It goes without saying Leicester City FC’s 2016 Premier League title win was a story for the ages.
Nobody remotely expected it. Not even the most die-hard “Foxes” fan was dreaming about it. Well perhaps they dreamt about it, but only in the way that a Metallica fan might dream of going back in time and making sure Lars Ulrich drew the short straw for the comfy bunk.
How it happened is still a topic of conversation. For me, it was a perfect storm of circumstances.
First off, all the big guns, whether they be the traditional names or the nouveaux riche, underachieved to a point.
In the case of Man United, life after Alex Ferguson continued to stutter and stall.
In the case of Chelsea, Mourinho faced a proverbial mutiny.
Manchester City alternated between false dawns and false starts.
Arsenal and Liverpool endured their usual woes, with the former once more looking great as long as they weren’t within sniffing distance of pole position. As soon as they were, they got their habitual nosebleed-inducing vertigo and climbed down to a more comfortable position.
Secondly, Leicester were riding the crest of a wave of form. One game at a time, there was a resilience and determination to add another win or point to the increasingly surprising tally. Nothing could have bolstered the confidence and sheer bloody-mindedness of the players and management more than the almost equally as stubborn expectation from all-and-sundry (myself included) that Leicester’s inevitable collapse was just around the corner.
Thirdly, that very lack of expectation led so many clubs to look past the team and its form, especially in the first half of the season. As much as Jamie Vardy kept scoring and the nerve-center of Ryad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante and Wes Morgan bolstered the performances, everyone still looked to that early 5-2 drubbing by Arsenal as their true measure.
Whatever factors were in place, credit as always, goes to the manager. I’ve seen enough teams look stellar under one head coach and abysmal under another to understand that no one person is more vital to results. Claudio Ranieri was the man behind the miracle. A solid tactician with experience all over the globe, the Italian was able to tap into the situation and make sure his club stayed the course.
He made the unthinkable happen and will forever be etched in Leicester City and English Football history as a result.
Whether you fell in the camp of seeing the achievement as a beacon of hope that smaller clubs could overhall the elite after all, or merely as an exception that proved the rule, I don’t believe I’ve heard from anybody who doesn’t support Tottenham, who wasn’t happy for the underdogs.
Given that Leicester’s expectations are perpetually to battle relegation, you’d have thought that nobody in football deserved faith and benefit of doubt than Ranieri.
Yet this weekend, (*cuts and pastes the name of Leicester City’s Chairman*) Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha apparently felt otherwise.
In fact, reports surfaced on Saturday that Vichai had actually been jovially bragging about the impending sacking of Ranieri, as he spent £500k in a wine shop. Not only was the man about to perform one of the harshest and most ungrateful acts in British football history, he seemed to be relishing the prospect.
The actual statement released by the club, was of course far more diplomatic and regretful in tone, but even without the reported crass lack of discretion, Srivaddhanaprabha effectively poured gasoline over and aimed a flamethrower at what remaining goodwill was left for the team.
The fact of the matter is, there was always this danger, from the moment Ranieri and Morgan hoisted the Premier League trophy.
At that point, Leicester City went from being an underdog that was almost callously dismissed by opponents throughout their title race, to being Champions and accordingly, the team to beat. Opponents home and away, would now be seeking their scalp. The same tenacity that pushed them to that historic victory would now be exhibited by most of the clubs they played.
I recall a former colleague lamenting on the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks and their own fall-from-grace after winning the Stanley Cup. An avid follower of that team, he explained their woes succinctly:
“They’re forgetting what won them the title. It wasn’t that they were the most talented team, it’s that they wanted it more.”
I saw signs of that with Leicester earlier in the season. The players went out with a lot more swagger. Jamie Vardy’s agreement for a movie called “Fearless” to be made about his rise and career, now looks like a summation of that attitude. By any measure, 2015-16 was his breakout season, not the end of his career. Surely there may be more chapters to this story? What if against all odds, he leads Leicester to a European Cup? Scores the winner for England in the World Cup?
While I’m sure the movie wasn’t his idea, his form this season and the play of his teammates, certainly smacks of feeling like their job is done and the appetite for glory has been sated.
Looking back at the decisions of Mahrez and Vardy not to take offers from bigger clubs, my cynical side now questions if in fact these decisions were made out of loyalty after all, or simply because they both found more comfort in the idea being big fish in a small pond.
N’Golo Kante – the loss of whom is also pivotal and the other edge of the sword when a smaller outfit does achieve success – moved on to Chelsea and is showing markedly more hunger.
Now with that said, Ranieri needs to take the criticism for the dip, much as he did the glory for the success. The problem is, they’ve only truly dipped back to their norm.
This points to the modern dynamic where managers are often made to pay for the shortfalls of their players. Given what Ranieri has achieved and what he means to the club, I’d suggest that the better option would have been to back him with new signings. Instead of seeing it as the manager losing the players, cash-in on the key players who are no longer responding to the manager.
I firmly believe that they will have an easier job replacing a couple of guys who had a purple patch of form, than Ranieri. Let’s face it: if winning a title doesn’t get you leeway with the board, nothing will. No manager is going to surpass Claudio’s achievement, therefore what comparable candidate is going to have much interest in succeeding him?
If the wine shop anecdote is accurate, then there’s a hint of ego about this decision but without doubt, the driving force is money, desperation and a need to be seen to be “doing something”.
Playing in the Premier League is worth tens of millions. Vichai and King Power might also find themselves in awkward company, given that some of their nPower Championship contemporaries were eyeing the funding of their most recent promotion with suspicion.
More to the point though, I have to feel that Srivaddhanaprabha is hoping to achieve one or both of the following with this move:
- The change will trigger the short-term response that sackings sometimes have of sparking a fresh run of form, and that this will earn enough points to stop the drop.
- It’s a bid by upper management to absolve themselves of blame and pass-the-buck, by both pointing the finger at Ranieri and allowing themselves to claim that they’ve taken action.
In the first case, it’s a gamble and even if it succeeds, you can’t be sure that Ranieri wouldn’t have achieved the same. Worst of all is that it’s a short term solution that might hurt in the long run.
In the second, it’s cheap and shallow PR that I don’t see many people buying.
To my mind, there is no real excuse for sacking Ranieri without giving him the season. Even if this change does produce a kick up the backside that keeps the club up, I return to my earlier point that they won’t ever attract another Ranieri very easily. There’s also no guarantee that any upturn in form is a result of the change or something that the former manager couldn’t have achieved.
There’d be more of an argument to sacking him in the result of relegation but even then, I’d lean more towards keeping the guy and giving him the backing to recover and rebuild. If the rot still didn’t stop, then there would be absolutely no controversy in sacking him.
In choosing this path, I personally have no real interest in seeing Leicester City survive. They’re now a club that achieved the football fairy tale and then sacked the man who commandeered it for the club returning to type, as dictated by their revenues and resources. The players that helped him achieve it, now lose the look of lovable underdogs and now look like guys who rode their form to some juicy contract extensions who decided they’d had their zenith and could now rest on their laurels.
Meanwhile, I wish Leicester’s fans no ill will and for their sake, I wish them luck for the rest of the season. It looks like they’ll need it.
More importantly though, I wish Claudio Ranieri luck and commend him for being the man behind one of the greatest stories that English football has ever seen.