Claudio Ranieri had seen his centre-half clocked not once, but twice, byMarouane Fellaini, the man with the sharpest elbows in the west. He had seen the Belgian stay on the pitch, along with Wayne Rooney, who committed two clear bookable offences, before his midfielder Danny Drinkwater was dismissed instead.
Cue a Ranieri rant? Not exactly. “Never I speak about some incidents on the pitch,” he said. “The referees have to make a very difficult game.” Perhaps it is easier to be magnanimous when you are on the brink of winning the Premier League, as Ranieri was at Old Trafford on Sunday, yet that has been his approach all season; all career, some might say.
Louis van Gaal provided the opposing approach, complaining loudly about the officiating, supplying a one-eyed interpretation of the altercation between Fellaini and Robert Huth and offering far too much information by comparing it to an act of sex masochism. Which, apart from the last bit, was standard managerial fare. Blaming officials comes naturally to most in his profession. The more successful many are, the more games they win, the more they find fault with the men in black.
But just as Leicester have confounded expectations, their manager has inverted them. Ranieri has constructed a persona of a manager who represents an amiable diversion from more serious matters. The champion managers were supposed to be Machiavellian masterminds, not harmless eccentrics. In a country where the cult of the manager is at its strongest, Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have cemented the impression he needs to behave utterly unreasonably towards outsiders to prevail.
Ferguson and Mourinho won 16 of the first 23 Premier League titles while propagating suggestions their ultra-successful sides were persecuted by officials and authorities. They conjured conspiracy theories. It is a moot point precisely how cynically, or how much they actually believed the world was colluding against them. Whichever, they acquired reputations as supreme psychologists. They had the ruthlessness required to win. Nice guys finished last or, in Ranieri’s case, second.
Now the prize won by the managerial Rottweilers has gone to the chipmunk of the coaching world. Ranieri’s is a triumph to prompt questions if whether everything others did – the accusations, the dark mutterings about the game’s governing bodies, the paranoia, the pointing at a wrist watch, the red-faced haranguing of fourth officials, the attempts to undermine title rivals – was really necessary after all.
Apart from the pretence Leicester were not in the title race, Ranieri has eschewed the “mind games” that became an infamous staple of title charges. His contest with Mauricio Pochettino is not shaping up as one of the great managerial feuds, simply because neither wasted his time aiming pot-shots at the other. There have been no mention of voyeurs, no specialists in failure and no disgraces, and those are merely some of the insults the Portuguese and the Scot have directed at Arsene Wenger.
The story of the season incorporates Mourinho’s chastening failure as well as Ranieri’s glorious triumph. Rewind to August and one was tipped to top the table, the other to win the sack race. Mourinho, like Ferguson, is a man whose huge achievements deserve respect yet, because of the gracelessness with which he has sometimes conducted himself, neutrals’ admiration is often grudging. Ranieri commands widespread affection, as the reaction to Leicester’s coronation as champions shows.
He has found another way of winning. Unlike Mourinho, Ranieri is rarely compared to Brian Clough but the great Nottingham Forest manager, for all his unpredictability, preached a code of respecting referees. Martin O’Neill, a member of his European Cup-winning side, once said his late mentor taught him when to do nothing. There are plenty of things Ranieri has not done this season: blamed officials, criticised opposing managers or their players, changed his team very much or lost many games.
Perhaps that is why, despite the most stunning managerial achievement in Premier League history, he does not project the image of greatness. Previous winners were acclaimed as geniuses. By simplifying things, by concealing his cleverness by seeming a likeable screwball, Ranieri has ripped up the managerial handbook. He is a supporting character from a Coen brothers comedy who triumphed in a world of managerial Mafiosi. Diego Simeone even dresses like an extra from Goodfellas. He sometimes acts like one too. Ferguson was the Godfather. Mourinho wanted to become Godfather Part II.
Much as he disliked her politics, Ferguson adopted Margaret Thatcher’s credo of “those who are not for us are against us.” Mourinho seems to concur. They have made football a more polarised, more divisive game, one with a more toxic atmosphere. Ranieri has been the great unifier this season, changing the tone completely. Perhaps he has shown the way for other managers, that they need not be irrational, bad-tempered, obsessive and suspicious. Or perhaps the triumph of the affable underdog will prove a complete one-off and next year the footballing world will revert to normal and the honours will go to the president of the managerial awkward squad.