It felt like a brutal decision to sack Claudio Ranieri, cruel in so many ways and also desperately sad in the context of everything that the Italian achieved last season, yet in the end it came down to the simple fact that Leicester City’s owners no longer had faith in the 65-year-old’s ability to keep the English champions in the Premier League.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of that argument – and as things stand Leicester are sliding towards the Championship – the bit that makes so little sense to anyone, including people at the club, is the bizarre timing. Ranieri was given the club’s “unwavering support” 16 days ago and less than 24 hours earlier had overseen a 2-1 defeat in Sevilla that, with a crucial away goal scored, opened the door to the possibility of Leicester qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the chairman, and Aiyawatt, his son and vice-chairman, were at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán stadium and it is hard to escape the feeling that they must have known at the time that Ranieri, to borrow the unfortunate phrase that he became synonymous with during his final weeks as Chelsea manager in 2004, was in effect a dead man walking.
Jamie Vardy’s second-half goal changed the complexion of that Champions League tie in southern Spain yet never made a blind bit of difference when it came to Ranieri’s future.
Leicester arrived back at East Midlands airport from Seville the following afternoon, their players and staff heading home unaware that Ranieri was about to be told that he had been relieved of his duties. The first most of them knew was when the story broke on social media later that evening, swiftly followed by an official statement from Leicester at 8pm that confirmed the services of the most successful manager in their 133-year history were no longer required.
Jaws dropped across the country and beyond, with the reaction a mixture of disbelief and anger. Gary Lineker was probably speaking for many football fans – not just Leicester supporters – when he reflected on the miracle of last season and described the Thai owners’ decision to dismiss Ranieri as “inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad”.
One of the most curious aspects in this remarkable story is why Vichai and Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha chose to cut Ranieri loose on the basis of what had been happening in the Premier League, given that Leicester’s last match in the top flight was against Swansea 11 days earlier. Why wait for the Champions League anthem to play again before loading the gun?
What we now know for sure about the public vote of confidence that Leicester’s owners gave Ranieri just prior to the defeat at Swansea is exactly what many suspected at the time: it was issued purely with the intention of trying to engender a reaction from a group of under-performing players, rather than to give any genuine long-term backing to their manager.
By that stage it had already emerged that there was growing unrest behind the scenes among players as well as staff in relation to Ranieri’s management style. The Guardian reported that Ranieri had lost his grip on the dressing room, where players had become frustrated and bewildered by some of his tactical changes and selection decisions, and the manager also seemed increasingly distant from members of his backroom staff.
Yet any post-mortem into why things unravelled so spectacularly this season would also shine an unforgiving light on the players. The majority of the team that led Leicester to the Premier League title have been unrecognisable this season, with desperately poor individual displays compounded by the huge loss of N’Golo Kanté to Chelsea in the summer and some highly questionable recruitment decisions across the last couple of transfer windows. Throw all that together and it starts to appear a perfect storm, with plenty of fingerprints on the crime scene.
Results, from a domestic point of view, have been awful. Leicester are the first reigning champions since 1956 to lose five successive top-flight matches and they have gone more than 10 hours without scoring a Premier League goal. The Midlands club are only one place and one point above the relegation zone and by the time they kick-off at home against Liverpool on Monday night, when Craig Shakespeare, Ranieri’s former No2, will take charge of the team, Leicester could well be in the bottom three.
The key question is whether Ranieri, as a result of the incredible success that he enjoyed last season, deserved to be given the opportunity to try to turn things round across the final 13 league games as well as to see their Champions League journey through to the end. For many people the answer to that question will be yes and, with that in mind, there will not be much sympathy for Leicester if they end up getting relegated.
Jon Rudkin, Leicester’s director of football, has the job of finding the experienced manager who will prevent that from happening and it is difficult to believe the club would have sacked Ranieri without having held some encouraging exploratory conversations on that front, with the owners absolutely hell-bent on staying up.
Either way nothing will tarnish Ranieri’s lasting legacy at Leicester. He leaves them 90 minutes from a place in the last eight of the Champions League and will always have a permanent place in the hearts of their supporters after pulling off a title-winning success that arguably goes down as the greatest story in the history of English football. It is a football fairytale that will be told again and again.
The Guardian Sport