If this were an ordinary sacking, you could cover it from the familiar vantage points. Did Claudio Ranieri deserve to get the boot? Who will replace him? Can Leicester City stay up? Did the owners handle it properly?
We’ve had some of it so far. Just ask Jose Mourinho or Louis van Gaal: as so often happens, Ranieri’s mistakes were readily aired by those glad to see him gone. In this case, he apparently “confused” and “angered” players with inexplicable “tactical changes” — you would have thought that changing tactics when you’re sliding down the table might make sense, but whatever … — and that he failed to lift a mood in the dressing room that was “totally flat.” (Given the results, you would have thought it would be jolly.)
In fact, reading Friday’s reports you’d almost get the impression that only the players wanted him gone and not, say, the backroom staff he inherited from his predecessor, Nigel Pearson.
The usual carousel of names have since been mentioned as possible successors, from Roy Hodgson to Guus Hiddink to Harry Redknapp to Roberto Mancini (mainly, it seems on the strength of the fact that he played four games for the club 16 years ago, is unemployed and would like to return to the Premier League). Plus, of course, Pearson himself: imagine that! In the meantime, they’ve promoted Craig Shakespeare, the assistant who will be in charge when they face Leicester on Monday — and a Pearson loyalist.
Will they stay up? Well, they’re not currently in the relegation zone and are probably more talented than the the three teams below them. Then again, they’re probably more talented than all but 10 of the teams above them, and clearly that wasn’t much help thus far.
As for how the owners handled it, it’s pretty simple: they handled it badly. A month ago, they told Ranieri privately that his job was safe. Just 16 days ago, they reiterated in public that he had their “unwavering support.” On Thursday, director of football Jon Rudkin told him at the training ground, offering only a cursory explanation. By the time the meeting was finished, the players were all gone, which meant there was no opportunity to say goodbye. He only got to speak to the owners later. Real classy.
But beyond the basic human decency of breakup etiquette, it was also handled badly from a timing perspective. The club released a statement in which vice chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha reiterated that Leicester’s “first and only target” was Premier League “survival.”
If that was the case, and they thought “survival” is in jeopardy (which it is is), why not sack him after his last Premier League outing, the horrid 2-0 defeat to Swansea? Leicester haven’t played a Premier League game since; it’s not as if the situation vis-à-vis their “first and only target” got any worse in the last 11 days.
It’s true that they also lost in the FA Cup and Champions League in the interim, but those results don’t count towards the club’s “first and only target.” Leicester say the recruitment process has now begun: wouldn’t it have made more sense for it to have begun 11 days ago so that his replacement could have a little more time to settle in?
All of that, however, applies to “ordinary” sackings. This is not an ordinary story. This is the tale of the manager and the club who pulled off the single greatest upset in the history of organized sports. And that’s what is generating the visceral reactions. Jamie Carragher called it “an absolute joke.” Gary Lineker said it was “inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad.” Michael Owen, showing a hitherto unknown flair for the dramatic, told us he “lost a lot of love for the beautiful game.”
The obvious point is that after achieving the near impossible in winning the Premier League last year, Leicester looked on their way back to being what they’ve been for most of their recent history: a yo-yo club, pogoing between the top flight and the second tier.
Under Ranieri, Leicester were 17th, with 21 points from 25 games. He got the boot. Two years ago, with Pearson, they were 20th after 25 games with just 17 points. He got to stick around despite his odd behaviour: grabbing opposing players by the throat during games, swearing at fans and, of course, calling someone an ostrich and then boasting that he was “flexible enough” to put his head “in the sand.” He got to stay and, of course, complete a great escape.
The difference is that Ranieri won the title and Leicester spent heavily in the summer. (By their standards, at least: their net spend was the 10th highest in the league.) That raised the bar. The Srivaddhanaprabhas expected a tranquil mid-table or Europa League-caliber campaign. The fans expected a soft landing from the dizzying heights the year before. Neutrals wanted the fairy tale to continue as long as it didn’t get in the way of their own club’s results.
Instead, we get a relegation dogfight and a team that didn’t feel up for it.
Indeed, many will blame the players. With the possible exceptions of Islam Slimani on those occasions when he was fit and Wilfred Ndidi (who has played all of five games since arriving in January), the new arrivals have been underwhelming. And the holdovers have largely regressed, particularly Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. This time last year, the pair had 31 goals; now, they have eight.
Ranieri knew this was bound to happen. Two seasons ago, Vardy was making his debut in the Premier League and was six years removed from playing amateur football and stocking shelves at night. In June, his “people” (needless to say he didn’t have “people” before) were meeting a Hollywood producer intent on making a biopic of his life. Ranieri knew that other than Mahrez and, possibly, Gray, his players had peaked and would likely never hit the heights they did in 2015-16. Still, he had faith. And to this day he believes the players were with him and would have avoided the drop.
Yeah, the drop. Because that’s what it’s all about, right? That’s when all the managerial sacking clichés get trotted out, mainly the one about it being a “results business” and where sage-looking number crunchers tell us how disastrous the drop is.
If you really want to go there, it’s more than a “results business.” It’s an emotion and an addiction and, as we saw last season, sometimes a fairy tale too. But strictly from the perspective of the Srivaddhanprabhas and their bean counters, it’s a brand-building business as well. And the fact of the matter is that Leicester didn’t just win the Premier League last season; they won hearts, minds and goodwill. Other than Tottenham fans, it’s no exaggeration to say that just about an entire nation — if not planet, at least among the football-aware — willed them on. That, incidentally, is something that can be monetized and was monetized.
But no more. Now the spell is broken. And for what: because of the “calamity” of relegation?
Newsflash. Since 2011, six relegated clubs have come straight back up. Newcastle are almost certain to do it this season. And most of the ones who haven’t (Blackburn, Birmingham City, Blackpool, Bolton, Reading, Cardiff) either had accumulated massive debts to get into the Premier League in the first place or had bad owners.
Leicester don’t fit in the former category and, at least until Thursday, didn’t appear to fit into the second either, which makes Srivaddhanprabha’s words about putting the club’s long-term well-being above all else ring a bit hollow. They damaged their own brand to avoid something that, at a well-run club with ample resources, isn’t the death sentence some make it out to be.
If you don’t buy arguments about gratitude and romance (and it’s OK not to, because these are highly compensated professionals), then simply consider this: it was a bad business decision in terms of conception and execution. Last season gave the world a chance to be voyeurs in someone else’s footballing fantasy, albeit one that most could relate to. This year, reality hit us like a jackhammer to the skull.
There are no fairy tales here. Not much business sense, either. Or class, for that matter.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.