“Never could I have imagined this. We work so hard. Everyone does, but only one can win. This year it happened to me! It’s my karma. I’ve fought so hard to achieve so this is special. I want to thank my players, chairman, staff and fans. Our Chairman gives to us calmness and positivity. Never have I seen him nervous. That is important to me.
“To the fans. They were dreaming. I say dilly-ding, dilly-dong, they woke up and the dream was a reality.”
[ MORE: Leicester news after PL win ]
On Thursday Claudio Ranieri was reflecting on Leicester City’s top-flight title win, the first in their 132-year history, as he sipped champagne with the media after being applauded into the room. He oozed class, composure and humility.
If anybody deserves this kind of respect, admiration and a glorious coronation, it’s Ranieri.
The 64-year-old Italian coach has become the central figure in this remarkable fairy tale and on Saturday he will lift a top-flight trophy for the first time in his journeyman career which has seen him manage 15 clubs and the Greek national team over the past 28 years.
[ MORE: Mahrez to leave? ]
Slowly and very surely his transformation into a title-winning manager is complete. His persona, off the pitch, hasn’t changed much but there have been tweaks, and after Leicester’s triumph his life will never quite be the same again as calls for him to be Knighted by the Queen of England and many other accolades continue.
A charming, modest, quiet man from the San Saba neighborhood in the heart of Rome, Ranieri grew up close to the Circus Maximus and has never forgotten his roots. The butcher’s son flew home to have lunch with his 96-year-old mother on the day Leicester were crowned champions of the Premier League.
He has stayed true to himself but over time his personality has transformed subtly. Perhaps disappointments along the way have altered his outlook, sharpened his focus and taught him the keys to success. It seems like his entire career has been building to this moment.
[ MORE: What does winning the PL really mean for Leicester? ]
Ranieri’s persona as a loveable grandfather figure is one which slightly contrasts his past image when he was in charge at Chelsea from 2000-04. Those who knew Ranieri during his time in charge at Chelsea speak of him as a gentleman and a humble, quiet man, but one who sometimes seemed confused and easily flustered. It didn’t help that he didn’t speak English when he first arrived in England 16 years ago and the translator Chelsea handed to him hardly gave Ranieri’s comments the character we know now he has.
Since 2004 when Ranieri left England there has been this lingering notion that yes, Ranieri was a nice man, but the puzzled look he often had on his face on the sidelines at Stamford Bridge was because he often confused himself. Nicknamed “The Tinkerman” for consistently changing his players and lineups, Ranieri has never shrugged off that tag. Until now.
He chose his first press conference (in front of the media, who he has referred to as “the sharks” all season long) since becoming a title winner to give himself a new nickname.
“I am now the Thinkerman, not Tinkerman!” Ranieri laughed
This incredible season isn’t about redemption, resurrection or re-invigoration for Ranieri. If he wasn’t handed another job after a disastrous spell in charge of the Greek national team which ended in 2014, then he probably would have been just fine.
[ MORE: How will Leicester’s success change the PL? ]
However, when the opportunity arose to return to England it was about returning to a land where he enjoyed being a manager, where he enjoyed the culture and was at ease. We’ve seen that during every press conference this season. Ranieri even refers to himself as “an English player” during his playing days and that he loves the dedication and commitment. He has coached in Italy, Spain, France, Greece and England but it seems as though Ranieri is enamored by the English culture and vice versa, and he always maintained his home in London despite not working in the country for over a decade.
Fans in Leicester have multiple songs in his honor, the local market has named a spicy Italian sausage after him and during games the connection with the supporters has been immense to help drive the Foxes over the line. Often he would raise his arms and gesticulate to the crowd for help to inspire the players in the final minutes of games. The supporters would respond, realizing they were on the edge of greatness.
Ranieri would have picked up tricks like that over the years and was it the difference in Leicester’s 14 one-goal wins this season? It certainly didn’t hurt.
“The fans understood our difficulties and they pushed a lot,” Ranieri told ProSoccerTalk after their 1-0 win over Southampton in April. “They were not nervous, they understood our momentum and they are pushing with us. It is a fantastic link. It is unbelievable. They are very, very close with us. They understand when we need support or when I asked for support… but I didn’t even ask today. They started early to help us.”
Despite all the current euphoria surrounding Ranieri and his team achieving the unthinkable, the initial reactions from Leicester’s fans to his appointment was in stark contrast. Let’s cast our minds back to July 13, 2015…
Leicester legend Gary Lineker wasn’t impressed.
Pretty much everyone believed they were doomed for relegation and in all fairness, it was a strange appointment. Leicester had hired a manager who had never been involved in a PL relegation battle, hadn’t worked in England in over a decade and had just crashed and burned with the Greek national team. Simple logic saw it as a “strange appointment” as one leading Leicester fan told me back in the summer.
What was to come was something Ranieri admitted he didn’t start believing would be a possibility until their win at Manchester City in February.
“I was so satisfied when we won at Manchester City,” Ranieri told the Guardian. “We made a fantastic performance away. Unbelievable. Maybe when we won there 3-1, maybe my players believed in something: ‘Maybe we can win, maybe we can fight until the end’. I never spoke about this to them. I said: ‘OK, clean everything, next match. Start again.’ So when I said to you [the media] we play match by match, it was true.”
That game-by-game battle to achieve the title when everybody thought they would slip up has gripped Leicester, England and most of the soccer, and sporting, world. Ranieri has used every ounce of his experience to ease any pressure on his players, never truly admitting they were in a title battle until the final weeks of the season. He is famous for using sdramatizzare to put his players at ease and team trips to pizza parlors after recording a shutout and waxing lyrical about local rock band Kasabian has helped Ranieri fit in and make the situation seem much more normal.
The media has hung on his every word, laughing along with his jokes and giving him gifts at press conferences. Books have been commissioned and will be written about Ranieri’s journey and released in the opening months of next season. His players also seem encapsulated by the Italian’s seamlessly never-ending stream of charm.
Ranieri has read the situation he came into at Leicester perfectly, keeping plenty of the existing backroom staff, adding a few of his own and not changing an awful lot from their incredible run of seven wins from the final nine games last season to stave off relegation and set themselves up for this magical campaign.
But don’t be fooled by all of these niceties, there is a harsh soccer coach in there. One who is deeply demanding that his players work hard and deliver.
NBC Sports analyst Graeme Le Saux played for Ranieri at Chelsea.
“That’s all veneer, don’t be fooled, that’s part design,” Le Saux said recently regarding Ranieri’s charming demeanor. “He’s a very shrewd operator and he wouldn’t shirk a big decision. Behind the smile there’s a ruthless football manager, a guy who is happy to make big decisions.
“At Leicester he hasn’t had to, the team picks itself. He’s not had to deal with dropping big names and moving people on. Once he’s established his team and his shape, he’s been the polar opposite to what we were calling him, the Tinkerman.”
Even though Leicester will be in the Champions League next season, Ranieri has already said he doesn’t want big name players to arrive and for the Foxes to get away from who they really are.
“I don’t want big names,” Ranieri said. “I don’t want it in my dressing room. My lads are special. Who arrives must have the same spirit.”
It turns out he’s used the “dilly-ding, dilly-dong” tactics throughout his career to keep his players focused and despite his penchant for squad rotation, this season he’s kept a settled team in a solid 4-4-2 formation. He has used just 23 different players this season, fewer than any other PL club, and although it may have been out of necessity rather than design Ranieri didn’t tinker and look what happened. That Tinkerman tag has finally fallen off.
[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]
He’s shaken off another tag as “the nearly man” too. He was a top-flight runner up with Chelsea in 2003, AS Roma in 2010 and AS Monaco in 2014. Any lingering doubts people had about Ranieri’s ability to get the job done and not confuse himself along the way are over. His journey really started with little Cagilari in 1987 who he took from Serie C to the Serie A. He won cups in Spain with Valencia and Fiorentina in Italy as he took La Viola to Serie A where they became a force. He has had some incredible moments during his long, winding managerial career but this is the best. This is the icing on the cake and perhaps a sizable cherry on top too.
His transformation from Tinkerman to Thinkerman is complete and it is rather fitting that on the final day of the season he will return to Chelsea, last seasons champions, and receive a guard of honor onto the pitch, replicating what occurred when he last stood on the turf of Chelsea’s home stadium.
“I am satisfied, of course, but not in terms of ‘it is revenge’. No, no, no. I am not a man who wants revenge,” Ranieri said. “I know my job very well and sometimes maybe the owner wants to change you because you don’t fit in with him. It is good because last time I left the Premier League (in 2004) I went through my players and they made the guard of honor. It was amazing. Now I will come back in the same way. It is unbelievable.”
What has been unbelievable is this season. Ranieri and his players have become immortal, they’ve sealed their place in soccer folklore forever and even if they crash and burn next season in the UEFA Champions League and the Premier League, they will always have the memories from the 2015-16 campaign when they ruled England.
Stood in his tracksuit by the side of the training pitch, the Roman looked annoyed when asked by one journalist the day after Leicester had won the title if he could quite believe what they’d done. He spoke of his ambition to always win a top league and even now, despite the evolution of his personality into a calm, calculated and humorous individual, there was still a glimpse that he could become a little flustered and slip into his old ways, momentarily.
What could possibly be on the horizon for Ranieri? The charming, humble manager from the Italian capital wants a little more, even if he’s currently savoring the moment.
“This is a moment when you have to leave a little more time and taste slowly, like a good wine, and savor it,” Ranieri said, speaking to the Guardian. “Maybe now is too early to think what we have done. Maybe one or two years could be better to understand but now it is important to stay high in the world.
“I am very happy to win because when you start to make a manager you hope you can win some league. I won the most important league in Europe, I think, not just Europe but the world, the Premier League. It is a fantastic achievement, my career is fantastic but I want to achieve a little more if it is possible.”