Football: Inside the mind of Claudio Ranieri

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri. Photo / Getty
Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri. Photo / Getty

When Monaco first called Claudio Ranieri to establish whether he was interested in becoming their new coach they were surprised to hear that he was in Munich for the Champions League final as a guest of Roman Abramovich.

It was May 2012 and Chelsea beat Bayern Munich in that dramatic final, eight years after Ranieri had been brutally sacked by Abramovich following a Champions League semi-final defeat to Monaco.

It was a summary dismissal, albeit a well-remunerated one. With his agent on holiday, Ranieri was called in and told by Abramovich's associates to clear his desk and clear off. It was no surprise. He had become known as "The Dead Man Walking", a phrase coined in an unsubtle breakfast briefing by Chelsea's new and bullish chief executive Peter Kenyon, a man who Ranieri can barely bring himself to name even to this day.

But still Ranieri was there in Munich to see Chelsea win. "Ranieri is a class act, he has time and respect for everyone," says Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who was Monaco's sporting director at that time and the one who made the telephone call.

"That's why you won't find anyone in the game ever say a bad word about him. He's a true gentleman, nobody deserves the success more than him."

There are constant themes that run through the career of Ranieri, the son of a butcher from Rome, who carved out a playing career as a defender in the Italian second division having briefly featured for Roma, the club he supported, and later managed.

The 64-year-old has led a roll call of big clubs - Napoli, Fiorentina, Valencia (twice), Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Roma, Inter Milan - but has never won a top flight league title. And now Leicester City are on the brink of achieving something they - in their 132-history - have never achieved, and what would be considered the most unlikely title triumph that English football, with due deference to Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, has ever seen.

An attempt to comprehend how this has been done becomes a little easier after speaking to those who have worked closely with Ranieri over the years. He is the "energy bomb"; "friendly, funny but demanding"; the manager who could have created a dynasty at Chelsea had Abramovich shown patience but also a "hard man" who will "cut you off if you are not up for the fight".

"He is not an easy coach," says Marcel Desailly, who was Chelsea captain when Ranieri arrived at the club in 2000. "If the players behave correctly, if they are up for the fight, he will be on your shoulder. If you lose your ability, but are still up for it, he doesn't mind. If you are not up for the fight, well... He is a strong man. In life he is an amazing man, I have been able to be close to him. But as a coach he is hard."

As an illustration of this, look no further than 'the television incident'. It may be an apocryphal story but it did the rounds at Chelsea at the time. Late one night, Ranieri, or so it is alleged, realised one of his players was sitting up watching TV at the team hotel rather than sleeping. He knocked on the player's door, strode into the hotel room, and ripped out the TV set before leaving.

So there is discipline. But, above all, there is a diligence in the way he works, and dignity that runs like an iron thread through his core.

"I like Ranieri because he is one who looks you in the eye when speaking and he always speaks his mind," says Rosella Sensi who was the president of Roma when Ranieri took the club so close to winning the Scudetto in 2010 only to be pipped by Mourinho's Inter, the biggest regret of his coaching career.

"Having worked with him I understand why my father (Franco, president before her) for many years tried to bring him to Roma. He is a great man, a great technician, and it is hard to find in football a person like that."

That is a view shared by Trevor Birch, who was brought in as chief executive at Chelsea in 2002 by the then chairman Ken Bates, who had bravely taken a punt on hiring Ranieri. It is easy to forget that his arrival at Chelsea, like his arrival at Leicester, was far from celebrated.

Claudio Ranieri embraces Frank Lampard as manager of Chelsea. Photo / Getty
Claudio Ranieri embraces Frank Lampard as manager of Chelsea. Photo / Getty

Fans taunted Ranieri by chanting the name of his predecessor, compatriot Gianluca Vialli, and called him 'Clownio' because his English was poor. But by the end there was a campaign to "Save Claudio" involving the London Evening Standard.

"I thought he was a dream to work with because all he wanted to do was coach and look after everything at the training ground and left everything off the field to me," Birch explains. "He always had a great sense of humour and was relaxed to a certain extent.

"With all the jobs he has had subsequently you can see that he has gained more experience in the way he handles the media and the attention. He has a 'been there, seen everything' kind of demeanour so there's not much that's going to unnerve him.

"He's a good manager and I was glad to see him back when he got the Leicester job. He's been to many different clubs with varying degrees of success but if you look at his record in the Premier League - I think it was sixth (at Chelsea) before I joined then we got the final Champions League place ahead of Liverpool which was a magnificent achievement given we had not signed anybody that season.

"So all this stuff about the 'Tinkerman' - well, he didn't sign anybody! And then in the final season he finished second to the Arsenal 'Invincibles'." Birch, who was himself sacked by Abramovich to make way for Kenyon, still wonders what might have been. "If Roman Abramovich was presented with a template of the perfect manager for him then it would be Claudio Ranieri," he says.

"Because he's not going to moan about interference, he's going to get on with it. If players are foisted on him then it's 'so what, let's get on with it'. But, of course, they wanted to make changes.

"He was much-maligned. It makes you wonder what might have been had Ranieri been allowed the same kind of tenure as Arsene Wenger [at Arsenal]. It could well have been a dynasty and what actually was he doing wrong?

"Chelsea owe him a lot. He played his part in Abramovich buying Chelsea because unless we got that fourth place [in 2002-03] then we were no good for him. He [Abramovich] wanted Champions League football.

"He'd been to see Man United against Real Madrid in the quarter-finals and got a taste for it so the fact that we got that fourth place was absolutely vital and it may well have made the difference."

Ranieri was pragmatically fatalistic, also. "Sven-Goran Eriksson had already been approached and Claudio knew that and Sven was telling people he was coming to Chelsea," Birch says. "I think he knew his time was up and he tells the story himself. He said to me: 'Well that's the end of you and me both.' He knew that a new owner usually means new people wanting to make an impact and you can't always make an impact if you don't change things.

"So what you see is how he is. His attitude was - 'Abramovich is the owner, he's put the money in, it's his prerogative, if that's what he wants to do then so be it'." Birch is certainly one of those, one of many, rooting for Ranieri. "It will be the greatest achievement in Premier League history if Leicester win, of course it will be, but I would never doubt his ability to manage in the Premier League," he says.

That Chelsea experience served Ranieri well at Monaco and it is Karlsen who offers the greatest insight into the manager's way of operating. "He's an energy bomb, he just wants to work, work, work," says Karlsen, who appointed Ranieri - who had been in talks with West Bromwich Albion - to lift Monaco out of Ligue 2 and challenge for the French title, with the backing of another Russian tycoon, Dmitry Rybolovlev.

"Even when he was away on holiday he'd call me up first thing in the morning wanting all the latest and, without any encouragement but with great enthusiasm, offering his opinions on players he'd seen on Wyscout [a web-based scouting platform of which Ranieri is a devotee) after dinner the night before," Karlsen says. "He's unstoppable. His love for work and life is genuinely amazing. He's fun to be around, always energetic and positive. After an hour with him you feel charged up.

"I was quite baffled when seeing all the negative press at the time of the appointment (by Leicester). Having followed his career since he left Chelsea, and above all having worked with him, I knew very well what kind of quality and expertise he would bring. Sure, I wasn't expecting Leicester to fight for the title but I knew they'd be in very good hands and stay well clear of relegation."

Karlsen sees Ranieri's methodology at work at Leicester. "There are certain principles he sticks to," he explains. "His teams are generally reactive rather than the one that takes charge of the game and dominates possession.

"A Ranieri side will always be based on a solid defensive organisation and quick transitional play. He also needs three or four quick, direct players in the wide midfield and forward positions to make his ideas work. Beyond that he's utilitarian; he mixes and matches, and sets his teams up to make the most of the strength of his players.

"More than anything he's extremely structured in the way he works and pays a great deal of attention to any minute detail. The training sessions are well-organised and timed to the second. The same goes for all the logistics surrounding the first team. The travel, the food, the hotels - everything is carefully planned."

At Monaco a familiar pattern was set. Ranieri took them to second place - as he did at Chelsea, Roma and Juventus - but Karlsen says his "achievements went unnoticed".

"In two seasons he took the club from mid-table in Ligue 2 to within a whisker of Paris Saint-Germain, finishing second in Ligue 1 and on a points total that would usually be enough to win the title," he says.

"There's no question that the owner invested heavily during that period, but nonetheless the club was going through a very complex period of transition. Looking beyond the excellent results he also brought a lot of know-how throughout the sporting side of the club. With all his experience he's as close as you get to a 'master' in the world of football. Personally I learnt a great deal from him.

"To fully analyse his record one has to understand from what situations he has taken over clubs. At Internazionale and Juventus he was a seen as a 'safe pair of hands' rather than someone who was granted a long-term 'project'.

"At Chelsea he started something that could well have turned into a title-winning team - had he been allowed to continue. His biggest regret is not winning the Scudetto with his beloved Roma, having come so close, but on that particular occasion one has to remember that he took charge several rounds into the season and obviously wasn't allowed a pre-season to set up things the way he wanted."

Desailly says Ranieri is not regarded as a "winning manager", a Mourinho-style trophy collector, but there is no doubt he has been unlucky.

He has never had an easy job; he has also not lasted much beyond two years anywhere since Chelsea; and, more worryingly for Leicester, there is a recurring pattern of success in a first season followed by a plateauing or tailing off.

He has that 'nearly man' tag - as Mourinho used to jibe - and few demurred when Gary Lineker posted a series of critical tweets in the wake of his appointment at Leicester:

True, Ranieri has a 30-year career in management, has had 16 jobs during that time, and was drummed out of Greece with a public apology from the country's football federation at the "unfortunate" choice of coach after he lost at home to the Faroe Islands.

But through it all there is Ranieri's dignity. "What struck me with him was the absolute absence of bitterness when talking about his previous clubs," Karlsen says. "He always spoke with great respect and fondness of the club owners and colleagues he had worked for and with in the past." Ranieri can simply let his record speak for him. His win percentage, approaching 1,000 matches as a manager, is pushing an impressive 50 per cent.

"He likes the job. It is a passion for him," says Desailly. "I am just pleased that at the end of his career success has come. He has proved that it will come to a hard worker. And now we are all expecting the final announcement that they have won the Premier League. That will be great. We are tired of the same names, Manchester City, Chelsea. It's amazing that it is Leicester - quite amazing."

- The Telegraph

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