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Football

Leicester’s shameful sacking of Ranieri confirms modern football is more business than sport

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Business (noun):

An organization or economic system where goods and services are exchanged for one another or for money, where its output can be sold on a consistent basis in order to make a profit.

Sport (noun):

  1. An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.
  2. A person who behaves in a good or specified way in response to teasing, defeat, or a similarly trying situation.

It is a sentiment that has long been suggested, but Thursday the 24th of February 2017 was the day when, in my eyes, football confirmed it’s desire to operate more as a business than a sport.

Only nine months ago, when Leicester City were remarkably crowned the unlikeliest of Premier League champions, the sport business celebrated the fact that, in a game that is increasingly dominated by finance, an underdog with little expenditure had claimed English football’s biggest prize. It was two fingers up to the established giants of the league, who with gargantuan riches attempt to purchase a even larger competitive advantage over their smaller rivals in every transfer window. It was one up for the values of a hard working ethic and team unity. Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City were rightly lauded as an inspiration and for many, provided a much-needed reminder of why this ‘sport’ was once called ‘The Beautiful Game’.

Yesterday, when Leicester City chiefs brought down the axe on Ranieri’s nineteen-month tenure at the club, it was an ugly reminder of what football has actually evolved to become.

“He had to go,” many have been quick to chime in with. “The financial hit of relegation would be catastrophic, it has to be avoided at all costs,” or words to that effect.

Ironically, the majority of people who have echoed that viewpoint over the past twenty-four hours were amongst those last May who had celebrated Leicester’s triumph as a great example that money isn’t everything. But that’s football. Year on year it becomes more fickle.

ranieri

Thankfully though there are just as many who are appauled by the Ranieri sacking. From being everybody’s second team, overnight Leicester have drawn the ire of people who now want to see them relegated.

In explaining the club’s decision to let the Italian go, Leicester’s vice-chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha stated that “long-term interests” had been put above “personal sentiment, no matter how strong that might be”.

When you consider every football club’s need to attract a fresh fanbase going forward, the long-term effect of a public backlash can’t be so good for those all-important finances can it?

Though they are sitting only a point above the relegation zone, there are still three clubs below Leicester in the Premier League table whilst Middlesborough – currently on a longer winless run than the Foxes I must add – are just one point further ahead in sixteenth. On Wednesday night, Ranieri’s side lost 2-1 in Sevilla in the last 16 of the Champions League but crucially left with an away goal and more than a fighting chance of making the quarter finals of Europe’s top competition.

What an achievement it is that Leicester are even in the knockout stages of the Champions League and how much greater that would be if they made the last eight, but even if they do go out at the hands of Sevilla, there would be no shame in that. The silver lining there in fact would have been returning to domestic action afterwards without the distraction of competing on more than one front and Leicester, with a stronger squad than their relegation rivals, may well have rallied to narrowly beat the drop over the last ten or so games of the season.

Two years ago, in Leicester’s first season back in the Premier League after a 10-year hiatus, they held the 2014/15 season’s longest winless run of thirteen consectutive games and were rooted to the bottom of the table as late as April, yet owners King Power decided to stick with manager Nigel Pearson. Then, after flirting with relegation all season, they put together a late flurry of results that saw them win seven of their last nine games and finish six points clear of the drop zone in a lofty 14th. As recently as 2009, Leicester had been a League One club. Fourteenth in the Premier League, at the time, was cloud cuckoo land by comparison.

leicester

That however was nothing in comparison to last season of course, when they inexplicably performed a miracle to win the title and understandly the bar of expectation was raised. But why, now that they have suffered an inevitable drop though admittedly more of a fall from grace than expected, has Ranieri not been given time? Leicester have been a yo-yo club for decades, last season was the exception, and even returning to the normality of a Premier League relegation battle is actually, within their recent history, a much more prosperous position then they are used to.

In fact, they are currently in a much stronger position now than they were in February two seasons ago, when they stuck by Pearson and gave him a chance to keep them up, which he did. Surely the man who performed the greatest feat in the history of your club deserves more time, more allowance than anyone else? Especially when alongside all that, he has guided you to the knockout stages of the Champions League?

There is a myth within football that a change of manager is the most effective solution to turning around a slump, however statistics prove that isn’t in the fact the case. Of course there are examples when it has had a positive impact, take Hull and Swansea City so far this season for example. There are also many examples when it hasn’t, like Crystal Palace this season.

Much is made of the ‘ambition’ of Leicester City’s Thai owners, who seemingly could not take the risk that the club might drop back down into the Championship. It’s doubtful though that anyone had more ambition than billionaire Vincent Tan, the madcap owner of Cardiff City, after Malkay Mackay lead his club to their debut season in the Premier League in 2013/14.

Cardiff City v Sunderland - Barclays Premier LeagueTan openly spoke with delusions of grandeur about his dream to make Cardiff City an international superpower and invested £140 million of his own money in trying to do so. With the club in a similar position to what Leicester find themselves in now, one point above the relegation zone in seventeenth after a defeat on Boxing Day to Southampton, Tan sacked Mackay and in January 2014 brought in new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. A hot young managerial property, the Norwegian Manchester United legend would spark a turn in form that would keep the Bluebirds in the top flight.

Except he didn’t, and Cardiff in fact plummeted further to finish bottom of the league in May, relegated emphatically and winning just three matches after Mackay’s departure. Finishing 11th and 8th in the Championship in the last two seasons, Cardiff have been through four managers since Solskjaer in that time. After a dreadful start to this campaign under Paul Trollope that saw them win two of their first eleven matches and staring down the barrell of a drop to the third tier, they have now regained some momentum under Neil Warnock and currently lie in 12th, but remain thirteen points from the play-off places.

Showing a lack of loyalty to Mackay, the man who had taken them to the Premier League, in favour of what became a destabilising move in the long-term to assume the grass was greener and hire Solskjaer, was in hindsight a huge mistake.

Conversely, the owners of Burnley must have faced a similar dilemma when manager Sean Dyche, likewise the man who had taken them to the top flight, struggled in his battle to keep the Lancashire side from relegation in 2014/15. Their first season in the top flight in five years, Burnley were in fact relegated after finishing in 19th, but Dyche was kept on as manager. For them, dropping back down into the Championship had a galvanising effect and Burnley bounced back up as champions (they had been runners up in their previous promotion) and currently 12th in the Premier League this season, with the third-best home record in the league, Dyche’s men look to be a much stronger outfit the second time around. Arguably down to their shared experience together, there is a better unity about Burnley than many of the other perceived ‘weaker’ Premier League teams. It’s a rare example of loyalty these days, but shows two things: 1) that having faith in a manager can be rewarded and 2) that relegation isn’t neccessarily the eternal spiral into the abyss that the sensationalist media will have you believe.

It’s perhaps the most famous example of loyalty in football, that Sir Alex Ferguson, after a promising 2nd place finish in 1987/88, was allowed to finish 11th and 13th in the league in the following two years but keep his job at Manchester United. It would be a further three years after that Ferguson won his first title with United and go on to establish more than two decades of Premier League dominance. Had the powers that be at Old Trafford been of the Vincent Tan ilk, or even Leicester’s King Power, that era would probably have never materialised.

These are different times now of course, and football has changed, but last season and Leicester’s title win was supposed to remind that this was once a sport and not merely a business. The fickle types will argue that there can be no harm in being results driven and making tough decisions, which is true, but businesses make bad decisions too. Catastrophic ones in fact. Being ruthless and more ‘business like’ doesn’t automatically go hand in hand with being successful, no more so at least than loyalty does.

If there was one manager at any football club currently who deserved loyalty, it was Claudio Ranieri. If you want loyalty, get a dog, they say.

On this evidence, you certainly wouldn’t opt for a fox.

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About Jack Sumner

Journalism graduate and freelance sports writer, in particular a lover of boxing, tennis and football (of the soccer variety). Liverpool supporter. Twitter @Jack_Sumner_

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