Football is a cruel game, even to those at the very pinnacle of the sport. Hope can build you, but expectations can break you. No matter how well someone does, there can still be a cloud over them; some consider Guardiola a failure in Germany because he never lifted the Champions League. Some will taint Lionel Messi’s career as somewhat incomplete if he never brings a World Cup back to his homeland, and come on, he probably won’t now. The problem is that sometimes fans expect too much. And when masterminds in the ilk of Pep and Leo inspire the imagination, it’s easy to get carried away with what shouldn’t be humanly possible.
So let’s just get all the clichés out the way first: Leicester’s title win will forever be the most humanly impossible thing that happens in English football. We all know why. But the best bit about the Impossible Dream is that we all have our favourite bits: it’s a multi-faceted story, it’s a grey area as to why everything converged upon King Power at just the right time. Some revel in the fact that a previously non-league striker was the one to light the touch paper up front. Others appreciate that unrelenting genius of Mahrez that dazzled week after week, while some will point to omnipresent N’Golo Kanté being their favourite member of that side; there was a good, old fashioned back four, just as any English football story needs too, a kid released from Manchester United who made it into the England squad (for a while anyway), and cameos a-plenty in the tale.
The romantics though will talk not of any particular player or the system, but of Ranieri. His quiet charm, his silly humour, and stereotypically Italian mannerisms and catchphrases lifted straight from a forgotten Dolmio advert. Leicester won the league because everything clicked at the right time on the pitch, by luck as well as judgement, but the icon came from the dugout. Every epic tale needs an unlikely protagonist, and when Andrea Bocelli took to the King Power pitch to sign off the unspeakable season with song, it was weird, sure, but felt like the club and the manager were now intertwined. Leicester City was more than a job to Claudio Ranieri, and he will always be more than just a manager to that club. It was a marriage of two things that shouldn’t have, but did remarkably, just… work.
That’s why the sacking is so shocking. It’s not like Mourinho. José was a born winner who took to Roman’s Chelsea because they shared a vision. While at Chelsea, Ranieri shouted back at the “Sacked in the summer” chants, “No, I will be sacked in May!” He was out of his depth at the brave new Bridge, too nice for his own good. José helped shape the club into the ruthless outfit they are now. Some felt sorry for Mourinho, but the truth is that he sharpened the sword that he ultimately fell on last season.
Ranieri’s ethos is a lot less Game of Thrones. A team winning the league through simply being high on team spirit is a very English thing to wax lyrical about, but the philosophy was that a group mentality could carry them through, so long as they took the season game by game, week by week. It doesn’t feel right that what’s wrong now, is the centre of that very philosophy.
Just as there’s no one thing that you could pinpoint as the defining factor of Leicester’s magical season, the downfall is equally not just down to one thing. Ranieri’s dismissal too, is a grey area. It is easy in some ways to say that because it was Ranieri who taught this set of players that no one man was bigger than the team – and now the side have all bit deserted his ideals – he should be the one to leave, for the good of the club. Sentiment doesn’t keep you up.
There’s something unsettling about the sacking at the same time though, no matter how logical it is. The country revelled in the romance of Ranieri, and to end his time at Leicester like this is what non-football fans will call “everything wrong about football”, sure, but that’s not why it feels wrong. It feels wrong because he didn’t deserve this. He deserved to see this season out. If you asked Leicester fans at the start of his reign, they’d probably have taken the Championship if it meant going via the title. Winning a title with a bunch of relegation scrappers should buy you more time, and this is another grey area: what exactly do you have to do to fend off a club chairman’s scythe?
It was heightened expectation that exacerbated the situation at Leicester. Bad form is one thing. A dressing room revolt, a fan backlash quite another. But it was the expectation that this group of players would do more than this, this season, that really killed the fairytale. Should Leicester have scraped relegation last season, as they aimed to early in the season, Ranieri might still be in a job, as difficult as it is to say given the weird workings of football management.
It feels weirder still and sad that he went now. It surely could’ve happened at the end of the season at least. But that’s what expectations can sometimes do. No one ever said football was kind.