years. They finished runners-up to Leicester in 2014 but went straight back down again when Leicester escaped and worked their way back up again last term. For Burnley, and this is absolutely no disrespect to them whatsoever, they are understandably stable under Dyche’s watch, which brings gradual progression and development but also means they have faced a year back in the Championship. This season, though, has shown that sticking by the gaffer can have long-term rewards as they look to cement their place in the country’s top tier. However, it is not always so simple. In recent years, clubs such as Aston Villa, Derby, Birmingham, Blackburn, Bolton, Portsmouth and so on have dropped out of the Premier League and have either failed to bounce back up again or have continued to slip down the footballing ladder.
For many Leicester City fans, winning the Premier League last season presented the club with an opportunity. An opportunity not to defend their title; realistically speaking the big clubs were going to be back to their best and we could not replicate last season. But it was instead an opportunity to build on their success. Have a good crack again with pretty much the same group (with one obvious exception) at a decent top half finish and a solid run in the Champions League and cup competitions. There must be serious questions marks over the apparent lack of motivation within the camp as this opportunity was squandered spectacularly. They may not have defended their title, but the players should still have the fire in their belly to continue to be successful, surely – shouldn’t Ranieri have been instilling the players with that same drive and hunger to push onwards?
In all honesty, this season has been truly unacceptable. The failure to build on last season and establish ourselves as a top half Premier League club has been disappointing for most fans but the fall from runaway Premier League champions to the shambles of this campaign is the most frustrating and infuriating aspect of the situation.
Watching Leicester week in week out this season has been, at times, unbearable. Defensively they have been abysmal, the centre of midfield looks weak, the wingers (especially Mahrez) have faded and the goals have dried up, too. This has, of course, led to poor results throughout the season right from the outset and a failure to even win a single game away from home in the league all season. But not only this, the performances have been so uninspiring that there seems to be no hope. I have heard many using the argument that they held onto Nigel Pearson two years ago so therefore they should have held onto Ranieri. But in the Great Escape season, the players looked genuinely up for it and despite losing games, were never totally outplayed and didn’t lose any matches by more than two goals. Compare that to the heavy defeats experienced against Liverpool, Chelsea (twice), Manchester United (twice) and Southampton, alongside the poor results at Hull, Watford, Sunderland, Bournemouth, Burnley and Swansea – it simply has not been good enough.
The only time it has been good enough, really, was against Manchester City (who played into Leicester’s hands, naively so) and in the Champions League. Even then though, their performances haven’t exactly sent shockwaves through the competition after topping what was, let’s be honest, a very weak group. The irony is that the second half in Seville was one of the best halves of the season from Ranieri’s men, and it turned out to be the last with Ranieri at the helm.
The current run of form, five defeats on the bounce in the league and no league goals in 2017, understandably got the alarm bells ringing for Vichai and Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha. The bells had rung for the owners at Hull, Crystal Palace and Swansea, who all acted to change their managers to varying degrees of success thus far, and on Thursday, or whenever the decision was made (one of the stranger aspects of the decision was indeed the timing of the announcement following what was a fantastic result against Sevilla but after poor defeats at Swansea and Milwall), time had run out for the 65-year-old.
In reality, and somehow trying to ignore last season, the primary goal of this season for Leicester City was to avoid relegation and retain their Premier League status. Obviously, they would have liked a strong league position, a decent cup run and a good Champions League campaign to make their one-off European adventure worthwhile, but survival was the priority. Unfortunately, whilst Ranieri remained in charge, that wasn’t guaranteed or indeed looking likely and the lack of change throughout the opening months of 2017 meant that the owners clearly felt a change in manager was needed to steer the club away from the danger zone. Naturally, only time will tell whether the owners’ decision was the right one, but for them and many fans, myself included, the chances of avoiding the drop have significantly improved following Thursday’s heart-breaking decision.
There has been some considerable anger vented towards the owners for the decision made to sack Claudio Ranieri, but they have had nothing but the best interests of the football club in mind throughout their seven years at the club. It was, moreover, not a decision that would have been made lightly but the owners clearly felt that to remain a Premier League club, with all the riches and rewards this brings, change was required. You cannot sack a squad of 25 players, pretty much all of whom have either significantly under-performed or haven’t been given a chance to perform and prove their worth, and it is therefore usually the manager who suffers.
For me, therefore, I was genuinely gutted and lost for words when I discovered that the absolute gentleman who masterminded my club’s greatest triumph had been sacked just nine months later, I may even have shed a tear for him. But unfortunately in 2017, football is very much a business, it’s a results business and those who don’t perform don’t last, however brutal that may be at times, that is the reality.
This season, the results have not come. I am not saying this is totally down to Ranieri at all – there are many people to blame, which without doubt includes the players and the recruitment team, but the manager is the one who orchestrates the ensemble, who leads, motivates and instructs his troops, readying them for battle. For the Roman, it appears that he did indeed lose the dressing room, however one may perceive that, and at the end of the day, in order to avoid the increasingly inevitable relegation, Ranieri had to go – and boy does it hurt to say it!
As a Leicester fan, I have the upmost respect for Claudio Ranieri but unfortunately, also as a fan, I want the best for the football club. This season, the best is to avoid relegation and the best chance of achieving this required a change in leadership, which the sacking of Ranieri delivered. As I said, we will only know if this was the correct call come the end of the season and we will never know whether the Foxes would have survived if Ranieri had stayed in charge. But for now, the focus is on the upcoming home games against Liverpool tomorrow night, Hull next weekend and Sevilla in the second leg, knowing a 1-0 victory would secure their passage to the quarter-finals!
And just like the relative who passes, when their time does come to an end, it is hard to let go and say goodbye but it is important to focus on their best times and memories rather than the last moments of struggle and suffering. The joys of winning the league were unique joys I for one had never experienced in sport before and am unlikely to ever experience again, and the laughter we endured through the priceless press conferences along the way was truly amazing. But as the disease of success seemingly plagued Leicester this season, the ill relative finally passes and whilst the pain is still raw, in the words of the great man, on Thursday sadly the “dream died.”
The class and elegance that Ranieri displayed throughout his time at Leicester will forever be appreciated by those associated with Leicester City Football Club and we will all be forever grateful for what he helped to achieve. As if his statement on Friday wasn’t gracious enough, it has been reported this afternoon that Ranieri has donated half of his £3m pay-off to the Foxes Foundation – what an unbelievably selfless gesture indeed from a totally humble and dignified man indeed.
Thank you, Claudio.