Revealed: The inside story of Claudio Ranieri's Leicester City sacking and how things started unravelling last July
Claudio Ranieri's Leicester fairytale may have come to an ignominious end in the drab, soulless surrounds of East Midlands Airport on Thursday, but the origins of his demise can be traced to a scorching hot Californian afternoon last July.
Leicester's trip to Los Angeles to participate in the International Champions Cup had already threatened to turn sour, with players grumbling about the 11-hour flight and Ranieri appearing unusually jaded and irritable throughout the trip.
Yet arguably the most telling sign that all was not well with the club who had been crowned English champions for the first time two months previously came when owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and another senior board member bizarrely decided to monitor a training session from high chairs. It was a scene that resembled a sequence from 'Gladiator' - all that was missing was the thumbs-up - and a telling symbol of a club struggling to adjust to its new lofty status, and one suddenly under a level of scrutiny and expectation unprecedented in its 133-year history.
That struggle - for Ranieri, at least - effectively came to an end with the embarrassing FA Cup defeat to Millwall last week, a result which proved the final straw for Srivaddhanaprabha and prompted him to enact a sacking that has polarised opinion across football. He must feel like the man who shot Bambi's mother.
Ranieri was on his way regardless of the 2-1 Champions League defeat to Sevilla but a meeting with senior players in the team hotel – called by Srivaddhanaprabha – sealed his fate.
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Those players were asked if there were any issues in the dressing room, as reported by Telegraph Sport earlier this month, and the answer was an unequivocal ‘yes’. They had lost faith with the 65-year-old months ago and felt relegation was inevitable unless a change was made.
Even as recently as Wednesday, the decision to drop Demarai Gray and play £15million flop Ahmed Musa in Seville bewildered the players. One source said: “It was no surprise because he has been making crazy decisions all season.”
Another source described how the players felt “flat as f---s” and painted a picture of a team feeling they were aboard a sinking ship – just nine months after winning the title.
There have been other incidents, too. Ranieri’s methods and tactics have been confusing and angering players and staff, while it alleged he barely spoke to No. 2 Craig Shakespeare, a popular member of the dressing room.
Ranieri made his players train on the morning of the FA Cup tie at Derby County on Friday night, amid suggestions that the owners were unhappy he was preparing to play a weakened team. He has also frequently changed tactics without warning less than two hours before kick-off.
In the 0-0 draw in Copenhagen in November, he angrily confronted a popular member of the backroom staff over a row about the players wearing the wrong football studs. It sounds innocuous, but it was an early sign that Ranieri was losing his grip on the dressing room and feeling the pressure.
Earlier this year when Leicester’s players held talks to force a return to the tactics of last season, essentially 4-4-2 with the plan to counter-attack, Ranieri waved them away and insisted there should be only one voice at the club.
His press conferences had also been a source of irritation. His custom of shaking the hand of every journalist remained but the words he used to describe their struggles jarred with players, who believed it underlined his diminishing grasp of the situation.
Those players will be under huge scrutiny now. There have been accusations of a revolt led by senior players, including Kasper Schmeichel and Jamie Vardy, and it all appears to be another case of player power, evoking memories of Jose Mourinho’s exit from Chelsea last season.
Schmeichel’s remarkable outburst after the defeat to Manchester United earlier this month, when he described their title defence as “embarrassing” and “terrible” was heartfelt, but he also pointedly referred to “everyone from top to bottom” raising their game.
But the simple fact is that Ranieri did have to go. Leicester were heading for relegation, devoid of leadership and direction, and players will always survive, rightly or wrongly.
In truth, Ranieri cannot be blamed for everything about Leicester’s astonishing decline. Leicester have struggled to address key issues since becoming champions and there have been too many over-promotions in significant roles behind the scenes.
The role of Jon Rudkin, the director of football and close to the Srivaddhanaprabha family, is under the microscope and the question has to be asked whether he has fulfilled his remit properly.
Recruitment over the summer was abysmal, while the policy over new contracts bred resentment in the dressing room with the players not rewarded. The decision to present players with BMW’s also went down badly with long-serving members of staff who felt their roles had been ignored.
While Alex Ferguson always insisted “the bus stops for no-one”, Leicester have been in reverse since the open-bus tour in May.
It was the start of an excruciating campaign which has yielded only five wins in the league. Their success in the Champions League, an admirable achievement, has arguably earned Ranieri a stay of execution. Alarm bells were ringing after the defeat at Watford in November while other performances have triggered deep concern.
Yet the board still felt compelled to issue a statement declaring their “unwavering support” just three weeks ago. It was an ultimatum to the players, effectively informing them to buck up their ideas as Ranieri was going nowhere.
But the dreadful performance in Swansea was the response from the four walls of the dressing room, a defeat which left them hovering above the dreaded dotted line. Srivaddhanaprabha was soon realising that the statement had been a waste of time.
The defeat to Millwall signalled the end, but Leicester could not travel to Seville without a manager so he was given that game as a farewell.
Schmeichel’s heroics and Vardy’s first goal in 2017 could have served as a sorely needed turning point but Ranieri was out, less than 24 hours later.
Gary Lineker has admitted he shed a tear – and it is impossible not to feel sympathy for a man who radiated warmth and was always a pleasure to deal with.
After winning the title he privately told us that next season would be even more difficult dealing “with the sharks”, as he liked to call the press. However, it was the big fish in the dressing room which ultimately did for him.
We will miss Ranieri and all his charming idiosyncrasies but football can be cruel and ruthless, relegation the nightmare scenario. Sadly, he had to go.