Friday 24 November 2017

Leicester mind guru warns of 'terrorists' in squad

Claudio Ranieri and his players celebrating after winning the Premier League. Photo: Getty
Claudio Ranieri and his players celebrating after winning the Premier League. Photo: Getty

Tom Cary

Ken Way has watched the increasingly bitter fallout at Leicester City since Claudio Ranieri was sacked last Thursday with growing sadness.

He has watched as Leicester's players have been labelled "ungrateful", "spoiled" and "treacherous"; accused of carrying out a coup against their own manager.

He has seen the club's Thai owners charged with killing romance stone dead. Listened as the sporting world has debated the tragic ending to one of the greatest fairytales the game has known. He cannot help but be full of regret.

Way was, until the start of this season, the sports psychologist at Leicester City.

Originally part of Nigel Pearson's backroom staff, along with Craig Shakespeare and Steve Walsh, Way was kept on when Ranieri arrived in 2015. But after the miracle of 2015-'16, the relationship came to an abrupt and troubling end.

Way realised he was being let go only when he asked the club's kit men for his ticket allocation ahead of the season-opener, and they mumbled something about his not yet being ready.

"They sort of fobbed me off," he recalls, sadly.

"Told me to come back later. At the time I didn't think much of it but I realise now that they knew I wasn't being kept on..."

Sure enough, a few days after Leicester's 2-1 defeat at Hull City, Way got a letter from the club thanking him for his services and telling him he would no longer be needed.

He admits the manner of his departure left him feeling "bruised" - mostly because Ranieri did not ring him to explain his decision.

But he is adamant he is not speaking out of bitterness when he explains where he feels Leicester's season went astray.

"On the contrary," he says, "I feel really sorry for Claudio. I just sent him a text message actually because first and foremost he is a gentleman. A really lovely man.

"But if I'm honest I do feel he was a bit more distanced from the players and staff than Nigel was.

"Without wishing to be unkind, I think Claudio rode a bit on the coat-tails of Nigel, who had really built a special bond with the players and staff. He profited from the platform they created."

To his credit, Way says, Ranieri changed little when he arrived. He recognised that the atmosphere was good and was happy to tinker with tactics and the systems on the pitch and generally to leave things alone off it.

Departures

That all changed this season, however. Not only with the high-profile departures of key players such as N'Golo Kante, but with backroom staff as well.

"I was very sad when Steve (Walsh) left for Everton - although it was absolutely fair enough from his point of view - but that was another link to that atmosphere from the past," he notes.

"Shakey (Shakespeare) is fantastic at lightening the mood but he's the only one (of the current coaching staff) who really injects genuine vitality into the group. He also has a lot on his plate. In my opinion you need someone who is looking out for that team spirit at all times..."

Someone like him, for instance? Way is diplomatic. "Well, it's the role of all support staff to help create and maintain the right team spirit but I like to think I played my part in this by looking a bit further down the road, watching for warning signs of any 'terrorist' activity."

Way is not referring here to some sort of sleeper cell in Leicester.

"Terrorists," he explains, "are what I call people who, without thinking, suck the lifeblood out of a squad. If I came close to spotting any terrorist activity, I would always react right away to shut down that threat."

If this all sounds to you like psycho-babble, then you would probably be of a mind with Ranieri.

The Italian's scepticism towards sports psychology was well known. He famously had a run-in with one psychologist at Monaco over a metaphorical 'elephant' in the dressing room and was generally of the opinion that tactics were all-important and players should be big and ugly enough to take care of themselves.

"When you are young, maybe you need somebody who can help you, but now you are a man," Ranieri said in August when asked how he intended to prepare his players for Leicester's title defence.

"In life, you need to be strong. Psychologists? No."

Dismissive

Again, Way is tactful when asked about this. He is, and has been in the past, dismissive of his role in Leicester's title success, anxious not to overstate his role, arguing he was actually busier the previous season.

Nor will he identify which players he felt were the biggest 'terrorists' at the King Power Stadium, or those he felt had the potential to go rogue.

It is obvious, though, that he is sad at the way it ended. That the work he did at Leicester - much of it away from the training ground and the stadium, in the homes of players and staff, and for a fraction of the money per year that the top players received per week - was under-appreciated.

When Way watches his former club take on Liverpool tonight, assailed on all sides by allegations of treachery and deceit, he will bemoan that there was no one there to defuse the tension; to make them remember what got them there in the first place.

"It seems to me that what they really lost was the fun they had last season when Christian Fuchs was posting silly YouTube videos," he concludes.

"There hasn't been any of that this season. Unfortunately terrorists are good at recruiting other terrorists - simply by asking obvious questions:

"Why are we playing these tactics? Why do we keep losing? The questioning causes you to lose focus on the very essence of what got you there in the first place.

"That is when I would argue - selfishly perhaps - for the presence of a sports psychologist who can intervene early, before things go wrong." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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