Heart Of Football

Celebrate Ranieri's homecoming but not hooliganism's return

The picture that could define the season is about to be taken. Chelsea will line up on their pitch in a guard of honour to Leicester City, the upstart Foxes who not only took their Premier League title, but ran away from the entire field.

Leicester start the final day 10 points clear at the top. Chelsea, last season's top dogs, are 31 points behind.

And not only does Claudio Ranieri return to lead out his champions at the club that fired him 12 years ago, he is at Stamford Bridge for the first time since Leicester's win against Chelsea just before Christmas ended the career of Jose Mourinho.

Oh, such sweet sorrows, such delicious irony.It was, of course, Jose who arrived a dozen years ago to take the team that Claudio built before the Roman Abramovich era, declared the Italian a loser and took over the team that Ranieri had moulded.

There are many, still, who fondly recall how Ranieri laid the basis for the titles Mourinho enjoyed first time around at the Bridge. That was before Ken Bates sold the club to Abramovich - and with someone's sense of delightful irony, Mr Bates has been invited back there for this last afternoon of the English season.

Leicester City's Wes Morgan and manager Claudio Ranieri lift the Premier League trophy as they celebrate their remarkable triumph on May 7. Ranieri was once derisively described by former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho as a loser. PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

Those with long memories might just recall the only time in 50 years that Leicester have won the battle of the blues in West London. It was September 2000, and on the eve of Ranieri arriving from Atletico Madrid to replace Gianluca Vialli as Chelsea coach.

(John Terry) has been the rock, a darned rugged and sometimes brutal one, on the field and in the dressing room for, literally, a sporting lifetime.

"I hope my older fans are happy with me," says Ranieri. "Now I come back as a champion. It is a good story."

Good for him, and for the Foxes. Not great for Chelsea or any of the self-styled Big Four of the EPL.

Today, the result scarcely matters at Stamford Bridge, except for pride. Diego Costa, Loic Remy and Kurt Zouma are injured. John Terry is taking one of his periodic enforced rests after being sent off in the previous game and, though he will doubtless witness the hand-over to Leicester, the captain might very well have played his 703rd and last game for Chelsea.

The club has belatedly offered him a one-year contract, at reduced pay for a much reduced role. And Terry, who joined Chelsea at 14 and is now 35, has offers from China and Qatar and quite possibly the USA to consider before deciding his next move.

He has been the rock, a darned rugged and sometimes brutal one, on the field and in the dressing room for, literally, a sporting lifetime.

The media are guessing that the one-year contract put on the table this weekend is nowhere near the £140,000 (S$275,000) per week this monument to Chelsea's combative blue has represented to a huge section of the crowd who plan a JT show of love and gratitude today.

The game, the gestures, the outcome are the turning of an era. But with the title done and dusted, with relegation already assured for Newcastle and Norwich and Aston Villa, the only thing of any consequence to be decided is the final Champions League qualifying place.

Even that is heavily stacked in Manchester City's favour. If City so much as draw at Swansea today, then United cannot overtake them. And what a relief that will be to Pep Guardiola and the Man City owner and board who have enticed him from Bayern Munich, and sacked the gentleman Manuel Pellegrini to make way for Guardiola.

Without bitterness, but a lame duck manager since December when the Guardiola announcement became evident, Pellegrini points out that England will prove a far harder nut to crack than either of Guardiola's two clubs as coach so far.

In terms of Munich, that is correct insofar as the Bundesliga title goes. Bayern usually wins it in a canter, and makes sure of doing so by buying the best players of anyone else, notably Borussia Dortmund to both empower Munich and weaken the opposition.

The French title has been a one-horse race since Qataris bought out Paris St-Germain, for whom Zlatan Ibrahimovic signs off this weekend in typically modest fashion: "I came as a king," he pronounced, "I leave as a legend."

True, but it would have sounded better if somebody else made that judgment.

And with Juventus again romping home with the Serie A title, the only top league in Europe that went the distance was last night's perennial Barcelona v Real Madrid race in Spain.

So England broke the mould of money and prestige hoovering up everything.

Not one of us predicted the Leicester City fairy story.

No one could have foreseen Ranieri's return to Stamford Bridge as the conqueror.

If he were not so humble, he might adopt Zlatan-like braggadocio and say he returns like Caesar. Instead, his humility will be applauded by most Chelsea fans today.

At least, one hopes so. We had a return to the bad old days in London last week when disaffected West Ham followers - common hoodlums - threw beer bottles and other objects through the windows of the Manchester United team bus en route to the last game at the old Boleyn Ground.

West Ham won on the field, but lost everything outside of the game. The thugs who attacked United's coach will, once CCTV cameras identify them, face trial in court.

English football dare not go back to mob rule. And the Hammers' co-chairman, David Sullivan, has apologised for his crass attempt to pin the blame for the visitors' late arrival on the Manchester club.

Sullivan said it was United's fault because they did not arrive four hours early. He sounded like those apologists of the 1970s when he dismissed what happened as exuberance of West Ham fans on an emotional day.

What age is Sullivan living in? Even as he demanded that the EPL punish United, cellphone footage of the shattered windows of the bus went viral.

Now Mr Sullivan wants the police to identify the villains. West Ham, he says, will ban them for life.

Ranieri back at the Bridge is a cause for celebration. England reverting to hooliganism is not.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2016, with the headline 'Celebrate Ranieri's homecoming but not hooliganism's return'. Print Edition | Subscribe