Shad Khan’s overly bold words always seemed like they could come back to bite him.
In welcoming Claudio Ranieri as Fulham manager in November, Khan — the American billionaire owner of the English soccer club — said it was a “risk-free” decision to bring in the 67-year-old Italian.
Ranieri, after all, had led little Leicester to the Premier League title two years earlier in one of the most improbable accomplishments in soccer history. Surely saving Fulham from relegation was not beyond someone Khan labeled an “extraordinary football man.”
Three months later, there’s a chance Ranieri won’t even see out the remainder of the season.
Chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing” rang out from Fulham’s away supporters as Ranieri made second-half substitutions during the team’s 2-0 loss at Southampton on Wednesday. Later, a banner was unfurled that read: “Risk free? Are you watching Tony Khan?” He is the son of Shad Khan, and the club’s vice chairman and director of football operations.
When Ranieri took charge, Fulham was in last place and had five points from 12 matches. The team is now in next-to-last place and 10 points from safety with 10 games left. Having lost its last four league games, Fulham looks in no shape to arrest its slide and is likely to be back in the second-tier League Championship after only one season.
It all started so well for Ranieri, who won his first game — 3-2 at home against Southampton — and immediately charmed the Fulham fan base with his smile and positivity.
His calls for togetherness were embraced and there were early signs that Ranieri could get the most out of striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored two goals in that Southampton game, including the winner.
But Fulham has only won two of its 16 games since, and was embarrassingly eliminated from the FA Cup by third-tier club Oldham at home. The Oldham team had recently come off a 6-0 loss and was being managed by an interim coach.
In 16 Premier League games under Ranieri, Fulham has earned 12 points and conceded an average of two goals a game — not much fewer than the team was letting in under Ranieri’s predecessor, Slavisa Jokanovic. With 63 goals conceded in total, Fulham has by far the worst defensive record in the top flight.
Ranieri was planning to speak to Shad Khan on Thursday but said he would continue to fight for another Premier League miracle.
“Something could happen,” he said. “You have to believe. You have to fight. If you don’t fight, already you’ve lost.”
Fulham’s fans appear to have lost faith, though. They have become disillusioned by the perceived under-use of midfielders Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon, while the defense remains too easy for opponents to pierce, no matter how many times Ranieri changes his back four and defensive midfielders.
Fulham has conceded at least twice in each of its last eight games, seven of which have been losses.
The upcoming schedule makes grim reading for Ranieri, too. Next up is the visit of southwest London rival Chelsea on Sunday, and its three games after that are against Leicester — under a new manager in Brendan Rodgers — then first-place Liverpool and second-place Manchester City.
Getting fired by Fulham, the 14th club of his 31-year managerial career, would possibly signal the end of Ranieri’s time in English soccer.
He will always be remembered as the man who delivered a fairytale at Leicester and gave teams hope that just about anything is possible.
It just doesn’t seem like he can possibly save Fulham from relegation this time.
More AP English soccer: https://apnews.com/PremierLeague and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80