How Claudio Ranieri defied the odds

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

The quote itself, which ought to be the teamship philosophy of every organisation in the world, is from former US President Harry Truman. But the sentiment is pure Claudio Ranieri.

No matter how hard you try to get him to blow his own trumpet, the 64-year-old Italian resists taking the plaudits for one of the greatest sports stories of this or any other decade, namely Leicester City’s rise from 5,000-to-one outsiders relegation favourites, in fact to the Premier League title. The Thai owners, the fans, his 96-year-old mum, Renata, and above all, of course, the players and coaches and support staff… he sprays the credit around liberally. Not for him the monotonous machine gun rattle of the first person singular; in Ranieri’s world, it seems, “we” comes before “I”.

He insists: “I don’t know how it happened.”

You must know, you did it?

“Yes, but there is no secret. Just great players, a great team.”

When Ranieri was offered the job, the reaction of the club’s most famous fan, Gary Lineker, summed it up for many – “Claudio Ranieri? Really?” Not least because Ranieri’s last post, as coach of Greece‘s national side, had seen them beaten by the Faroe Islands, population 48,200. Did the criticism upset him? “No. People can have opinions; this is no problem.” He does recall, however, that the only league he topped at the start of the season was the bookmakers’ “first manager to be sacked” odds table. He ended the season not merely with the Premier League title, but also the Italian Order Of Merit.

This is a leader who really does seem to live by his favourite line from the Rudyard Kipling poem “If”, which he has been known to recite to his players:

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same…/You’ll be a Man my son.”

Triumph did not figure in his expectations when he first moved to the East Midlands. He felt that if they could survive for two successive seasons, then they could plan for the next stage of development, perhaps aim as high as a mid-table finish and, eventually, if all went well, they might be able to think about challenging for a place in the Europa League. Yet now Champions League football is on its way to the King Power Stadium.

“As likely as Elvis being found alive,” was how Sports Illustrated headlined this great soccer romance.

“It is beautiful,” he says. “A beautiful story. I think only football can do this. I love the emotion of the game and when things like this happen, I am a very lucky man.”

Happy first anniversary, Claudio 😁🏆⚽️ #lcfc #premierleague #leicester

A photo posted by Leicester City (@lcfc) on Jul 13, 2016 at 1:56am PDT

It is a further sign of his modesty and humility that he admits to luck being a big part of the success. “For some reason, none of the big clubs could get consistency. When I looked at the teams at the start of the season, Chelsea was most likely to win the title. There were many strong teams but not Leicester – nobody thought Leicester. But we found consistency and they didn’t. Chelsea were champions, but it did not work out well for them. I don’t know why they did so badly and I don’t know why we did so well. For sure, something happened in the players. They were good players, but they became better. You take a player like [N’Golo] Kanté. He was amazing. He is worth two players in one team. He is everywhere. [Jamie] Vardy I liked. I always knew he could score goals, but he scored so many and [Riyad] Mahrez, I liked him but felt he could be even better on the right side, so we moved him there.”

He pays tribute to the recruitment policy that preceded him. Vardy had looked set for a journeyman career when four years ago he was with Fleetwood Town. At the same time, Kanté was playing for lowly Boulogne, heading from France’s second to their third division. And Mahrez was playing for Le Havre reserves. From that to the PFA Player Of The Year. “Sometimes this happens, that one player plays well and it makes others play well and the team starts to do better. We won more and more games, everything seemed to work for us, and then we started to believe anything is possible. The spirit was unbelievable. There was no fear. They wanted to play, they loved to play. All of them. The spirit was so special.”

😘🏆

A photo posted by Leicester City (@lcfc) on May 7, 2016 at 2:19pm PDT

It was a spirit, he says, that he first noticed shortly after taking the job. Unlike many new managers, he focused less on what he might change than all the things he wouldn’t change at all. “I liked what I saw. Not just the quality of the players, but the atmosphere, the ambience between them. There was something really special there, I didn’t want to change it too much.” He said that when he arrived, he sat down and watched videos of all the games in the latter part of the season, when former manager Nigel Pearson presided over what became known as the “great escape”. Bottom for most of the season, they went on a run that didn’t just avoid the drop: six wins in eight games was anything but relegation form. “I watched these games and saw so much good football,” says Ranieri. “I thought, how have they been so low in the league for so long?”

He has had a fair amount of both triumph and disaster in his many club and country managerial positions. But this surpasses it all. Even weeks afterwards, when we talk, he is still buzzing with it. “Everyone in football knows it is a great feeling to score a goal. This is like scoring a goal all the time. Most people in football will tell you this is the best league in the world, because of the money, because of the depth, the competition. So to win it, yes this is the greatest success.” Even then, though, note how he says “the” greatest success, not “my”.

In an era when football managers have become so much more than coaches, when some are as high profile as Hollywood stars and prime ministers, when they have become as well known for their mind games and their tantrums as for their tactics and their coaching methods, Ranieri has shown there is a different way. Modest. Humble. “We” before “I”. No monopoly on credit. No attacks on opponents. Unfailingly polite to the media. “I respect everyone and I hope they respect me.” When he was presented, inevitably, with the Manager Of The Year award by the League Managers’ Association, his acceptance speech was all about the players, the coaches, the owners, the fans. Team, team, team.

Claudio Ranieri assesses #lcfc’s clash with FC Copenhagen in Denmark. #ucl #FckLei #uefachampionsleague

A photo posted by Leicester City (@lcfc) on Nov 1, 2016 at 11:27am PDT

He knows it will not be easy to repeat the miracle. In an ideal world, he would keep all the players together, but that is easier said than done. Kanté has left for Chelsea, Arsenal have shown interest in Mahrez and Vardy remains the subject of speculation despite signing a new contract. “Of course, this is normal, maybe they can make more money. Before we had a salary cap, now we have to give more to keep them, but I don’t want to lose the spirit. Also to be in the Champions League means we need virtually two teams, so of course we have to buy new players. I want to keep all my players but we need to bring in new ones and that is a big part of this job, doing that but in a way that doesn’t damage the spirit we have. There was a special link with these players. I cannot describe it. Even when I speak in Italian I cannot describe it. It is something you can only feel. I have always had good links with players in the different jobs I do but this was different. This was something very special. This is a special group.”

It is because of what he led that group to achieve, and his steadfast refusal to say it is all, or even mainly, down to him, that he is a worthy winner of the Outstanding Achievement award. The David and Goliath feel to Leicester’s triumph was one of the reasons it became such a big, and popular, story around the world. The fact it was with a patently nice guy at the helm was another.

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