One Phone Call To An Italian- The Ranieri Effect
Following Leicester’s survival in the Premier League in the previous season, it was decided by Jon Rudkin, Leicester’s Director of Football, and owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, that the club would part company with Nigel Pearson. It was a shock decision by the brave board, as Pearson had done the impossible just month earlier and kept the Foxes in the top-flight. However, clashes behind the scenes coupled with the very public exertions of his son on a trip to Thailand with the club left his position in the air.
What the club did next was vitally important, as a wrong call would have put Leicester back in the relegation battle for another season. Surprisingly, help appeared from an unfamiliar place, as Steve Kutner, the agent of a certain Claudio Ranieri, spoke to Rudkin about his client becoming the next manager at the King Power.
Kutner later admitted that board members at the club were skeptical of the Italian, who was last seen in the Premier League during his time with Chelsea before parting ways to allow for the arrival of Jose Mourinho. However, the agent was certain that once the board met the majestic Italian, their minds would be made up.
It’s important to consider at this time that Ranieri wasn’t a popular choice. His charming nature managed to get him the job, as he was able to appeal to the Srivaddhanaprabha and talk football for hours. The Italian has always been a manager that has been adored by fans, but not for a second was it a decision that the board made with the aspiration of winning the league title. Instead, it was one that just made sense, as he had a CV full of working with colorful players and had a persona that the media and fans would soon fall in love with.
Media Backlash Following Appointment
Ranieri’s appointment was by no means a popular choice at the time. Fans and the media both ridiculed the club for the shock announcement, with Match of the Day host and fan, Gary Linekar among those. Fans immediately feared that an impending relegation back to the Championship would follow, and the odds for the league title certainly illustrated that. 5000/1.
Odds that would be more fitting for a pig to fly than a football team in a 20-team division to win the league title. But, that’s what the Premier League was before the magical story of the Foxes and Ranieri; it was a league with potentially just four teams in with a chance of being crowned the best in England. However, the Italian was about to shake things up, and in only a way that he could do.
Those doubting the Italian were soon put back into their box after the opening six rounds of fixtures, with the Foxes sitting pretty in third yet to lose a game. Leicester opened the season with three wins and three draws before defeat at home threatened to upset the momentum that they were building. However, there was no stopping this Leicester machine.
Vardy’s Fairy-Tale Story Continues
The 2015-16 season was all about the players that very few people gave much of a chance to succeed in the Premier League. At the forefront of that, as well as Leicester’s charge to the league title, was Jamie Vardy. Vardy’s story is something more reminiscent of something that you would see in a Hollywood film. He began his career in the non-league with Stocksbridge Park Steels and Halifax Town, before getting a big move to National League outfit Fleetwood Town in 2011.
After just a season, where he scored 31 goals in 36 games, his unrelenting pace and knack for scoring goals were noticed by Leicester City. He moved to the King Power for a non-league record of £1 million. However, his King Power career was almost in danger after a season after a loss in form, coupled with backlash from fans, meant that he was questioning whether to leave the club and return to the National League.
Craig Shakespeare and Nigel Pearson reversed his decision, and he went on to become a prominent player in the 2013-14 season. His character is one of his traits that transcends this Leicester side, his pace opens doors for those around him and always offers an outball. If there was one player that follows the ‘Foxes never quit’ motto more than anyone else, it’s Vardy. His life is based on never quitting and following his dreams.
And, in November 2015, his never-die attitude was rewarded by him breaking one of the long-standing illustrious Premier League records set by Ruud van Nistelrooy. His goal in a 1-1 draw against Manchester United saw him surpass the Dutchman’s feat of scoring in ten straight games, something that nobody thought would be matched.
Vardy would later be described by Ranieri as ‘priceless’, and that is accurate when explaining just how much he added to the Foxes team, both on and off the pitch. The Englishman set the tone on the pitch for the team, and would chase back to defend when his teammates needed him, and also step up when it required him to do so. He remains as priceless in this modern-day Leicester side, as he was five years ago.
Growing Presence Of Kante
Leicester’s recruitment was always sound, with Steve Walsh bringing in players that would seamlessly fit into the DNA of the club. Deals for Riyad Mahrez and Robert Huth would set the tone before further transfers of Shinji Okazaki and Christian Fuchs would complete a fine summer of business. However, there was one more signing that fans, nor Ranieri, knew an awful lot about before he was brought to the club- Ngolo Kante.
Walsh was at the forefront of persuading the club that Kante from Ligue 2’s Caen would be the player that could thrive in the Foxes midfield. Little did anyone know just how right he would be. Kante would be the anchor in the league-winning midfielder, that would run for days and still have the whereabouts to make vital tackles and interceptions. He had the tough job of winning the ball back in the middle of the park to spring fast counter attacks- the hallmark of the Leicester tactic.
Kante was a testament to the character in the Leicester changing room and epitomized just how high the team spirit was. There was no ego, just a smile that was bright enough to light up a room in a second. Down to earth didn’t even cut it, he still drives a Mini now, even after winning Premier League titles, the World Cup, and the Champions League. To say that it was £5.6 million well spent would be the understatement of the century.
Behind The Scenes
Everyone that knows football will understand that what takes place off the pitch is almost as important as the 90-minute game. Ranieri understood that from the minute he walked into the club, which meant that the existing backroom staff from the previous regime were retained, which meant normality for players.
The players had loyalty to Pearson, and many have claimed since that they were slightly sad to see him go. After all, why would Rainieri choose to opt to overhaul the momentum that had been found at the back end of last season? Instead, he made subtle changes, including the addition of long-term Italian assistant Paolo Benetti.
In essence, nothing needed to change, with the coaching, because after all, if it’s not broke, then why fix it? However, certain little Rainieri titbits would be there to stay. Five-a-sides on Friday’s and pizza after winning fixtures only heightened his popularity. With the media, there was nobody better than the Italian.
He would have reporters in the palm of his hands before games, and even-handed out hand-wrapped presents after a Boxing Day win over Liverpool. Behind the scenes, the club worked seamlessly, and that was echoed with how the Foxes performed on the pitch.
Ranieri may have been loved by the media for his character, but he also made decisions that benefited the players. After defeat to Arsenal, he gave all first-team players a week off to recover. That was followed by a 1-0 win over Norwich. He would trust his players, with 33 of the 38 games seeing Ranieri name an unchanged line-up. That familiarisation would be pivotal in sealing the title, with just three defeats all season.
Belief Grows After Defeat
Valentine’s Day in 2016 will be forever a date etched into the minds of everyone connected with Leicester City, as it was the day that they firmly believed that the title was their goal. Defeat at the Emirates after losing Danny Simpson to a red card was an agonizing result, which for many would have been the sucker punch after beating Manchester City at the Etihad just six days earlier.
However, this wasn’t a normal team, and the belief in the camp was reaching sky-high levels. Five 1-0 wins in six games put the Foxes back on course for history, and reporters quickly turned the questions on Ranieri to ones about a title win rather than the relegation questions that hung over Pearson 12 months early.
A draw at Old Trafford against Manchester United forced Leicester to wait for their crowning moment, but defeat for Tottenham at Stamford Bridge 24 hours later would send Leicester into a frenzy. Pictures were beamed around the world of the players singing and dancing in Vardy’s house, as the togetherness of the team was something that every player and fan wanted to be a part of. This team was a special united group that would never be matched.
5,000/1 they may have been, but those odds pale in comparison to what they actually achieved in 2015-16. There wouldn’t have been many dry eyes around the country as millions tuned in to watch the Foxes get their hands on the Premier League title at the King Power after a game against Everton.
You wanted to be a part of their story in any little way that you could because as Martin Tyler would later say, ‘you will never see anything like this again. Leicester would create the best sporting moment that anybody has seen in their lifetime, and the impossible dream was made a reality.