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Leicester's charming Claudio Ranieri shows that the good guys do win

By Steven Beacom

Published 27/04/2016

Smiles better: Claudio Ranieri is flourishing as the Foxes edge closer to league success
Smiles better: Claudio Ranieri is flourishing as the Foxes edge closer to league success

Athens, October 2014 and Claudio Ranieri was roaring with laughter. Pressure was mounting in his role as manager of Greece, yet he was able to see the funny side and stay relaxed.

It's a character trait that has served him well this season with Leicester City closing in on the most unexpected title in English football history.

Everyone wants the Foxes to win the Premier League.

It's not just the uplifting, underdog story that attracts us to Leicester, it's the charming 64-year-old Italian in charge of them.

He's been called the Tinkerman for constantly rotating his team while the boss at Chelsea and the Nearlyman for not quite closing the championship deal with other high-profile clubs.

And he's had many from Napoli to Valencia, Atletico Madrid to his home town side Roma and Juventus to Inter Milan.

Forget all that now though because Ranieri has become the magic man.

After Tottenham drew 1-1 at home to West Brom on Monday night, a victory at Old Trafford on Sunday against Manchester United will see Claudio and his side crowned champions.

If the dream does not come true at a Theatre decorated with them, it will arrive soon enough.

Destiny is calling and it really couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

And all this after a spectacular failure in his last job.

Back in Athens a year and a half ago, Ranieri, appointed as Greece manager after the 2014 World Cup, was under scrutiny ahead of the Euro 2016 qualifier with Northern Ireland.

Despite being favourites to qualify for the finals, the Greeks had made a stuttering start to the campaign unlike Michael O'Neill's men who had won their opening two games. The heat was on the new boss with debate all over the football-mad capital of the country raging as to whether Ranieri could handle it.

With that in mind during the pre-match press conference, added to the fact that Hungary boss Attila Pinter had been sacked after Northern Ireland's victory in Budapest the month before in his first match at the helm, I asked Ranieri if he feared suffering the same fate if O'Neill's men defeated his side.

He let out a colourful response and then started chuckling at the direct nature of the question.

With a twinkle in his eye, he looked at me and said: "You are a very dangerous man!"

Rather than losing the plot like many managers would have done, he enjoyed the chance to explain how much his role as Greece manager meant to him.

He said: "I know I have to arrive in the finals but I am used to being under pressure. My job is hard but I love this job."

More questions followed and at the end of the press conference we had a brief chat and a laugh about the exchange which was handled with humour by the Italian.

As it turned out he didn't even make it to Christmas in the job, let alone the finals.

Northern Ireland's 2-0 victory in Greece upped the ante on Ranieri and when the Faroe Islands won in Athens the next month, he was axed.

He departed with dignity and class and in taking over from Nigel Pearson last summer at Leicester displayed the same qualities even when his appointment was being questioned by all and sundry, including the club's most famous fan Gary Lineker.

Players like Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez. N'Golo Kante, Danny Drinkwater, Wes Morgan, Christian Fuchs and Kasper Schmeichel have responded to his man management, motivation and tactics and at this moment find themselves on the brink of a stunning success.

Ranieri is about to show that good guys really do win.

Belfast Telegraph

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