How 'Dilly Dong' and pizza gave Foxes the scent of title glory
Published 03/05/2016 | 02:30
It is quite a small room: plain white walls, two three-seater sofas, a couple of pot-plants. If it were not for the black-and-white pictures of 19 Premier League managers hung on the walls, it could be a humdrum suite in a mid-ranking business hotel.
Instead, Claudio Ranieri's office at the King Power stadium has become the nerve-centre of the greatest fairy tale English football has ever seen, the place where plots have been hatched and victories toasted. Ranieri's decision to adorn the wall with images of his peers was designed to make them feel at ease when they visited him after matches; instead, they have assumed the look of big-game trophies, all eclipsed by Ranieri and his remarkable band of title-winners.
Rewind just over nine months, and that scenario would have been deemed laughable. It was at a time when negatives were threatening to darken the mood after Nigel Pearson's messy departure, the controversial appointment of Ranieri as his successor and the impending exit of their player of the year, Esteban Cambiasso.
The message to supporters at Ranieri's unveiling, delivered by chief executive Susan Whelan, was "Trust in us," yet not even the most optimistic Leicester follower could have envisaged how the season would pan out.
Bookmakers gave Alex Ferguson winning Strictly Come Dancing shorter odds than Leicester claiming the league title, but Ranieri has delivered the feel-good story of the decade, offering hope to clubs from the Premier League to park football that the underdog can rip up the script. Yet when Pearson was dismissed in June, Ranieri was not even first choice for the job. Martin O'Neill was approached by Leicester's Thai owners and at one stage it appeared as if an emotional return was imminent before he opted to stay with the Republic of Ireland.
Leicester were considering Guus Hiddink, but it was agent Steve Kutner who forwarded the CV of Ranieri, setting the wheels in motion. Kutner has known Ranieri since 2001, when Chelsea signed his star client Frank Lampard, and believed the Italian's record deserved scrutiny. Talks went well in London, where Ranieri still owns a property near Stamford Bridge with wife Rosanna - and Leicester's plea for trust has been rewarded.
Ranieri has been box office for much of the season, his eccentricities lightening the mood and preventing the pressures of a title race from choking his players.
He has entered a new phrase - 'Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong' - into the football lexicon, a reference to his method of ensuring his players are focused by ringing an imaginary bell in training.
He has courted the media smartly, too. He still shakes the hand of all members of the press before his briefings begin - apart from before the West Ham game, which Leicester nearly lost.
His genial, dotty persona extends to the training ground. He has an unprintable nickname for the talismanic Jamie Vardy and last week ordered a standing ovation for Shinji Okazaki after the Japanese striker passed his English exam in London. In October, he delivered on his promise to reward his players for clean sheets by taking them to Peter Pizzeria in Leicester city centre, while he was happy for them to fly out to Copenhagen for their Christmas party dressed as superheroes and cartoon characters.
For his own part, the 65-year-old - who started the season as the favourite to be the first top-flight manager to be sacked but is now in line for a new contract - has embraced Leicestershire life to the full. A pub in the village of Little Bowden, the Cherry Trees, has become a favourite Sunday afternoon haunt when City are not playing.
Kasper Schmeichel, the goalkeeper, said: "The best compliment I can pay is that he resisted the urge to change everything. That is something a lot of managers want to do, they bring their own people and do everything their own way.
"He came in the first week, he introduced himself and then didn't say anything the following week because he just watched us and how we work. He recognised that he had a squad that worked well with each other, got on really well, played well and trained hard."
Ranieri would be the first to admit that he inherited a strong set-up and squad from Pearson, but he has turned good players into superstars. Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kanté figure on every wishlist among Europe's top clubs and their emergence is a triumph for diligent recruitment, led by assistant manager Steve Walsh.
Ranieri jokes about Walsh's doggedness in his pursuit of players - "He kept saying Kanté, Claudio, Kanté" - but they have been perfect additions, blending supreme footballing gifts with the kind of clubbable personalities that Ranieri was able to blend into a team.
One moment, in particular, sums up the selflessness of this squad. It was in the 2-1 win over Watford in November: Leicester had just been awarded a penalty and Mahrez, the string-puller who has sprinkled stardust across the country, is about to take it.
"The manager said at the beginning of the season that I was the designated penalty-taker," Mahrez recalls. "I took the ball but 'Vards' came to me and said, 'Riyad, please give me the ball, I want to get the ninth goal in a row'. I was going to take it but then I thought, 'No, he's right', so I gave him the ball to continue his run."
Vardy did score that penalty and later that month shattered the 12-year old record held by Ruud van Nistlerooy by scoring in 11 successive league games. The England international has been the talisman all season, but there is no suggestion of resentment at his success. His record goalscoring feat saw him given a shirt signed by the squad and prompted a post-match visit to the dressing-room from the Thai owners, when he was personally congratulated and later presented with a silver plate.
Tellingly, there were also no complaints from within when the club decided to dismantle their strict wage structure and hand him a new £75,000-a-week contract.
Funds will be made available for Ranieri this summer, while the majority of the squad are in line for lucrative new deals.
"Trust in us," indeed. (© Daily Telegraph, London)