By William ‘Bantu’ Irubor
In July of 2015 Claudio Ranieri was enjoying a break in Italy when he received a phone call from Steve Kutner, his agent, that would end up changing the face of English football in a way no one could have imagined. Kutner had been attempting to convince Jon Rudkin, Leicester City’s director of football, that Ranieri was worth considering as the Premier League club’s new manager and finally there was news of a breakthrough.
Ranieri was out of work at the time but keen to return to management, in particular in England, where he had fond memories from his time in charge of Chelsea and still owned a property in London going back to those days at Stamford Bridge more than a decade earlier. Several Championship clubs had been sounded out without success when Nigel Pearson’s sacking at Leicester presented Kutner and Ranieri with a window of opportunity.
Kutner sensed that Leicester were sceptical about Ranieri, yet he refused to be discouraged. He submitted Ranieri’s CV, listing the distinguished clubs the 64-year-old had managed, together with his record – a Copa del Rey and Super Cup winner with Valencia, Coppa Italia winner at Fiorentina, plus second-place finishes in the Premier League, Ligue 1 and twice in Serie A – and kept chipping away. Kutner just wanted to get Claudio in front of the board at Leicester, his gut feeling must have told him Claudio would definitely impress the board.
Claudio Ranieri must have definitely impressed the Board of directors and owners at Leicester City, because on a sunny afternoon in mid july, after 3 subsequent meetings and interviews with Leicester City, Ranieri was unveiled a the KING POWER stadium as the club’s new coach.
Leicester’s success under Ranieri will go down as one of the greatest achievements in sports. The truth is that even those on the inside at Leicester shake their heads in disbelief, half-expecting to rub their eyes one morning and realise it was all a dream. Nobody at Leicester would dare to claim that they saw this coming, yet that is not to say that they struggle to come up with reasons why everything has spectacularly fallen into place, chief among them being the exhilarating mix of team spirit and talent within a group of players who possess a rare commodity in a game awash with money: hunger.
An obvious place for the fairytale to start is at the end of the 2014/2015 season, before Ranieri took over and when Pearson and his players pulled off the “great escape”, winning seven of their last nine matches to haul themselves off the bottom of the table and up to 14th place. Described as a “miracle” by Ranieri on the day he was presented to the media, that turnaround hinted at the potential (comfortable mid-table) in a team that Pearson had strengthened by the time he was sacked on 30 June.
“I have forgotten 2016 now,” Ranieri said. Everything else is the past. Only the future is important now and I hope my players think the same.”
Ranieri may be a man on his own within the King Power Stadium, however. Despite his insistence that the past is the past, those newspaper headlines which scream across the press room — “Fantasy Football”,”Campioni”, “Leicester Fiesta” — hark back to the glorious first six months of 2016 when Leicester stunned the world by claiming the club’s first-ever league title, 132 years after their formation in 1884.
Those first six months were overshadowed by the final six, though, as the champions slide deep into the relegation battle and currently lie in 15th position, just five points above the trap-door.
“We made the first six months unbelievable for the right way,” Ranieri said. “But the other six months? Well, they have been unbelievable the other way.”
Even Ranieri’s news conferences have slipped down the pecking order. During the run-in, Ranieri’s superstition of shaking the hand of every journalist in the room before he spoke could take as long as 10 minutes, but on Thursday he was done within 60 seconds, with only a handful of reporters choosing to attend.
Yet with his team in relegation danger, Ranieri appears focused and determined. His players may have lost their sparkle, most notably key figures from last season such as Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, but Ranieri is ready to lead the fight to safety.
“When all goes right, everything is good enough,” he said. “But I want to see the strong man. In this situation, it is important to manage. When everything is right, there is a kind of psychology. When everything is wrong, my job is to support my players — to make sure they react and show they are strong.
When asked his priorities, Ranieri was blunt — “Players,” he said.
“Yes, we are unhappy,” he said. “Nobody is happy — the chairman, me, the sporting director, the players. We have to react and as soon as possible. We stay together. We have a strong dressing room and we need to show these good things on the pitch.
“We have to react and concentrate and fight. When we concentrate, we can show a fantastic performance.”
“The players are not a machine, you don’t put in a coin and they start to work,” he said. “It is important to realise when you rest and when you start the machine.
“But if we are fearless, it means we are the foxes and foxes are fearless. We know very well we are in a battle with a lot of teams, but we are ready to battle.”
The Foxes beat the odds to take the Premier League title in 2015-16, but now find themselves perched just five points above the relegation zone
Claudio Ranieri admits the 2016-17 campaign has offered a reality check to Leicester City on the back of their fairytale run to the Premier League title last season.
In the words of their manager, the Foxes lived out a sporting “fantasy” last term, as a “crazy season” swept them to the top of the table.
The 5,000/1 outsiders not only beat the bookies, but also English football’s superpowers as they claimed a spectacular crown.
Leicester match unwanted record
Those at the King Power Stadium have been brought back down to earth with a bump this time around, though, with there just five points separating the defending champions from the top-flight drop zone.
Ranieri has been around long enough to know that highs and lows are all part of the game and insists that his focus has never changed throughout a remarkable rollercoaster of emotions.
He told Laureus after seeing Leicester nominated for a prestigious World Breakthrough of the Year award: “Last season was amazing, but it was a crazy season.
“This season, we knew the established top teams would come back strongly and ready to fight for the title again and it would be difficult for us. So we set our target at 40 points, just as we did last season, to make sure the team is safe in the Premier League. That has always been the most important target for us this season.
“Last season was a fantasy season. This season is the reality.”
Part of that reality for the Foxes has been a first foray into the Champions League, with impressive progress made to the last-16 stage – although Ranieri is again taking things one step at a time and refusing to get away by their continental exploits.
He added: “This is Leicester’s first season in the Champions League, so our focus was on trying to win some games and, if it’s possible, to continue our European adventure – either in the Europa League or the Champions League.
“We managed to win our group, which was a fantastic effort from everybody and now we have a tough tie against Sevilla in the Last 16. When it comes to the Champions League, I cannot think any further ahead than that.”
On the back of their title-winning success, leading figures at Leicester have collected some major individual honours.
Riyad Mahrez scooped the PFA Player of the Year prize, while Ranieri was named Premier League Manager of the Year, BBC Coach of the Year at the Sports Personality awards and Best Football Coach at the recent FIFA gala.
It could be that another trophy will soon be winging its way to the King Power Stadium, with the Foxes honoured to have seen their achievements recognised by Laureus.
Ranieri said: “The respect that comes with a Laureus Award is very special. You only have to look at the big champions that have won Laureus Awards in the past to know how important they are.
“To many people around the world, Leicester City was an unknown team before 2016. To be nominated for a Laureus Award introduces the club to the whole world.”
Claudio Ranieri led 5,000-1 outsiders Leicester City on a fairytale run to the English Premier title last season. For that incredible achievement the Leicester City team has now been nominated for the Laureus World Breakthrough of the Year Award. The Laureus Foundation, which aims to improve people’s lives through sport, will present its annual World Sports Awards on 14 February 2017 in Monaco.
With Chelsea in the for of their lives, and Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool not giving up on the title chase, it is safe to say Leicester City’s hope of reclaiming their title stands at a 5,000/1 odd, hoping they don’t slip further down into the relegation zone, which would make their fairytale story go from fantasy to actuality.