When you write about football on the internet, you expect people to abuse you. This was especially true 10-15 years ago when everyone thought they were anonymous on the information superhighway.
In 2004, I wrote a piece about Leicester City and someone e-mailed to say ‘I will bite your face off if you ever come to Leicester’ because I said they’d get relegated. They did get relegated. I wasn’t sure if this absolved me of being bitten. But I always thought this was a rather odd threat because biting a whole face off requires, at the very least, a double-jointed jaw and I’d have to stand very still while you do it. Either that or you sit down with a knife and fork and take your time over it. No, it’s just not practical. But as is often the case in a situation like this, the incident rather turned me against Leicester and their cannibalism-inclined fans.
But now, Leicester City are top of the league by three points with 15 games to go. They are 10 points ahead of fifth place and have only lost twice. Better still, they’re usually really good fun to watch. At a time when far more highly regarded, flushed-of-cheek-managers are haplessly floundering, how has Claudio Ranieri done this?
Leicester are the 16th club the smiley Italian has managed in 30 years. I’ve always liked him, going right back to his Chelsea days, primarily because he seemed to have a slightly clownish, amused aspect to his character. He seemed very polite and good-natured and to not take things too seriously. He has a twinkle in his eyes and he smiles. These are important aspects to the thing we humans call likeability.
As Chelsea manager from 2000-2004 he got the ‘Tinkerman’ title from the grunt press because he changed his side all the time – something that is now entirely typical – and hours were dedicated to discussing how he didn’t know his best team and that’s why he was always messing with it, like it was a character weakness, unlike a good old British manager who would play the same 14 players every week until they died. Turned out actually, like Rafa Benitez, he was ahead of the curve in this respect. Nowadays, if you don’t tinker, you get accused of exhausting players.
You might have noticed that the same grunt press, still in thrall to its relationships with English managers, now feels almost morally obliged to credit a large portion of Claudio’s success this year to Nigel Pearson, because Pearson is a proper football man and is English and thus must be vaunted at every turn and decried as being treated badly by a foreign chairman. You know how the PFM game works, right? You must also rhetorically ask, in an exasperated tone, what Nigel has to do to get a job? Pearson is an interesting character and not without qualities but it’s worth just recalling the bald facts of what actually happened last season.
After being bottom at Christmas 2014, they’d crawled up, in a remarkable and unlikely late-season revival, to 14th. So the argument presumably goes that Ranieri has inherited a squad on the up. But, it shouldn’t be forgotten that, as much as it was under Pearson’s management they got out of the relegation places, it was also under his tenure that they wallowed at the bottom of the table in the first place. He’d been sort of sacked once and then reinstated. His relationship with the Thai owners had been messy for a while and fell apart after his son, a player at the club, was involved in that most loved of tabloid things, a ‘racist sex tape’.
These interpersonal issues between Pearson and the club are largely brushed under the carpet now because, as we know, it is important to the English media never to give a foreign manager who takes over from an English manager much praise, if at all possible. So, in a typically passive-aggressive way, it’s been a regular journalistic staple this season to say that Claudio hasn’t changed much and that he was ‘sensible enough’ to leave Pearson’s ‘achievements’ in place and by doing so, elevate them from 14th to…err…first. Yes, first.
But I was as guilty as anyone in thinking Ranieri would be a disaster. It looked like he had lost his mojo and that, given last season’s wranglings between Pearson and the owners, Leicester City was a basketcase waiting to happen. Claudio’s job managing Greece had been a total disaster. He had lost an air of credibility. That’s why he seemed like a comedy appointment by a club destined to be relegated. How wrong we all were.
But not now. What has happened this season is little short of a miracle. It has forced us all to reassess what is possible for a club of Leicester’s size, but more lovely than that, Ranieri himself seems almost amused by it all. We know football is chaos, and he is as in thrall to that wonderful fact as the rest of us. He knows it is a glorious convergence of factors, mixed with their own abilities.
At times he looks dazed by their success. In an era where we’re fed the notion that there is a football management elite, almost as though it is inviolate and all-knowing, along comes the Tinkerman to tell us different. Everyone wants a brilliant manager, but how brilliant does your manager really have to be, if Ranieri, who has won relatively little in his 30-year managerial career, can command Leicester to the top in late January? Maybe it just shows what is possible if you keep plugging away. A good scouting network and a feel-good manager has worked wonders for Leicester. There is a lesson there for others to learn. Maybe it’s not the high science it is often painted to be.
Imagine, for a brief hallucinogenic moment, that the Foxes win the Premier League. I’m starting to feel, because I’m a hopeless romantic, that it could happen. Imagine. Just imagine. It would be thrilling and incredible and, given the context, the most incredible thing to ever happen in English football in the modern era. Obviously, large sections of the media would still paint it as mostly Pearson’s victory, but I want to believe it can happen, for Claudio, for football and also to stop my face being bitten off.