In Good Conscience

No one will shed a tear should imploding Leicester get relegated

So the Leicester City story was, after all, the impossible, implausible dream.

The hiring of Claudio Ranieri, a 65-year-old Roman coach, turned a rag bag of strugglers into the 5,000-1 long-shot Premier League champions. It ended less than a season later with Ranieri sacked and the Foxes having one foot in the relegation mire.

"Inglesi Ingrati" (English ingrates) read the headline in Friday's La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy. With respect, La Gazzetta got it wrong.

There hasn't been an English owner of a Premier League champion team since Jack Walker's Blackburn Rovers back in 1995. The rest have all been foreigners, buying for whatever reason, such is the popularity of a league that's soaked in money.

This time, it happens to be the Srivaddhanaprabha family from Thailand who hired and fired their Italian former coach.

 

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha has unquestionable business genius. His King Power empire sells people products they didn't know they needed at duty-free prices, and made him reportedly the fourth richest man in Thailand.

He sensed that his workers were becoming prima donnas. His failure was to stop that happening. Their failure was to turn the greatest story in football into a wretched betrayal of the manager, and of themselves.

He and his son Aiyawatt, to whom he handed day-to-day running of Leicester, thought nine months ago that they were masters of the game. They had signed a miracle worker, a man who could charm players of little repute and persuade them to dream.

Knowing they possessed players who were far from being football gods, the Thais asked Ranieri to pledge that, even if Leicester went down, he would remain to use his wisdom to rebuild the side and regain top-flight status.

The team, and the manager, overachieved to an extent never seen anywhere on Planet Football before - and unlikely ever to be repeated. Hence the 5,000-1 odds.

Now, proving themselves to be desperate, clueless, panic-stricken, the owners praise Ranieri for his graciousness and warmth and, presumably, pay him off.

But there are 10 men of Leicester (except the goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and the departed N'Golo Kante) who are responsible for this. They are the players who effectively downed tools to get their manager fired.

Kante was the team's dynamo. Everyone, even the Srivaddhanaprabhas, could see that. But the French midfielder exercised a clause in his contract allowing him to leave, which he promptly did when Chelsea paid the £30 million (S$52 million) fee on that contract, and more than doubled Kante's salary.

Ranieri acknowledged the player's vital essence, his energy enough for two men, but asked the remaining players to double their own efforts to compensate.

It is no accident that Chelsea, with Kante, are the runaway champion elect. A Chelsea, incidentally, that last year fired their manager Jose Mourinho, seven months after winning the Premier League title.

The Chelsea players tired of Jose, and got rid of him. The Foxes tired of Ranieri, and get shot of him.

Maybe the manager might have foreseen that Wes Morgan and Robert Huth would be exposed without Kante covering in front of them. The veteran warhorse defenders are slowing by the month.

Maybe Ranieri knew that Jamie Vardy's incredible Hollywood scoring streak of last season was unlikely to be repeated.

Maybe the decline of Riyad Mahrez from wizard to the invisible winger was another inevitability. Mahrez would need to be the best player in England for two seasons running to maintain last year's spell-binding form.

And if any man should have known the odds against that were in the realms of 5,000-1, it ought to have been the manager.

Ranieri, after all, has had five decades in the game to study the character of men.

Dilly-ding, dilly-dong, it is a juggling act being a manager at the best of times. Ranieri bought the Birmingham teenager Demarai Gray as a winger with the speed, the guile, the ability to conjure up the unexpected because, one suspects, he anticipated that either Mahrez might burn out or be sold.

Surely, though, the manager was duty-bound to give the team of last season every chance to remain?

And surely they owed him some reciprocal loyalty?

It seems not. Loyalty, an old colleague in journalism once said, is what they stuff you with.

Consider yourself right royally outflanked, Ranieri.

Two weeks ago, when Vichai and son uttered their public vote of confidence in Ranieri, there were rumours that players had stopped listening to the coach.

Claudio denied it.

Either he is too trusting in human nature, or he was papering over the cracks. The King Power Stadium was a house of whispers. Players leaked the news that they were bemused by team selections and changing tactics.

Rather than see the man who took them to the improbable title was trying to change things because what they were doing (or not doing) wasn't working this season, the crybaby Foxes reverted to what they had been before he arrived.

Ranieiri denied there were elements of dressing room mutiny. If players wanted to change the coach, he added, they knew what to do. They could go behind his back and talk to the owners.

One suspects some did exactly that. The Srivaddhanaprabhas were their friends, their benefactors, their grateful admirers. Or so the players believe.

Over and above the salaries and bonuses, Vichai last summer delivered to the stadium 19 brand-new pale blue BMW i8 sports cars, each worth £105,000. One for every squad player, bar the departing Kante, and bar three players who between them made a handful of substitute appearances.

Even at that time, Ranieri was worried. He saw in California, where Leicester's pre-season started in the International Champions Cup, a changed attitude among his players.

"I don't want talk about cars, I want players!" was a rough translation of what Ranieri said then.

He sensed that his workers were becoming prima donnas.

His failure was to stop that happening. Their failure was to turn the greatest story in football into a wretched betrayal of the manager, and of themselves.

Andrea Bocelli will not serenade Ranieri at the King Power ever again. And after the euphoria we all shared last May, who among us will weep if the Foxes are put down a few months from now?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2017, with the headline 'No one will shed a tear should imploding Leicester get relegated'. Print Edition | Subscribe