I remember celebrating quite loudly when Danny Welbeck turned in a header to the far post in the 96th minute to win the match for Arsenal against Leicester City. No one in their right minds would have imagined that match being decisive for the title race, but it made me realise that there was something special brewing at Leicester under Claudio Ranieri. He got them playing with a simply incredible team spirit, an attitude of ‘I’m not letting you win because I’m better than you’ was present week-in-week-out and ultimately resulted in the greatest fairytale ending to a season for a side that was tipped to barely survive relegation. For many then, it beggars belief that Ranieri is out of a job after being sacked by Leicester a mere nine months after defying every script imaginable. But despite the seemingly obvious decline, I struggle to see it as a surprise. If anything, it should be expected and that is what the problem is. It has become the norm for success to be an expectation for even the lesser teams than a dream.
The football ‘brand’ has exploded over the last decade. Previously, it was only common for the elite teams to play pre-season friendlies in exotic locations such as Australia, the USA and the Far East. To an extent that is understandable, as the most popular teams globally are going to be the elite clubs that compete for the highest honours annually. After all, how many people in China do you think support Burnley? I wouldn’t bet on that number being very high, but that didn’t stop Leicester from trying to capitalise on their unlikely glory. For their pre-season preparations, it involved games versus Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona, a gargantuan difference to their previous season’s friendlies against the likes of Burton Albion and Rotherham United. Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha (Yes, I had to Google the name!) bought the club for £39 million, but the club is now worth an estimated £450 million thanks to the title win and the insane amounts of investments being pumped into the Premier League. Expectations had changed at Leicester, that brand needed to be continued at any cost if they were to emerge a global brand for the long-term future, regardless of the title win.
But let’s be honest, how many of us expected Leicester to do the impossible (If we can even use that word anymore) and retain their title? How many expected Champions League qualification? Heck, how many expected a top-half finish? I have no doubt that the owners of Leicester wanted to carry on from where they left off and build ‘brand’ Leicester, but I do find their decisions confusing to say the least not just with the sacking of Ranieri but also with regards to the club structure. Clearly, Steve Walsh leaving to become Director of Football at Everton had a much bigger effect on transfer policy than many imagined, and this was shown with their frankly lacklustre signings. Even in the January window, their activity was in my eyes disappointing, especially when considering there is a very realistic chance they could be relegated from the league come the end of the season.
Am I surprised that Ranieri got the sack? Honestly, part of me isn’t surprised at all. There has been speculation of some players going to the owners to complain about Ranieri’s management of late, although I find this hard to believe. Results haven’t gone well this season compared to the marvels of last season, however wasn’t this to be expected? Leicester have still defied certain people’s expectations this season and are still in the Champions League. For Ranieri to get fired in the middle of a Last 16 tie against Sevilla when they have every chance of progressing proves the handling of the situation by the owners is nothing short of a mess. But football in this country has changed. You’re not going to get any Wenger-esque managers who stay for 10+ years, if anything these days you’d be lucky to get 3 years out of a Premier League manager. It’s a money-churning business from the elite few trying to expand their global reach to the small clubs simply trying to get by with what they have, even more so for the Premier League clubs who have the greatest of riches to compete for. As we’ve seen from Ranieri’s sacking, it shows that any impossible task doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t capitalise on your success and keep that brand from growing when you’re at the top of the tree.
I feel genuinely sorry for Claudio Ranieri in this situation. In the times when he could’ve got carried away at the success last season, he remained graciously grounded in respect of not just the team’s trying to chase Leicester, but also to ensure his team wouldn’t take their achievements for granted. We also had a number of personal highlights from Ranieri last season from his famous ‘dilly-ding-dilly-dong’ press conference to also joking he would ‘kill’ then-Watford manager Quique Flores for replacing him at Valencia! One highlight that made me admire Ranieri more than anything else was his mannerisms, shaking the hands of every member of the press in the conferences as if to say ‘Thank you for sharing this moment’. Even though I so desperately wanted Arsenal to end their own title-drought last season, I am proud to say I witnessed the Leicester fairytale orchestrated by Claudio Ranieri. From all football fans, I say thank you Claudio. You made us believe that if you follow your dreams and play with your heart on your sleeve, any odd can be defied.