Claudio Ranieri, the globetrotting tinkerman clubs call in a time of crisis
The 67-year-old, dubbed 'Sir Claudio' after his title-winning exploits at Leicester, is tasked with salvaging Roma's season less than two weeks after being sacked by Fulham
In the seven years since Claudio Ranieri managed his last match in Serie A, many garlands have been draped over him. Including, he noticed last week, a fresh honour. Some Italians have taken to referring to him as "Sir Claudio", as if his adventures had earned him a knighthood in England, where he enjoyed his finest hour as a manager.
Ranieri is indeed an Italian knight, proud owner of an Order of Merit of the Republic, awarded by his native country to recognise his achievement in guiding Leicester City to a Premier League title, against impossible odds, in 2016. Ranieri has squeezed into his long, varied career three other head coach jobs since Leicester sacked him nine months after the glorious coronation, and the latest will take him right back to the beginning: to his hometown club, Roma, where he will begin his second stint in charge at home to Empoli on Monday.
Sir Claudio. The Tinkerman. The General, as he used to be known in Spain for his straight-backed demeanour and the air of authority that was admired at both Atletico Madrid and at Valencia, at least until things were awry when he tried a second spell at Valencia. “In Italy, England, Spain, they all say: 'Never come back’,” Ranieri observed to this reporter many times; many times he has gone back to places or leagues where he had been praised and sometimes derided, because club chairmen and presidents keep asking him to.
The Ranieri Return is a constant of modern football: he went back to Spain in 2004, having five years earlier overseen most of an Atletico Madrid season that ended in a historic relegation; he went back to England, to the Leicester job, having been last employed in the Premier League more a decade earlier at a Chelsea where his tinkering - too many rotations and substitutions - had been widely blamed for an under-par European campaign and a second-place finish in the league where the West Londoners were financially dominant. He went back to France, last year, to take over at Nantes, partly because he had achieved progress at Monaco in 2013 and 2014, and mainly because he was the hero of Leicester by then.
The task at Roma is spelled out simply: to provide stability and haul Roma into the top four of Serie A by the end of the season, when this short-term salvage contract expires, but might be renewed if he shows some serious Sir-Claudio-style leadership. Only a fortnight ago, he was in London preparing Fulham for a relegation battle at Southampton. He lost that game, and was sacked on the last day of February, having been at Fulham for only 16 league matches.
As his attempt to rescue Fulham - who were in the relegation zone when he was appointed there - floundered, so, conveniently for Ranieri, Roma were hitting the rocks: a hammering by Lazio in the Rome derby last weekend, followed by elimination, in extra time, by Porto in the last 16 of the Champions League meant the end of Eusebio Di Francesco’s period in charge.
Ranieri was available, knows the territory, and as Francesco Totti, the former club captain and now club director put it: “He is one of the most expert coaches in the game, and what we need now is expertise.” Totti listed another selling-point for the 67 year old: “He is also a Roma fan.” Quite so. Ranieri was born in Testaccio, close to the city centre, and he played for Roma early in a modest but solid playing career as a workmanlike centre-half.
More important, as a coach, he guided Roma to runners-up spot in Serie A the last time he took charge of the club, a 24-match unbeaten run leading to a thrilling title race with Inter Milan in 2009/10. He took bold decisions - even challenging the feted Totti’s guaranteed spot in the side on occasion - and established himself as a go-to coach at the summit of Italian football. Inter offered him a job seven months after he left Roma; he had already managed Juventus.
“I didn’t think twice,” he said of the call from Roma he answered a matter of hours after handing back his Fulham tracksuit. “For me, it means going back home.”
The initial welcome looks warm: Empoli hover just above the Serie A relegation zone, as do SPAL, where Roma go next weekend. After that, a fiery fixture at home to Napoli, and the visit to the Olimpico stadium of Fiorentina. That’s two ex-employers providing two big tests. Ranieri managed both Napoli and Fiorentina back in the 1990s, on the way to becoming the globetrotting General, the travelling Tinkerman, and finally Sir Claudio the champion.
Published: March 11, 2019 08:16 AM