There has been a lot of things written and a lot of things said about Claudio Ranieri since his sacking from Leicester. There has been nuanced opinion discussing the role of player power, of the changing nature of modern management and the role that nostalgia and gratitude should play in modern football, after all Ranieri pulled off one of the greatest achievements in modern sport.
There has also been a great deal of grandstanding and shallow analysis which has failed to look at Leicester specifically as a club in terms of its recent history and its culture that many fans such as myself would argue is highly important when considering the end of Ranieri’s tenure. Robbie Savage called it an ‘absolute disgrace’, Jamie Carragher said that the players should ‘hang their heads in shame.’ The owners have been called ‘snakes’ and slammed for buying wine on the same day the sacking was announced (oh the horror!).
A perspective, however, that I think has been missing is both a contextual one and one that comes from the fans. There has been only cursory analysis of the fan’s relationship with the owners and players as well as very little mention of what came before Ranieri took over which is absolutely key if you want to understand why the owners came to their decision.
The title win has been called a fluke, a one-off, a miracle which of course to an extent it was, Leicester’s owners never thought they would win the league, they never thought they would be that far up the table that quickly, however, they did have a long-term plan in place to gradually build a solid Premier League team who could eventually challenge for the European places. A long-term structure had been put in place with a strong scouting department, a superb sports science program and investment in off the pitch facilities. A lot of this was constructed by three people Steve Walsh, Craig Shakespeare and Nigel Pearson.
Now a lot of people see Nigel Pearson as a classic ‘football man’ an authoritarian figure who would be aggressive and snarling to the media and many felt that would extend to that dressing room. However this is not really the case, as the excellent Jonathan Northcroft notes he gave a great deal of autonomy to the players to raise concerns and issues, as well as giving the same to his staff, he built very tight bonds at the club and gave it the ‘family’ style feel that many were praising as key to Leicester’s success.
I was very lucky to meet Mark Schwarzer on the train back down from Liverpool to London after we had drawn 2-2 with Everton in February of 2015 and he was very complimentary about the atmosphere Pearson had created.
When Ranieri came in after Pearson’s sacking in the summer of 2015, he apparently saw that this structure that had already been put in place and part of his genius was to take a step back and decide that only minor tweaks were needed as this collegiate style and ‘family atmosphere’ was clearly working well. He worked closely with Steve Walsh and signed a player he was apparently unsure about based on Walsh’s strong recommendations, N’Golo Kante, who went on to be perhaps Leicester’s greatest ever signing (Adi Akinbyi notwithstanding).
Ranieri, of course, changed some things, moving to a 4-4-2 and after a rocky start, he managed to straighten out the defence. He also instilled a calmness, which managed to carry the team throughout difficult periods during the season. Jonathon Northcroft, in his brilliant book Fearless, highlights when Ranieri promised to the let the players go on holiday if they beat Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal. They managed to win the first two but lost in devastating circumstances at the Emirates to a late Danny Welbeck goal. Where many managers might have dragged players back to the training ground Ranieri let the players go on their holiday, he trusted they wouldn’t indulge and would return fired up which they did.
In short, Ranieri was the perfect manager at this specific time; he managed to supercharge the structure. However, there were so many factors beyond just Ranieri in the title bid and I feel this has been forgotten, the structure put in place, the support staff, the long-term planning and of course the owners.
The owners have put huge amounts of money into the club and into the local community and are loved by the fans. They have been at the club for seven years now, which has seen the Foxes become financially stable and of course win the Championship and the Premier League. Fans adore them not only because of this but because they clearly think about the fans giving out free t-shirts and vouchers to travelling fans along with doughnuts and beers at home games.
These things have been missed in all the squealing and shouting from the pundits, whose analysis has basically been ‘Ranieri won the title and the owners and players are a disgrace for not backing him’. The issue, as the fans see it, was that a lot of this hard work, this seven years of planning and bonding was in danger of being broken up by relegation.
According to reports by Northcroft and the Telegraph’s Midlands correspondent John Percy the collegiate style of management was slipping, Ranieri was becoming more authoritarian and drifting apart from support staff.
There were apparently rows over studs and players off the pitch behaviour. Steve Walsh went to Everton, according to some players Ranieri didn’t fight hard enough to keep him, and the psychologist was sacked as according to Ranieri, “In life, you need to be strong. Psychologists? No”.
Tactics were changed moments before matches, training was conducted at odd times and Ranieri was known to leave the training ground early, which rubbed the players up the wrong way.
Now, many might think this is not enough to justify sacking a manager who gave so much joy to the club and who made the players reach a level they never thought they would. Some think a club like Leicester should accept their fate of relegation, as the Championship is arguably the side’s natural level but this is not what the owners believe.
The Premier League and the structure they have built is so key and so important to their long-term financial and footballing vision that it must be kept. Leicester fans, while upset, will back the owners because of what they have done for the club. The key thing now, as we see it, is to make sure we have a manager who can work within our structure.
This context is key to understanding Leicester, its fans, its players and especially the decisions made by the owners, this I feel, has been severely lacking in recent analysis and I hope by shedding some light on this fans of other clubs might begin to understand Leicester a little better.