Leicester City's title triumph has turned its players into heroes but for their Italian manager Claudio Ranieri, the transformation into a national treasure is complete. Adam Bate looks at how Ranieri has handled an extraordinary year...
Leicester win the title
Leicester have completed an amazing sporting triumph by winning the Premier League title.
It's less than a year since Claudio Ranieri turned up at Sky studios as an out-of-work manager, part of the parade of pundits who flow through the building in the course of an average day. The unfussy Ranieri stood out chiefly for his trademark courtesy. Welcoming and patient, he was happier discussing Frank Lampard's future plans than his own.
Eleven months on, in the grand surroundings of the Café Royal hotel in Piccadilly, it was interesting to see how his reception had changed. Ranieri was the star guest as the Premier League announced their latest tie-in with Swiss watch company Tag Heuer and suddenly the only person anybody wanted to talk about was him.
"What he has been doing is a piece of history," enthused Tag Heuer's chief executive Jean-Claude Biver. "He has brought football back to the people and to simplicity." Familiar platitudes in the world of corporate advertising. But there was a sense in which Biver was utterly sincere in his sentiments. Leicester's story does that to people.
The mood has changed but Ranieri has stayed the same. He's enjoying it but remains embarrassed by it. From someone else that shtick might feel like false modesty. Instead, he's become arguably the most loved manager in English football since Sir Bobby Robson. Leicester MP Jonathan Ashworth is already pushing for a knighthood.
There aren't many dissenting voices in the city. A video showing the people of Leicester - black, white, young and old - recording thank you messages for Ranieri shows that much. But outside Leicester, Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard prompted more empathy than antipathy when coming out in support of the Foxes. Even Tony Pulis is aboard the bandwagon.
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Clearly, regardless of the coach, Leicester's involvement in the title race was always going to give this season a different feel. And yet it's easy to imagine how others might have handled it differently; how they might have bristled at being patronised. Instead, Ranieri has kept the tone light and drawn the sting of rivals who didn't even know that's what they were.
He has said all the right things. This season marked 20 years since Kevin Keegan's rant at Sir Alex Ferguson but mind games have barely merited a mention this time around. "We try to do our best but if the others are better than us I want to say only congratulations to the others," said Ranieri last week. It's not exactly siege mentality but it's saw them home.
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It was another Italian manager, Arrigo Sacchi, who came up with the line about a jockey not needing to be a horse. Ranieri, of course, was a fine player in his own right, but he's been a brilliant jockey in this race. Acknowledging that he would have played it all very differently were he already dealing with 'champion' players, he has rarely resorted to the whip.
"I have a player who arrives every morning from Manchester, one from London," Ranieri told Corriere della Sera in February. "I make sure the players have at least two days off from football each week. My idea is that players need to recover first, train later." He added: "They are free men, aware they have a job and responsibility."
It feeds into the fantasy that Leicester are an old-school side who've kept it all so simple. And Ranieri has even played 4-4-2. Indeed, in terms of tactics, he's waster fewer words about winning 20 games than the likes of Sam Allardyce and Alan Pardew have devoted to discussing one. And yet, when decisions needed to be made he has taken them.
When Leicester conceded too many goals, he switched the full-backs and in came Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs. When Jamie Vardy was suspended, he unexpectedly dropped Marc Albrighton, aware that Jeffrey Schlupp's pace was needed in support of Leonardo Ulloa. Riyad Mahrez has spoken of the "headaches" brought on by his tactical talks.
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There's the psychology too. As well as his own midweek commercial jaunt to the capital, his players had a helicopter trip to London themselves for the PFA awards. He's not been afraid to allow his team to enjoy this journey. He even took the time for tea with his 96-year-old mother back in Italy on the day the title was won. Leicester and Ranieri held their nerve.
Given the unsavoury off-field indiscretions of certain members of the Leicester squad, there's a resistance in some quarters to the idea that their season has been a fairy-tale in the purest interpretation of the word. But for one man, that story remains irresistible. For Ranieri, the first league title of a long career represents a redemption tale too.
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Consider that notorious line from Mourinho in disparaging his colleague's work. "Ranieri has the mentality of someone who doesn't need to win," he sneered. "He is too old to change." In a sense, Mourinho was right. Ranieri never has needed to win in quite the same way that the Portuguese coach has. But win he has. And now nobody wants him to change a thing.
Ranieri has achieved something to surpass anything Mourinho or anyone else for that matter has ever achieved in the history of the Premier League. He's turned cynical watch-company executives into child-like fans and made fools of pundits everywhere. A country is in his thrall. And somewhere along the way, the Tinkerman has become a national treasure.