Dilly-ding dilly-dong man unable to retrieve the magic from his well-travelled suitcase but Fulham should have known relegation battles are not the Italian’s forte
Claudio Ranieri will always be remembered with affection in England – his 2016 title win with Leicester was by some distance the greatest against-the-odds triumph the Premier League has witnessed – though a manager who has made 18 exits in five countries ought to know better than most that fairytales happen only once in a lifetime.
There was no dilly-ding dilly-dong at Fulham, just the relegation clock ticking away in the background. The pizza-based incentives that supposedly came in handy at Leicester never really surfaced in London; with three wins in 17 games in all competitions there was barely anything solid enough to celebrate. Ranieri remains a charming man and an intelligent coach but he is not a lucky charm after all.
Fulham, it turns out, were no Leicester waiting to be whipped into shape. The failings that cost Slavisa Jokanovic his job, mostly defensive ones, stubbornly remained through his successor’s tenure. The Craven Cottage roster failed to yield a Jamie Vardy or a Riyad Mahrez capable of surprising even the most alert defences and allowing Fulham to find an effective way of playing.
Leicester were a one-off, in other words. As everyone suspected, Ranieri was unable to bring the magic with him in his well-travelled suitcase, because he was unable to repeat the trick with them after the miracle season, even with the same set of players. Quite why Shahid Khan described him as a risk-free appointment is a mystery, if only because Fulham with their present squad are not in a position to assume anything is risk-free.
Ranieri did a marvellous job of making Gary Lineker eat his words when the Match of the Day presenter and Leicester supporter went public with the admission he found the Foxes’ choice of manager underwhelming, though if the Italian possessed the ability to exceed everyone’s expectations he would not have had so many clubs.
What Khan should probably have noticed is that relegation battles are not Ranieri’s forte. He tends to do well at middle-range clubs where he can run things fairly smoothly, as long as instant success is not demanded. After a long career in management Leicester was his first title success and, though it is true the club spent the previous season fighting relegation, by the time Ranieri replaced Nigel Pearson a unique opportunity presented itself, largely thanks to the scouting ability of Steve Walsh, who brought in N’Golo Kanté as well as Vardy and Mahrez, and the team spirit forged since promotion to the Premier League. Ranieri did not find anything remotely similar at Fulham, where morale began low and has remained so, and the money spent on strengthening following promotion in summer appears to have had little effect.
When Fulham played at Manchester United in December they were three goals down by half-time and though they tightened up Ranieri warned that if they continued to be so generous they would have no chance of survival.
Perhaps no one expected Fulham to prosper against top-six opponents after sacking their manager three months into their first season back in the Premier League but in the last couple of months they have lost to Burnley, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Southampton, as well as going out of the FA Cup at home to Oldham.
Ranieri has cut an increasingly detached figure standing powerless on the sidelines, a far cry from the amusingly avuncular persona he projected at Leicester, and for the fans at least, defeat at Southampton on Wednesday seemed to confirm their worst fears. Fulham are on course for a quick return to the Championship – there is even a possibility they could yet be overtaken by the apparently hopeless Huddersfield – and far from being risk-free Ranieri has proved no more resourceful than Jokanovic. With 10 games remaining there is just about time for a new manager to turn the situation around, though for that to be the case Fulham are going to have to do a lot better at identifying a miracle worker.
Ranieri will simply accept the situation with a wry smile, as he always does. At 67, he too probably ought to think long and hard about his next situation. He has already tried the semi-retirement of international management and if the right offer comes along he may consider a return but his Premier League days are surely over.
While Fulham has not exactly amounted to a highlight on his CV, Ranieri has suffered disappointment and failure before. He will always have Leicester, even if the kudos did not turn out to be transferable.