Leicester City’s incredible surge to the Premier League title was not just a remarkable tale of the underdog, it was the story of a nice guy finally finishing first.
Claudio Ranieri has long been considered one of the more likeable bosses in European football and, while his charm is undeniable, his coaching prowess has regularly been called into question.
Last season, however, he silenced his doubters in scarcely believable fashion by guiding a Leicester team that narrowly avoided relegation in the previous campaign to Premier League glory, and his first domestic top-flight title.
His achievement in masterminding their stunning rise ensures he will go down as the greatest manager in Leicester’s history – something the club acknowledged as they made news of his departure public. But sentiment only lasts so long in the cold world of 21st century football, with Ranieri’s sacking late on Thursday serving as the latest brutal reminder of that hard truth.
5 – Prior to Leicester, the last reigning top-flight champion to lose five league games in a row were Chelsea in March 1956. Sacked.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 23, 2017
Nobody expected Leicester to be able to match last season’s heroics, particularly given the extra commitment of a Champions League campaign, the loss of midfield workhorse N’Golo Kante and the arrival of Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte at powerhouses Manchester City and Chelsea respectively.
Yet it is the rapid and startling nature of Leicester’s decline that left the club’s hierarchy with little choice but to part company with ‘the tinkerman’.
There have been bright spots. Leicester put Guardiola and City to the sword back in December and won four of their six group games in their maiden Champions League campaign.
Ranieri hailed his side’s spirit after Wednesday’s 2-1 last-16 loss to Sevilla, a result that keeps them very much in the tie, but Leicester have largely looked a shadow of the side that held off Arsenal and Tottenham to conquer England with only three defeats in 38 games.
Their meek surrender at Swansea City in their last Premier League clash had all the hallmarks of a team running out of ideas in a desperate bid to stay in the division, the result leaving them just a point above the bottom three.
The dismal performances and results have put Leicester’s ownership in a position where something needed to be done for the sake of survival and, with the transfer window closed, a removal of Ranieri was the only realistic option.
After all that Claudio Ranieri has done for Leicester City, to sack him now is inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) February 23, 2017
It is a move that will attract bemusement and criticism, but Leicester have shown themselves to be a club not afraid to make big decisions. The initial appointment of Ranieri as a replacement for Nigel Pearson elicited a similarly surprised response. “Claudio Ranieri? Really?” was how former striker Gary Lineker greeted that news. “Inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad” was his summary of his sacking.
Perhaps the biggest surprise surrounding Ranieri’s departure is that it comes 16 days after Leicester released a statement pledging their “unwavering support” for the Italian. Those words now ring empty, the statement another example of the curse of the dreaded vote of confidence.
The short-termism displayed by Leicester in making such a decision will be bemoaned in the coming days but, with the financial repercussions of dropping out of the Premier League now so great, their owners will see the exit of a man who now stands as one the most treasured figures in the club’s history as a necessary price to pay.