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Tuesday 16 January 2018

Stephen Hunt: Leicester players let their manager down when he deserved to be protected

Leicester City sacked manager Claudio Ranieri nine months after winning the Premier League title. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Leicester City sacked manager Claudio Ranieri nine months after winning the Premier League title. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

After news came through of Claudio Ranieri's sacking as Leicester City manager on Thursday night, it took me several hours to get my head around it.

One thing I wanted to see again was the opera singer Andrea Bocelli belting out the tunes before the last game of last season, with Ranieri (below) by his side, holding in the tears as fans bawled their eyes out. It was very emotional and it took me back to a time when we all loved the game. Now we're all just sad or angry, or both.

From a business point of view, because they say they simply cannot afford to be relegated, I guess it does make sense for the Leicester board and owners to sack Ranieri. The timing is strange - I'd say it is two weeks too soon - but you can see the logic as a business decision.

But football is not all about business. It should be a 70 per cent mix of business, with 30 per cent emotion. If it was all about emotions, Arsene Wenger would have been sacked years ago.

Even if Leicester are relegated, if any manager deserved to go down, keep his job and still get the chance to get them back up again, it was Ranieri. It would have been a risk, but he deserved that opportunity for what he achieved last season. He should have been untouchable.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Leicester players have let Ranieri down, with their performances, their attitude and, it would seem, with their actions off the pitch, and by running off to the owners to effectively knife him in the back.

One of the difficulties is that the players at Leicester can only play one way and that is 4-4-2. I'm sure of that. Other teams in the Premier League have sussed them out this season, and they struggled to deal with it. The players and the system had run its course, but not necessarily the manager.

Last season's Leicester side were at their best when they didn't have the ball and they have not adapted their tactics and dealt with the fact that the opposition had started to work them out. That comes down to the manager, as well as the players, of course.

And maybe it is time for a new manager to come in with some fresh ideas, systems and tactics. I am a firm believer in playing the right pass at the right moment, whether it is a five-yard short ball, or the Steven Gerrard 100-yard pass from right to left. There is no right or wrong way but teams and players who continue to make bad decisions will get found out eventually.

The majority of the Leicester squad have been out of form and lacking in confidence. But it was always going to be hard for the players who stunned the football world last season, and I do have some sympathy with them.

They got off the adrenaline train at the end of last season after winning the Premier League title, when everyone, no doubt including the players themselves, had expected them to be in a battle at the other end of the table. It was always going to be near-impossible to reach those adrenaline levels again.

They didn't expect to win the league so naturally some will be thinking that they will genuinely never be able to replicate that success or glory. What more can you do if you win the Premier League?

Only the most driven players, like Roy Keane, can push themselves, and drag their team-mates with them, year in, year out. They are rare and they can do that because they are used to winning and demand it from others.

If I had won the league with Leicester last season, I would have found it very difficult to play football this season. Any success is never going to be as good or enjoyable. You just know you can't beat that achievement.

That is not a criticism of the Leicester players, I just think it is an inevitable consequence of their achievements and it has been reflected in their performances, and a lack of togetherness too many times on the pitch.

I have felt for a while that Leicester actually needed to drop into the bottom three to get a reality check and react to their situation. When they see themselves below that line in the relegation zone in 18th, 19th, or 20th, surely there has to be a reaction. Surely there is some pride in their situation?

That is when you expect to see them fight and compete because they will surely start to realise that they are in a relegation fight.

There are a few Leicester players who have to take a serious look at themselves after Ranieri's departure, for their actions in the blue shirt, and in front of the owners.

How on earth some of them can stand there in front of the chairman and the owners and say that there needs to be a change, after all Ranieri did for them, is beyond me. They certainly have not backed him where and when it mattered.

If it had been me, the answer would have to be that it is not my call. It should be up to the owners to make those decisions, and not rely on advice from players.

My personal theory was always that, no matter who he is, you have to be supportive of the manager, especially someone like Ranieri with all he achieved. If any of those players didn't give that response, they will have that on their conscience for the rest of their lives.

There is clearly a problem in the Leicester camp and, as far as I am concerned, Leonardo Ulloa should never be allowed to play for the club again after his behaviour at the end of the transfer window last month.

I do not care what he perceives the club did to him, what promises were broken or didn't come to fruition. He has memories most of us can only dream of thanks to Ranieri and Leicester, and his team-mates, and he could easily have dealt with his alleged grievances in private.

It is not uncommon for a player to be told one thing by the club, they don't deliver and the complete opposite happens. It's disappointing but you deal with it inside the ropes, not outside.

It is not as if he was being touted with a move to a top Spanish club, or top six Premier League club - wasn't it a mid-table La Liga team and Sunderland? He is not a world-beater, either. He is a disruptive disgrace and I wouldn't play him again.

I wonder how he feels now. I wonder how his team-mates feel. And I do wonder about the Leicester supporters. Many seem to support Ranieri's sacking, that maybe the team needed a change because the threat of relegation is very real for them.

The commitment, desire and effort of the players has rightly come under scrutiny at Leicester, because of the levels and the standards they reached last season when they caught everyone's imagination. New players have come in, no doubt on bigger wages, which can create animosity and resentment. It only takes one unhappy player to upset a dressing room.

You can run the same distances every week but if you are even just five per cent off the intensity in your heart and head in the Premier League, then you will not succeed. Everything has to be spot on.

Deep down, you always know if you have reached those levels you set, and if you have the desire to get to the next level to win games. I have not seen that from Leicester this season.

Since the announcement, quite a few non-Leicester fans have said they would like to see them relegated. I wouldn't. I'd like to see them show some fight and resilience to get out of trouble and to stay up on merit.

If they do go down, perhaps Ranieri got out at the right time and the Leicester board have done him a favour. Although it is still very hard to see the benefit of that now - especially when you go back and look and listen to those incredible scenes last season.

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