Player power strikes again as Ranieri unseated at Leicester
For many, Claudio Ranieri deserved a job for life at Leicester.
What he achieved last season, turning a bunch of mostly journeymen and cast-offs into Premier League champions , was the stuff of dreams and comic books. Ranieri had made the impossible possible, bringing a touch of romanticism back to a sport that has become a cold, hard, money-driven industry in so many ways.
It meant that there was an outpouring of dismay and incredulity when Ranieri’s firing was announced on Thursday evening. He was informed of his departure by Leicester’s board immediately after his return to England after the Champions League match at Sevilla, where Leicester lost 2-1 on Wednesday.
“Yesterday, my dream died,” the 65-year-old Italian said Friday, in his first words since his departure.
The general opinion was that he deserved so much better.
“Unforgivable,” tweeted Gary Lineker, the former Leicester and England striker.
“Ungrateful English,” read the headline on the front page of Friday’s edition of Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy, Ranieri’s native country.
Look deeper, though, and there was a sense of inevitability about the ruthless decision made by Leicester’s Thai owners. Ranieri is simply the latest manager to be toppled by player power.
In short, his players had stopped playing for him. Only last weekend, Ranieri accused his team of lacking “heart and desire” in a 1-0 loss to third-tier club Millwall in the FA Cup. The virtues that carried them to the most unlikely title triumph in the history of English soccer — notably team spirit, organization and hard work — had vanished.
On Friday, sections of the British media reported that senior players told Leicester’s owners in a meeting after the Sevilla game that things were not working with Ranieri.
Ranieri was a hostage to his apathetic players and the team was heading, embarrassingly, to relegation.
“There was a lot of frustration because of results,” said Leicester assistant manager Craig Shakespeare, who has been placed in temporary charge of the team, “but he hadn’t lost the dressing room.”
Player power isn’t a new phenomenon in the Premier League.
In December 2015, Jose Mourinho was fired by Chelsea seven months after guiding the London team to the Premier League title. Like Leicester now, Chelsea was one point above the relegation zone at the time. Days before he was fired, Mourinho said after a 2-1 loss at Leicester that he felt his work was “betrayed” by his players. The conflict between manager and team was obvious — only a handful of players played to their potential that season — and Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo spoke of a “palpable discord” in the camp.
In May 2013, Roberto Mancini was fired by Manchester City, less than a year after winning the Premier League. Three days earlier, City’s players had performed way below their usual level in losing the FA Cup final 1-0 to relegation-threatened Wigan and there were reports of dressing-room discord throughout that season, in which City finished second in the league.
If change is necessary amid friction at a club, there is only one route the board will take. In this era of player power, the manager will always take the hit rather than a group of players — in this case, players who seemingly have allowed their new-found status to get to their heads.
“It’s not right that the players decide if the manager must be sacked or not,” Chelsea manager Antonio Conte said Friday. “If this happen, it means the club is poor, without power. I don’t believe this. I don’t trust this. I don’t want to listen to these types of stories because it’s frustrating for a manager to imagine that the players can decide your destiny.”
“CHAMPION OF ENGLAND and FIFA MANAGER of THE YEAR. Sacked,” read a post on Mourinho’s Instagram account late Thursday. “That’s the new football Claudio. Keep smiling.”
At a news conference Friday ahead of the League Cup final against Southampton on Sunday, Mourinho — now Manchester United’s manager — wore the initials “CR” on his United T-shirt, saying it was a “homage to somebody that wrote the most beautiful history of the Premier League.”
“I thought last season, when I was sacked as a champion, it was a giant negative thing,” Mourinho said. “Now I understand it was peanuts compared with what happened to Claudio.”
Ranieri’s departure leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Many argue that despite Leicester being in freefall — the team has lost its last five Premier League games without scoring and could be in the relegation zone by the time it plays its next game Monday — he deserved a chance to get the champions out of danger in the final 13 games. And then, if Leicester did end up getting relegated, the chance to bring the team back up.
After all, Leicester has simply regressed to its normal level this season: Battling relegation. This is a team that was in the third tier of English soccer as recently as 2009 and only got promoted to the Premier League in 2014.
Leicester’s owners thought otherwise, and took any feelings of sentiment out of the equation. The financial implications of dropping out of the Premier League are so huge that they believed they needed to act immediately. Hull and Swansea have changed managers since the turn of the year and have had an upturn in results.
Leicester’s players apparently turning against Ranieri may just have been the tipping point.
Years from now, people will remember the fact that Leicester won the Premier League at odds of 5,000-1 in the most outlandish underdog story possibly ever seen in sports. The fact that the manager who masterminded the feat was fired the following season will be a footnote.
“You took me into your hearts from day one and loved me. I love you too,” Ranieri said in a message to Leicester’s fans. “No one can ever take away what we together have achieved, and I hope you think about it and smile every day the way I always will.”
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80