'Tinkerman' Ranieri returns to England on a mission to revive trigger-happy Watford

Renowned manager to work for 19th different employer, who themselves have changed managers 17 times in last decade

Claudio Ranieri flew out of Italy being hailed again as ‘Sir Claudio’. He touched down in England to headlines reminding him that, there, he will always be known as ‘The Tinkerman’. The jobs may change, with Watford becoming the 19th different employer in a long, diverse managerial career, but the nicknames endure.

The Tinkerman, as Ranieri was first dubbed almost two decades ago when Chelsea supporters thought him too eager to make team changes and substitutions, has joined the Premier League institution that should probably be known as the Tinkerclub. When Watford announced the sacking of Xisco Munoz as manager on Sunday, following the 1-0 defeat against Leeds United, it took their total of managerial changes in the last decade to 17.

Xisco led Watford to promotion from the Championship in May, six months after he replaced the Serbian Vladimir Ivic, who in turn had been the third different man in charge since the unusually long stay of Javi Gracia, who lasted a full 66 matches, one them an FA Cup final.

But a high turnover in the technical area is simply packaged into the Watford business model, as it has been defined in the period since the Italian Pozzo family took control of the club in 2012. In Ranieri they have chosen a head coach who knows the local terrain. Italians call him ‘Sir Claudio’ because of his distinguished work in English football, where Watford will be his fourth club.

Ranieri achieved the unlikeliest Premier League title in modern history when he guided Leicester City to the summit in 2016, a gleaming, unrepeatable gold medal to go along with the many runners-up prizes that dot his career: a second place in the Premier League with Chelsea; a silver medal in Ligue 1 with Monaco, a runners-up spot in Serie A with Roma. There were Cup triumphs with Valencia in Spain and Fiorentina in Italy, too.

More recently, Ranieri has been asked to act as firefighter, which will be the task immediately facing him at Watford. Under Xisco they began their first season back in the Premier League - they were relegated in 2020 - with a win against Aston Villa, but have lost four of their last six matches. They go into the international break 15th in the table.

The last time Ranieri was called on to lead a rescue, the situation was far more grave. Sampdoria issued an emergency summons to him this time two years ago from the bottom of Serie A. He guided them to safety by the end of the 2019-20 season.

The previous job in the long Ranieri catalogue was not so successful. Sir Claudio was asked to be Fulham’s knight in shining armour in November 2018, with the Londoners bottom of the Premier League. He lasted 17 games, having won just three of them and was replaced before Fulham’s almost inevitable relegation.

That, along with a poor, brief spell in charge of the Greece national team, and an unhappy stint at Atletico Madrid, are the low points in a broad, sweeping journey through European football, during which Ranieri has charmed the media, been largely appreciated for his humour and diligence by supporters and often dared to be different. He will, if needs be, drop star players, as he did on occasion with Francesco Totti at Roma, a club who later invited him back to manage again.

He remains in demand. Lille, the French champions, were in touch during the summer. Bologna were sounding him out at the end of last month. When he left Sampdoria, safe in Serie A, last May, he had made it clear he had few thoughts of retirement, even with his 70th birthday approaching.

Ranieri will reach that milestone later this month, and probably recall that, many years ago, at the height of his punchy rivalry with Jose Mourinho, who succeeded him at Chelsea and tussled with him in Serie A, Mourinho mocked his age. “He’s nearly 70 and has only won some little cups, so his outlook is different from mine,” Mourinho sneered. Ranieri was actually only in 50s; he had his Leicester miracle still ahead of him.

On the immediate agenda are ominous dates. Watford’s first fixture after the break is against Liverpool. The seven opponents after that include Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Everton, Arsenal and a visit to Leicester, where, assuming the notorious Watford managerial axe has not been suddenly sharpened again, he will receive a very warm welcome.

Updated: October 4th 2021, 4:18 PM
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