As gulls circled overhead, the away fans bounced in elation. Even the home fans applauded. On the touchline, Leicester City’s players, who had just beaten Sunderland to go ten points clear at the top of the Premier League, formed a tight huddle around their manager, Claudio Ranieri, for whom, it seems, it was all a little overwhelming. After months of playing the genial uncle, he wept.
Ranieri has wept before. Twelve years ago, he was the first managerial victim of Roman Abramovich’s reign at Chelsea, sacked after finishing second in the League to an Arsenal side that had become the second in history to go unbeaten through an entire English top-flight season.
On the final day of the 2003-2004 season, as Arsène Wenger welcomed his team’s victory at Highbury over Leicester, who were relegated, and Ranieri bade farewell to Chelsea seven miles south-west at Stamford Bridge, it would have seemed ludicrous to suggest that Ranieri might be the next of the two managers to win the Premier League – and all the more so that he might do it with Leicester.
So extraordinary has Leicester’s season been that the greater surprise now would be if they didn’t win the League for the first time in the club’s history. Given that they were at the bottom of the table in April last year – and given the modesty of their spending in an environment where wealth has become the biggest factor in determining who wins the title – Leicester would be the most remarkable champions in English history. In August, their odds of winning were 5,000/1.
Yet doubt remains. Ranieri has been close to this kind of success before and has always faltered. Most painfully, in 2010, he led Roma – his home-town club, which he had supported as a boy and with which he began his playing career – to the top of the table with four games remaining, only for a defeat to Sampdoria to hand the title to Internazionale.
“Being bitter isn’t his thing,” said Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who was chief executive of Monaco when they appointed Ranieri in 2012. “I found that the past experiences have made him even more determined to succeed. He radiates positivity and passion.”
This lack of cynicism, the “niceness” that led to him being written off at Chelsea, is partly what makes Ranieri so generally popular. It has given rise to the feeling that it would be fitting if Ranieri, now 64, were at last rewarded with a first league title – especially given how badly his last job ended. (He was sacked by the Greek national team after four competitive games, none of them won and one lost to the Faroe Islands.) But there is also the way that he looks a little like John Inman, favours tasteful knitwear and speaks an idiosyncratic English rooted in animal metaphors.
He described the rapid striker Jamie Vardy, the first Leicester player to score 20 goals in a top-flight season since Gary Lineker 31 years ago, as “a fantastic horse”. What does it mean? Nobody knows, but that is part of the charm. Catching sight of a tabloid grandee – a trenchant critic during his time at Chelsea – after many years, Ranieri hugged him. “You are the big shark,” he said. “But this is your job.”
There is a scattiness to him, too, as demonstrated this month when he went to the defender Christian Fuchs’s 30th birthday party a day early, wandering around the restaurant, wondering where everybody was hiding.
The affable surface is only part of the story. “He has a very high level of social intelligence,” Karlsen said. “He knows exactly what buttons to press to make anyone tick. And by ‘anyone’, I mean players, colleagues and even board members. Some players hate playing for him, as he’s very demanding and the training sessions can be repetitive. Behind the smile, there’s certainly a very firm edge. He’s by no means a soft touch.”
At Chelsea, Ranieri’s constant fiddling earned him the nickname “the Tinkerman”. At Leicester, he was astute enough on arrival not to change too much, building on the momentum of the late surge to stay up under Nigel Pearson. “He understood the way we avoided relegation and wanted to keep the formula,” said the team’s captain, Wes Morgan. “He’s just tinkered a bit in terms of tactical positioning.”
Nine months on, Leicester are undeniably his. Frustrated by how they leaked goals early in the season, Ranieri promised his players pizza if they kept a clean sheet – which they did. So he took them to a restaurant and they made the pizza themselves. Having gone nine matches without a clean sheet at the start of the season, Leicester have kept 11 in their last 16 Premier League games.
After the gleeful abandon of the early part of the season has come a more pragmatic edge. Ranieri’s sharp tactical brain has emerged from behind the quirks and the cashmere. He has also instilled a formidable resolve, as we saw on 17 April as Leicester, even with Vardy sent off, salvaged a point against West Ham with an injury-time equaliser. With four games to go, their lead is five points. Leicester go to Chelsea on the final day. There could be no better stage for Ranieri’s redemption.
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater