Tony Pulis has gone under the radar a bit this season. Presumably in a campaign that has been as batsh*t as this one, a sturdy Welshman doing a vaguely underwhelming job with West Brom isn’t exactly what great headlines are made of, and his biggest impact on the wider football consciousness has basically been as a central part of this whole Saido Berahino mess.
However, he has made a few curious statements, not least calling two of his own players – Berahino and James McClean – thick. But perhaps his most churlish moment came earlier in the season, when Leicester’s absurd careen up the table looked like an adorable anomaly that we could all look back on in a few years and say ‘Well, that was weird, wasn’t it?’
Back in October, just before West Brom faced Leicester, Pulis said: “[Claudio] Ranieri has benefited from all the work Nigel (Pearson) has put in. It’s very, very nice to step into a football club where everything is in place and at that club it looks like everything is in place.”
In some respects this isn’t surprising, given that Pearson and Pulis look like they might have been quarried from the same rock face, a couple of no-nonsense nightmare father-in-laws who would almost certainly pour you a double whisky and make off-colour political statements to test your constitution at the dinner table. But it was also ludicrously reductive and dismissive of Ranieri’s contribution to this season of great absurdity in the Premier League. He’s guided a team of misfits and bargains gathered from here and there to be better than some of the most expensive athletes on the planet.
Ranieri has been cautious not to make wholesale changes from last season, so in that sense Pulis had half a point. However, he has also been adaptable when required, altering Leicester’s formation slightly to combat the opposition, both before and during games. He has also allowed Riyad Mahrez to concentrate almost solely on attacking and to lead those ferocious counter-attacks that have put the fear of God into defences up and down the land.
The Italian also seemed quite amenable to the concept of chaotic football, not trying to to turn Leicester into some sort of tedious draw-churners when their defence was sliced and diced towards the start of the season. There were a couple of games around Christmas when it looked like the pressure of actually, really, genuinely being in the title race might have got to Ranieri, and Leicester seemed a little more cautious than before. Yet since then they appear to have reverted to the old, exhilarating style.
You always wonder exactly how much influence a manager can have on a team, but Leicester are, if nothing else, an enormously fun side to watch, and you have to credit Ranieri with at least some of that.
There are elements to the Leicester ‘fairytale’ that are, to say the least, pretty unpalatable, from Jamie Vardy’s bout of racist unfortunateness in a casino, their banning of a journalist for writing about said unfortunateness, that whole beastly business involving Pearson’s son, and Danny Simpson being convicted for assaulting his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child. As an aside, Simpson was given 300 hours community service for that attack, some of which he’s spent being a bingo caller. Never let it be said that the British penal system is a soft touch.
However, one thing that everyone can probably join hands and agree upon is that Ranieri succeeding is one of the more pleasant surprises that this season, full of alarms and eyebrow-raisers, has produced. If nothing else, he appears to be a genuinely lovely man, an avuncular and self-aware soul who seems pretty happy to poke fun at himself. That’s usually a solid start when assessing if someone is a good egg or not, and a quality often (understandably) absent in football managers.
At the start of the season Ranieri developed a habit of going round the journalists present at his press conferences and shaking them all by the hand, a charming and disarming move to a group of people not shy of applying figurative boot to figurative ribs when things go wrong. He seems like exactly the sort of chap you’d get to water your plants and feed the cat when you go on holiday.
You also get the sense that Ranieri would have absolutely no desire to seek out those who, at the start of the season, predicted he’d be a disaster, with a framed copy of the league table and a big slice of ‘f**k you’ pie, as he has every right to do. That’s partly because it would be quite a time-consuming exercise (Mediawatch has enjoyed highlighting the more definitive nay-sayers, but most thought he’d be some form of calamity, not least your correspondent), but also because he’s just too nice a man. He’d shrug and say ‘Life’s too short!’ then offer you a biscuit.
There’s still a sense that Ranieri has been under-appreciated this season, that people still believe that Leicester’s success is largely down to Vardy and Mahrez’s goals. That might be so, but let’s give a little more credit to the twinkly man in the spectacles, having the time of his life.