Last Laugh: Leicester City’s Claudio Ranieri, from Tinkerman to unthinkable Title Man

Leicester City have won the Premier League title, as Spurs could muster just a draw against Chelsea on Monday night, and Ian Hawkey sits back and wonders at Claudio Ranieri's unthinkable achievement.

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri shown before his team's Premier League match on Sunday. Darren Staples / Reuters / May 1, 2016
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Perhaps it’s time, now that pluck, underdog chutzpah and against-the-odds defiance are being so gloriously celebrated at the top of the most monied domestic football competition in the world, to doff a cap to the Faroe Islands national team. After all, they not so long ago did something very rare. They defeated a team managed by Claudio Ranieri.

Only two clubs in the English Premier League have managed it in league football this season, after all. And Leicester City should probably thank the Faroes for the dream they fulfilled on Monday night. The new English champions may very well not have been guided so shrewdly and expertly towards their astonishing achievement were it not for the North Sea minnows. Rewind to November 2014, the little matter of 18 months ago, and Ranieri was inching a good deal closer to losing his previous job, as manager of the Greece national side, when they were beaten at home by the Faroes.

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There was good deal of mirth elsewhere at that result, a 1-0 defeat for the team ranked 18th in the world by Fifa at the time, in a Euro 2016 qualifier, humiliated by the official 187th-best football nation. Some of the mirth was especially amplified in England, where Ranieri had an image, a caricature left over from his years at Chelsea, the club he left in 2004. The image was of a coach vulnerable to slipping on banana skins. The image was based in large proportion on the Champions League quarter-final of his last season at Stamford Bridge, when his team let a lead against a 10-man Monaco fall away and were eliminated.

That night, Ranieri made substitutions that puzzled some of his players. One or two leaked their bafflement to the media and his nickname the ‘Tinkerman’ become a sneering, mocking term, even if the man himself, urbane and charming, gracious and benevolent, remained largely liked. But his experience in English football seemed finite back in 2004. Ranieri inherited another sobriquet. He was ‘Dead Man Walking’; he saw Chelsea through to the summer but everybody knew he would be sacked. Jose Mourinho replaced him.

Mourinho taunted Ranieri in the years to follow, especially when the two coaches coincided in Ranieri’s native Italy. The Portuguese scorned Ranieri’s ratio of experience in management to league trophies won. Yes, this Premier League title is Ranieri’s first championship gold medal in a top division after 30 years as a head coach. But it follows some second places which might, with a little more luck, and stealthier avoiding of banana skins, have been league titles.

There was Roma, whose 23-match unbeaten run was part of a sustained challenge to Mourinho’s Inter Milan which went to the last day of the 2007/08 season. There have been runners-up finishes with Chelsea and Monaco.

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“You have to remember that his last season at Chelsea he was unlucky, up against an Arsenal who were brilliant and didn’t lose all season,” said Amadeo Carboni, a compatriot who played under Ranieri at Valencia. At Monaco, with whom he won the 2013 Ligue 2 title in France, he took a silver medal in Ligue 1, in 2014; the front runners then were the mega-wealthy Paris Saint-Germain.

After Monaco, he headed to Greece, and, quickly, the embarrassing fallout from the Faroes fiasco. Sacked by the Greek FA, the Tinkerman was widely greeted as Yesterday’s Man by much of the English media when Leicester appointed him to become many things his predecessor at the club was not. Nigel Pearson, who had driven a stirring run clear of relegation last spring, was rugged and abrasive, and a manager occasionally overcome by a red mist: The Temper Man, rather than a Tinkerman.

By contrast, Ranieri has been urbane, charming, and respectful of the stronger stones in the foundations laid by Pearson.

The tinkerer has hardly tinkered, clear about his best starting XI, happy to work with the coaching support staff from the previous season, happier still to be back in English football.

A dozen years after he left Chelsea, deemed a boss only good for finishing second-best, and now wiser after stints in Spain, Italy, France and perhaps after that fateful night against the Faroes in Piraeus, Ranieri is architect of what may be the most remarkable resurgence in elite European football this millennium.

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