As it transpired, football had not died after all. Following a weekend during which grief met outrage over Claudio Ranieri, Leicester City produced one of their finest performances since the stupendous achievements of 2015/16.
One of the reasons for the talk of football’s ‘lost soul’ is that the wider public invested so much emotionally into Leicester City’s title victory. Not all wanted them to win, although many did, but most were at least captivated by an incredible journey spearheaded by Ranieri.
Ranieri’s character too played a part in the sympathy he received. He is not just Claudio Ranieri but Uncle Claudio, and not just a football manager but a decent, kind, smiling man. Picturing Ranieri’s face when he received the news that he had been sacked is enough to make you call your mum and tell her you love her or find your significant other and give them a squeeze.
Yet the collection of people barely mentioned in many of those impulsive dispatches were Leicester City’s supporters, most of whom had seen their team perform woefully for the last six months, sleepwalking their way to the Championship. All were sorry to see Ranieri go, but the majority believed it to be the correct decision.
There was to be no mutiny. Three hundred supporters gathered in the city centre to express their disgust and there were Ranieri masks sold by a few savvy peddlers, but the main emotion in the King Power Stadium was one of gratitude, not anger. The players, called out for their alleged coup in the media, were cheered as their names were read out before kick-off. This was the most fervent atmosphere at the King Power for months.
On nights such as these, the players cannot win. Perform well and they are accused of not trying previously, perform badly and they were the problem all along. The truth is that the only possible response is to give all in your power to avoid relegation. Before long, the outrage will simmer down.
And how. This was not just a resurgent Leicester, but a completely new one. Jamie Vardy was the nuisance of last season, Danny Drinkwater scored a sensational second goal and Kasper Schmeichel made excellent saves at crucial times. Liverpool were abysmal, a dismal display at least partly funded by the presence of Lucas Leiva in central defence and Emre Can in central midfield. But Wilfried Ndidi was the star, his 11 tackles surpassing the highest total N’Golo Kante managed in the league last season.
The obvious response from certain circles to this Leicester victory will be that the players “finally showed some heart”, but that is a gross oversimplification of the dynamics within a football club. The role of the manager is to motivate the players to realise their potential, and no – or at least very few – players actively don’t try. It is a structure built on positive relationships.
There are numerous ways in which Leicester’s season could have collapsed so obviously, and improved so readily after Ranieri’s departure, each more complicated than ‘the players couldn’t be arsed’. Maybe Ranieri struggled to maintain the positive relationships he previously enjoyed with his players. Maybe he felt the benefits of a settled side, but struggled to cope when changes were enforced. Maybe his signings have not proved successful. Maybe he was unable to stop complacency festering. Maybe he is a better manager when motivating the climb up the hill rather than the post-summit journey. Maybe his tactical and strategical instructions were becoming confused. Perhaps players sensed that their manager had lost his own drive.
Most likely is that we will never know what combination of factors caused his decline. But just as you cannot lay the blame solely at the feet of the players, you cannot absolve Ranieri entirely. Even if he has a lovely smile, and even after what came before. The eventual departure of a manager is one of football’s certainties, because a club cannot replace its playing staff. The hazardous job security is why the salary is high and the pay-offs are large. There will always be somebody after you to curse, and always someone who will have cursed you in exactly the same manner.
One thing is for sure: Football’s death was greatly exaggerated by those who should know better, and so too Leicester’s. As the players applauded supporters and received their adoration in return after the final whistle, it proved that many have misjudged the mood.
This is Leicester City 2016/17, not Leicester City 2015/16. This is Leicester City relegation battler, not title challenger. This is Craig Shakespeare’s Leicester City, not Claudio Ranieri’s, for now at least. The show must go on, because it always does.