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Ranieri: The Tinkerman plots a winning strategy

Many football managers look like enraged egomaniacs, but Claudio Ranieri resembles a benevolent Italian parish priest. White-haired, bespectacled and smiling, he is watching his Leicester City team counter-attack their way towards an astounding triumph. Leicester, which began the season as 5,000-1 outsiders, are closing in on the English Premier League title.

For the club from an unremarkable town in the Midlands, it would be the first title in 132 years, and for Ranieri his first in 29 years as a manager. "He was the perfect loser, with a capital L," says the Italian football writer Tommaso Pellizzari. "Everyone in Italy thought he was very nice, polite, kind, but please never call him to my team."

Has Ranieri suddenly become a genius at 64?

He grew up in a flat above his father's butcher shop in Rome. He supported AS Roma, and made his professional debut for them, but soon descended to smaller clubs. The gentlemanly full-back played 164 games in Italy's top division without getting a yellow card. "He was a very intelligent player, a coach on the field," recalls Gianni de Biasi, the Albania manager, a teammate at Palermo.

Ranieri then became a respected manager in Italy and Spain, without ever achieving stunning success. In 2000, Chelsea took him to England. His big smile, small ego, black Ferrari and fine Italian clothing won admiration. Frank Lampard, then a Chelsea player, noted: "He had a keen sense of the football environment - how the way you dress and the car you drive are an inherent part of the impression you make at a club."

Ranieri then barely spoke English but revealed himself as a typical Italian manager of his generation: detail-oriented and defensive-minded. He told players to think like a boxer: "You defend, and at the right time, you strike."

An EPL win will be Leicester's first title in 132 years, and Ranieri's first in 29 years as a manager.
An EPL win will be Leicester's first title in 132 years, and Ranieri's first in 29 years as a manager.

But his coaching style didn't suit a big club. Even after Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 and signed expensive stars, Ranieri focused more on the opposition's strengths. Lampard recalls the manager describing before an Arsenal-Chelsea game "how they would destroy us over 90 minutes".

Ranieri also unsettled players by constantly changing his line-up. "I'm the Tinkerman," he admitted.

The nickname stuck.

During most of Ranieri's last season at Chelsea, Abramovich was publicly looking for a new manager. The Tinkerman, in his own words, was "a dead man walking".

But throughout the humiliation, he maintained his dignity. He left Chelsea in 2004 admired as a man, if not as a manager. Jose Mourinho, his successor and later his nemesis, once taunted that when he asked Chelsea why they were replacing Ranieri, "I was told they wanted to win".

That jibe long seemed accurate.

Ranieri coached several big European clubs after Chelsea but, despite good phases, never won a championship or lasted more than two seasons anywhere.

He hit bottom in 2014, sacked as manager of the Greek national team after losing at home to the Faroe Islands.

When Leicester appointed Ranieri last summer, The Guardian newspaper summed up the conventional wisdom: "If Leicester wanted someone nice, they've got him. If they wanted someone to keep them in the Premier League, they may have gone for the wrong guy."

But Ranieri had walked into a better situation than many realised. Media and fans fixate on the manager, yet what matters most is a club's playing talent. Leicester had ended the previous season strongly, winning seven of their last nine matches, and the club's scouts had unearthed the underrated Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante.

Ranieri saw the quality at his first training session, telling the Players' Tribune website: "This player Kante, he was running so hard that I thought he must have a pack full of batteries hidden in his shorts... I tell him, 'One day, I'm going to see you cross the ball, and then finish the cross with a header yourself'." The hard-running Vardy was praised as "a fantastic horse".

At Leicester, Ranieri has had the humility to leave well alone. That may be a sign of age: He and his wife Rosanna, an antiques dealer, now live so quietly that a trip to a local lake counts as adventure.

He hasn't bothered his team with complex new tactics, though he has made some contributions. He gives his players at least two days off a week, and has been rewarded with the fewest injuries in the Premier League. He has instilled his favoured rapid counter-attacking game and has barely tinkered with the line-up.

Leicester have also been lucky.

The richest English clubs have all stumbled this season, something that had not happened in the Premier League before, and probably will not happen again. Leicester's triumph is likely to prove a one-off and, for that reason, the story has enchanted football fans worldwide.

Ranieri says there is no explanation for the team's success. Certainly he takes no credit himself. Instead he feeds the popular belief that Leicester's secret is team spirit. But of course Leicester's team spirit is good: they are winning. In football, spirit tends to follow results, rather than cause them.

Now the nice guy should finally finish first.

De Biasi says: "I think for him this is a big dream. He has had a dream for a long time to win a very important challenge."

When he does, neutrals everywhere will cheer.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Ranieri: The Tinkerman plots a winning strategy'. Print Edition | Subscribe