Leicester, Lineker and Managers

Strange choice... Leicester City has surprised many by appointing Claudio Ranieri as its next manager.-REUTERS

The English club avoided relegation from the Premier League last term. This was a particular triumph for the club’s explosive, often controversial manager, Nigel Pearson. Yet within weeks he had been sacked, and replaced by Italian Claudio Ranieri after scandalous behaviour by three members of his squad. By Brian Glanville.

Early last season, Leicester City, hardly a major force in the Premier League, shocked Manchester United on their home pitch with a stunning 5-3 victory; after actually going two goals behind. That proved to be something of a false dawn as subsequently for many months Leicester went off the boil and slid into the lower reaches of the League with relegation a stark possibility. Yet suddenly, surprisingly and all but belatedly, the team took wind, undefeated in its last nine matches, winning no fewer than seven of them.

It was a particular triumph for the club’s explosive, often controversial manager, Nigel Pearson. Yet within weeks he had been sacked after scandalous behaviour not by himself, but, on an ill-fated tour of Thailand, whence the club’s owners have come, three Leicester players who were cast out of the club. One of them being the son of Pearson. Varying the old Biblical saying, evidently the sins of the son had been visited on the father.

There was shocking filmed evidence of the three young Leicester players, all of them reserves, humiliating and abusing three Thailand girls. So out went Pearson with a very mixed response. Gary Lineker, the World Cup Finals top scorer in the Mexican tournament of 1986 with half a dozen goals, now a highly paid television pundit, a Leicester City product himself, was incensed. This, though he and Pearson had fallen out in the past. He demanded, “Could you kindly reinstate him like the last time you fired him? Are the folk running football stupid? Yes.”

As Lineker’s words suggested, Pearson’s role at Leicester had hung by a thread before when after a loutish incident it had initially been decided to sack him only for one of the younger Thai directors to intervene successfully on his behalf. That came after his bizarre assault on a former Leicester player James McArthur, playing against his old team for Crystal Palace. Pearson pounced upon the unfortunate McArthur, knelt on top of him and put both hands around his throat. Within just two hours, Pearson was dismissed, then reinstated.

In another episode, he retorted to a fan who was upbraiding himself, “Eff off and die.” There was also the occasion when he somewhat bizarrely called a local journalist, who had mildly criticised him, an ostrich. Which led to Pearson being taken to task by a senior Midlands reporter, Pat Murphy.

On his dismissal, Pearson was furiously attacked in the Daily Telegraph by their columnist Oliver Brown, who eulogised his dismissal, under the headline, ‘Pearson Was His Own Worst Enemy.’ “Image wise for his employers,” wrote Brown, “he was radio actively awful,” calling Pearson “a bully who should have been sacked months ago.... He had quite frankly become a liability, his habit of revelling in his image as a brutish unreconstructed PE teacher anathema to Thai owners who have set great store by moral rectitude and a spirit of good will in an age when a Premier League manager is required to be at least plausibly ambassadorial. Pearson’s incorrigible narcissism offered as a solid pretext as any for being fired.”

Strong stuff indeed, but narcissism? The origins of that word go back to Greek mythology, Narcissus being despised for constantly admiring his own reflection in the pool. Quite how Pearson has done anything the equivalent of that, for all his angry outbreaks, is puzzling. The fact is that Pearson has been thrown out on moral grounds rather than for any failure as an actual manager. I am certainly not prepared to excuse his various excesses but the salient fact is that he saved Leicester from a disastrous and costly relegation, taking them out of trouble and halfway up the table. And sacking him after those nasty incidents in Thailand which didn’t involve him at all must seem at least a little paradoxical. Besides, for all his coarse behaviour on numerous occasions, there has been no evidence that he bullied or humiliated his own team. He could certainly and reasonably have been sacked after the McArthur outrage. But the actual timing of his dismissal could only appear arbitrary.

Local hero... Gary Lineker, who started his career with Leicester City has criticised the current club management for the sacking of Pearson.-GETTY IMAGES

And the whole vexed situation has now been compounded by the Thai owners’ bewildering appointment of his successor: none other than our old friend Claudio Ranieri. You could hardly blame Gary Lineker, never backward in coming forward, for remarking, “Claudio Ranieri? Really? Claudio Ranieri is clearly experienced, but this is an inspired choice by Leicester. It’s amazing how the same old names keep getting a go on the managerial merry go round.” And Harry Redknapp, manager of so many clubs, from West Ham to Spurs to Queens Park Rangers, observed: “Ranieri is a nice guy but he’s done well to get the Leicester job. After what happened with Greece I’m surprised he can walk back into the Premier League.”

Surprising indeed! Ranieri’s last job being as manager of the Greek team, not so long ago champions of Europe, which lost humiliatingly at home in the European qualifiers to the minuscule Faroe Islands, and ended bottom of their group. Hardly a calling card, you might think, and Claudio in the vernacular does indeed seem a blast from the past.

One remembers him agreeably from his four years in charge of Chelsea, from 2000 to 2004, when his almost obsessive chopping and changing of his team left his being nicknamed the ‘Tinkerman’. One recalls in particular a thrashing in France in a European Cup semifinal game when his selection looked doomed from the first.

The contrast in character with Pearson could hardly be more extreme.

Ranieri had substantial charm and engaging humour. His English was far from perfect but he picked up enough of it to give decent press conferences. Yet to lose with Greece to the Faroes would, you might have thought, made him damaged goods for a long time to come. His whole record has been one of impressible appointments, but little real achievement. Though, to give him his due, he did take Chelsea to second place in the Premier League and to that doomed European Cup semifinal.

The list of his managership is long but somewhat anticlimactic. In the past he has been sacked by Napoli, Chelsea, Valencia, Juventus, Inter, Monaco and now Greece. Leicester wanted their ex-manager Martin O’Neill, a great success there, now manager of Ireland, but couldn’t get him. It’s a shot in the dark now, surely.