7th February 2017
The afternoon not too long ago when Andrea Bocelli sang Nessun Dorma to the new Premier League champions was one of the high points not just in Leicester City’s history but in the story of the Premier League. It was a grace note to one of the most romantic and heroic feats in the history of sport. The singer and the song topped it off with a touch of class. Nessun Dorma. None Shall Sleep. Just right.
I was at the King Power Stadium yesterday and a lot of people were doing a lot of sleeping. The home crowd were drowsy. So were their team who have failed to score a league goal in 2017.
Leicester were doing a lot of the things they did last year. They just weren’t doing them so well. They gave Manchester United a lot of possession while looking to score on the quick break. United helped themselves to three goals with the possession they were given, it could have been more. Leicester had started well enough but by the time the second goal had been celebrated they were dead men walking.
One of the questions running about the stadium was whether Claudio Ranieri is also a dead man walking now. Newspapers have carried rumours of players going upstairs to speak to their chairman about Ranieri.
A few years ago when some Sunderland players went upstairs to express concern about what they saw as the zanier aspects of Paolo di Canio’s reign as a former Sunderland player and chairman I understood.
Yet if I was the chairman of Leicester City and the players came to me complaining about Claudio Ranieri I would run them out the door.
Of course Leicester’s form this year means that people are going to re-evaluate how good they actually were last year. They won the Premier League by ten points though having started the year as 5000 to 1 shots.
Ranieri was a good enough manager to keep the collective cool at Leicester when more celebrated managers at other clubs were losing theirs. Don’t forget there were periods when people fancied almost all of the traditional contenders but eventually we settled on Spurs as the team most likely to benefit when Leicester fell apart. It never happened. Spurs lost their nerve too.
So Ranieri will always be a colossal part of the history of Leicester City football club. As such he has earned the right to see out this battle.
Yesterday Leicester’s attacks were toothless and predictable. The defence was pretty limp too. In midfield things were a bit different from last year. Looking at N’Golo Kante on the way to what looks like being a second successive Premier League medal in two season of English football you can’t help wondering if Leicester sold the engine of their success to Chelsea. Suddenly £32 million looks like a bargain.
This morning Leicester find themselves one point above the relegation zone. In the group most worried about the trapdoor Hull, Sunderland and Swansea have shown signs of a pulse recently. Leicester are still in the Champions League with a tie against Sevilla and still in the FA Cup with Derby County coming to visit on Wednesday. There is still a chance that they can make something of their season.
After the game yesterday Kaspar Schmeichel gave a frank TV interview. I remember doing something similar myself when I was at Manchester City and we were in dire trouble. I wish Kaspar better luck than I had, his intention was to draw a response, to wake his team from their slumber.
He said all the right things. He refused comment on rumours of a delegation going upstairs to undermine Ranieri. He said that last season is dead and gone. It was time to stop thinking about it. He said his teammates needed to “stand up and be counted because this season from top to bottom hasn’t been good enough… we are reigning champions and quite frankly it’s been embarrassing.”
His dressingroom should listen. I passed the players carpark on the way in and the way out of the stadium yesterday. Even by Premier League standards the quality of vehicles there was impressive. It didn’t look like a place for the lean and hungry, it smacked of ‘look how well I’ve done’.
And it isn’t even two years since these Leicester stars were in a far worse situation. At the start of April 2015 they were anchored at the bottom of the Premier League with seven points between them and safety.
I don’t know if any delegations of players trotted upstairs to complain about Nigel Pearson. I doubt it. The club stuck with their manager. The players dug deep and they escaped with a game to spare. They finished the season in fourteenth place.
Many of those players are still at the club. It is those days that they need to remember now. That defiance is what they need to summon now.
They have fourteen league games left. Their season should begin on Wednesday with the Cup game against Derby. They need to pull confidence out of every small success. They know that they have the ability to be better. They need to bring that to the fight.
Last season until it was mathematically certain and all locked up we all imagined that Leicester would fail. This year it is equally hard to imagine that the champions could be relegated but I am worried about them.
Maybe Claudio Ranieri is a better prime minister in peace time than in war but he has given those players more than they could ever have imagined.
The responsibility for surviving is with the men who cross the white line onto the field on match day. Stop looking to the past. Stop looking for an excuse or for somebody to blame. They can be remembered for last year or they can be remembered for just letting it all slip away. It’s the player’s choice.
By Niall Quinn