It’s hard to look back on the Premier League career of Claudio Ranieri without sheer fondness.
While every job he has taken in England has been met with overwhelming scepticism, Ranieri has charmed his way through club takeovers, managerial madness, and fairy-tales.
Twenty years ago, Chelsea appointed Italian manager Claudio Ranieri. It was an appointment that raised many eyebrows. He had just departed a soon-to-be relegated Atletico Madrid, a club in freefall in LaLiga and now in administration. Ranieri jumped before he was pushed. So, it’s little surprise that those in West London struggled to be encouraged by their latest man at the helm.
The first task in England was the language; a skill Ranieri worked hard to master, aided by the Italian and Spanish stars already existing in the Chelsea squad. His first season wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t one to write home about either. A sixth-place finish and a spot in the UEFA Cup, reward for an albeit inconsistent campaign.
Ranieri can be regarded as the man responsible for bringing some of Chelsea’s most important players. He signed the club’s now-record goal scorer Frank Lampard from West Ham in the summer of 2001. He was the centrepiece of a rebuild which included Emmanuel Petit, Boudewijn Zenden and Jesper Gronkjaer. William Gallas also came in for the hefty price of £30million.
The critics were always lurking though. Another sixth-place finish in the league came, and an FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal. Despite the heavy investment, Ranieri was lambasted for selling fan favourite Dennis Wise in the middle of his reconstruction.
Another season followed and the vultures began to back off. Chelsea qualified for the UEFA Champions League after beating Liverpool 2-1 on the final day of the season in 2003. One of those signings we mentioned, Gronkjaer, with a swooping winner at Stamford Bridge.
A season which finished on a high, yet a season which Ranieri attained infamous nickname; The Tinkerman. Why? He was often accused of over-rotating his playing squads. And that’s one reason why talk around his future began.
These over-complicated changes were combined with a new takeover. Roman Abramovich bought the club in the summer of 2003 and despite being given a large transfer fund, Ranieri’s job was under threat with Sven-Goran Eriksson waiting in the wings.
The Italian spent £120 million on players in the summer. Some big names like Claude Makelele, Hernan Crespo and Juan Sebastian Veron came to West London and helped Ranieri and Chelsea achieve their best league finish in 49 years, runners-up to Arsenal Invincibles, a team Ranieri and co beat in dramatic style in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final.
Despite, Ranieri was criticised by the media and fanbase alike for his bizarre substitutions and tactical approach after a semi-final humbling by finalists Monaco. They, in turn, would go on to lose to Porto, managed by Jose Mourinho. He was next in line at Stamford Bridge and would replace Ranieri who was eventually shown the door by the club’s new owner.
Fast forward 11 years, and it’s safe to say nobody expected his return to England and the subsequent drama after.
Following a prolonged spell back in Italy with clubs like Juventus, Roma and Inter Milan, and a miserable stint as Greece head coach, Ranieri was back in English football. With Leicester. An appointment some in the UK press branded “baffling.”
The Guardian were particularly bemused by the Italian’s appointment, saying: “If Leicester wanted someone nice, they've got him. If they wanted someone to keep them in the Premier League, then they may have gone for the wrong guy."
“May have gone” being the operative words in this scenario. From the very beginning, a wiser, more rounded Ranieri combined calming inspiration with infectious good humour.
An opening day victory over Sunderland was quickly followed by a unique reward for Leicester’s playing squad. Following the club’s first clean sheet of the season, which came in the 10th league game, Ranieri bought all his players a pizza to celebrate the occasion – an act which attracted further media attention.
In March 2016, Ranieri's quips once again attracted attention when he stated in a press conference that he used an "imaginary bell" in training in order to keep his players focused, by saying "dilly ding, dilly dong"; the quote later gained popularity and became a club catchphrase.
Leicester entered April at the summit of the Premier League and on 10 April 2016, they clinched a spot in the UEFA Champions League after a 2–0 away win over Sunderland, with Ranieri overcome with emotion at his side’s achievement that he was reduced to tears on the pitch at full-time.
On 1 May, Ranieri’s flying foxes picked up a vital point away against Manchester United, meaning Tottenham had to win against Chelsea to keep the unlikeliest of unlikely title races alive. The score was 2-2.
It meant that after everything: after Ranieri's appointment had been questioned in the media, barely avoiding relegation the previous season, and starting the 2015–16 Premier League campaign as 5,000–1 outsiders to win the title, the greatest story in football, Leicester City, clinched the Premier League title. A first league title in the club’s 132-year history.
Over a decade after being branded “The Tinkerman”, the world’s media had a new name for their newest hero. “King Claudio.”
In fact, the admiration for Ranieri was so strong it even had journalists gushing over him and putting his name forward for a knighthood. “Sir Claudio?” a bubbly Ranieri rejoiced. “UNBELIEVABLE!”
When Leicester played their last game of the season, at his old club, Chelsea, he was rightly celebrated by home and away supporters alike. That season was Ranieri’s only top-flight league title to date. His success that year earned him the Premier League Manager of the Season award and the prestigious Grand Officer of the Italian Order of Merit in his home country.
For every ecstatic high, comes the inevitable low. Leicester’s new commitment to the Champions League season, coupled with the departure of N’Golo Kante, and a goal drought from sensation Jamie Vardy, made the season after the title one to forget. And as quickly as Ranieri was hauled into the job, he was thrown out of it.
On 23 February 2017, the formerly known Tinkerman, but now King was out of Leicester. The club denied a player revolt was to blame, while pundits far and wide blamed Leicester’s players’ rise to stardom as a reason for Ranieri paying the price.
Ranieri was not yet done with English football. He returned in November 2018, replacing Slavisa Jokanovic at Fulham, tasked with another unlikely mission: survival. He won his first match in dramatic fashion against Southampton at Craven Cottage but his spell back in West London only lasted three months after winning just three of his 17 games in charge.
Overall, Ranieri’s Premier League career has been filled with more lows than highs. But, in years to come, and we look back on some of the great managers to ever grace the game, nobody will be looking for whenever this infectious Italian lost his job. Everybody will instead reminisce on how this irresistible Italian gave football its greatest ever story.