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Flying Foxes make Ranieri the Superman

Claudio Ranieri has confounded his critics by getting much value added from the Leicester players in their march from the bottom to the top of the Premier League.
Claudio Ranieri has confounded his critics by getting much value added from the Leicester players in their march from the bottom to the top of the Premier League.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

LONDON • On his occasional days off, Claudio Ranieri likes to head to London to the house he has kept from his first spell in English football.

It is in Parsons Green - pleasant, quiet, a leafy village within the city but a little farther down the property ladder from Kensington and Mayfair, where the likes of Jose Mourinho, Fabio Capello and Sven-Goran Eriksson preferred to reside.

He kept the house not so much as an investment but as somewhere he and his wife, Rosanna, would return when the opportunity to work in the Premier League came about again. Except the years went by and interest from England went little further than a 2007 offer from Manchester City.

Agents from England, Italy and beyond tried to drum up interest but, according to one of them, "clubs weren't interested. Their first thought was 'Tinkerman'".

Ranieri was seen as a strange case - high-profile, high-end, low-risk but also low-yield.

NOT WHAT YOU SEE

You (the media) think he opens up to you, but really it's the odd joke here and there and it's either to lighten the mood or to avoid the question.

A SOURCE, who says that Claudio Ranieri is actually hard to read.

Yes his CV showed that he had managed Napoli, Fiorentina, Valencia (twice), Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Parma, Juventus, Roma, Inter Milan and Monaco, but it also showed a distinct lack of top-flight success.

He would argue that those appointments invariably came in troubled times, such as after Fiorentina, Juventus and Monaco were relegated to the second tier, and that he was usually too preoccupied with fighting fires or building foundations to win trophies.

He even tried to make a virtue of it, responding to the derision poured on him by Mourinho by saying he was "not like Mourinho; I don't have to win to be sure of the things I do".

The common perception of Ranieri - in Italy, never mind in England, where his "tinkering" at Chelsea earned that unwanted nickname - was of a nearly man, a nice guy, good enough to get a succession of top jobs but lacking the ruthlessness or conviction to succeed at the very highest level.

And that was the more generous appraisal, before a calamitous three-month spell in charge of the Greece national team two years ago ended with a humiliating defeat at home by the Faroe Islands.

Eight months without a job ensued before an offer unexpectedly came from Leicester City, who were asked if they had taken leave of their senses.

It would be wrong to say that Leicester's players were underwhelmed by the appointment of Ranieri last July.

Plenty of them, privately, were happy that the club had managed to land a "big name" in succession to Englishman Nigel Pearson, under whom they had avoided relegation by winning seven of their final nine league games last season.

Robert Huth, who had worked under Ranieri at Chelsea, told his team-mates that it would be hard work. He was right - the pre-season training camp in Switzerland was a slog - but it turned out to be less intense than Ranieri had in mind.

A plan for a six-day week, at times training both morning and afternoon, was dropped because Ranieri sensed resistance from the players.

He would work them hard, tactically as well as physically, but where possible, they would take a recovery day on Wednesdays as well as Sundays. That was an early and significant victory.

One dressing-room source suggests that the Italian could have "lost" the players had he insisted on the six-day week. Rather than tinker with Pearson's formula, he made only the slightest changes.

He was surprised how much he liked the dynamic on the training pitch and chemistry in the dressing room. He bought into that atmosphere, promising them pizzas every time they kept a clean sheet in the league.

It was not what he was used to - far more energetic on the training pitch, far more laid-back off it - but he was enjoying the balance and so were the players. "I trust you," he told them. "I will explain football ideas now and then as long as you give me everything."

Leicester's players have given more than Ranieri could have imagined. They lead the Premier League and are on course for what would arguably be, in view of the financial landscape of 21st-century football, the most extraordinary title triumph the English game has seen.

Frank Lampard, who played under the Italian at Chelsea, has been watching from afar.

"People have talked about (Jamie) Vardy and (Riyad) Mahrez, who have been outstanding, and about the team behind the manager - the scouting team, who have clearly got it spot-on - but Claudio deserves huge credit for what is happening there," the New York City midfielder said.

"There's an extra togetherness about them, an extra edge. They look like hard-working lads anyway, but he's got another 30 or 40 per cent from them."

Ranieri has always seemed like an open book. What you see is what you get - amiable, bumbling and slightly goofy. But those who know him pour scorn on the caricature.

He is amiable, yes, but he is hard, intense, driven and, say those who feel relatively close to him, he is far from an open book. They regard his light sense of humour as a defence mechanism.

"You (the media) think he opens up to you, but really it's the odd joke here and there and it's either to lighten the mood or to avoid the question," a source says. "When you really look at it, he doesn't give much away."

Ranieri, 64, is nobody's fool. His entire career has been about trying to prove people wrong. He never really managed it as a journeyman player with Roma (briefly), Catanzaro, Catania and Palermo.

His managerial career has been far more illustrious, but still there are certain tags he has yet to shed.

He has never won a league title - not in the top division, at least. He has come close, perhaps most impressively with the unfancied Roma team who ran Mourinho's Inter close in Serie A in 2010.

But now he finds himself leading from the front. The "nearly man" who was never quite able to feel at home among the aristocracy is threatening to turn the establishment upside down.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'Flying Foxes make Ranieri the Superman'. Print Edition | Subscribe