James Lawton: Ranieri maintains his dignity in face of the firing squad

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Critical opinion, some of it esteemed, some of it about as reflective as the consensus of the mob that used to gather in Claudio Ranieri's hometown Theatre of Nightmares, the Colosseum, is pretty much agreed now. The Chelsea manager is going down. If it is true, and all the indications are that it is, it will be another insight into how values are applied in English football.

What happens is that they are all placed in a great sack and thrown up in the air. Then you pick up the one or two that fit in with the convenience of your situation.

In all of this, ground-level knowledge of how football works, how teams are made and developed, how managers are given a chance and how they are not, is purely incidental. How else, for example, can we explain that even as the death rites are being pronounced over Ranieri - for no better reason than that twice in the same week he had the bad luck to lose, and each time by no more than a single goal, to the runaway best team in the land - still another fallback position is being presented on behalf of his Liverpool rival, Gérard Houllier?

Ranieri is described as dead meat while the vital managerial signs are said to flicker on in Houllier, who, we are told, can redeem the latest catastrophe of a hapless FA Cup defeat at Portsmouth by regaining fourth place in the Premiership and having a decent run in the strictly second-tier glory of the Uefa Cup.

How can this be so? How can the manager who is still just two points behind Manchester United, who finished top of his group in the Champions' League, and leads Houllier's Liverpool by 17 points, be so much nearer the firing squad?

One leading football critic gives it to us straight. He says that Roman Abramovich, who has poured £121m into Chelsea since rescuing the club from the financial disaster in which Ranieri had still conspired to conjure Champions' League qualification last season without being able to write a single transfer cheque, and the chief executive, Peter Kenyon, are not used to finishing third.

To be perfectly honest, neither of them is that used to football - not at the end where it is made to work. Abramovich might still be emotionally immersed in a Siberian hockey team if his soaring upward mobility had not coincided with the Russian government issuing mineral development licences pretty much as the Lottery machine spits out winning numbers. Kenyon, of course, made his name selling Manchester United, not perhaps the most back-breaking of chores after the full waxing of Sir Alex Ferguson's successful team-building.

This did not, however, prevent Kenyon, in his first week in office, stoking up the pressure on Ranieri with the announcement that Chelsea's outlay on players demanded a trophy win.

This was in sharp contrast to the view of most sober judges at the start of the season. Then, given the old truth that money alone will never buy you an instant title-winning team, the view was that Ranieri would do well to maintain Chelsea's place at the serious end of the Premiership and continue the team's presence in Europe.

It was to be a season of massive adjustment, and one when everyone's confidence had to be nourished. Unfortunately, that of the coach was not exactly enhanced by the most publicised tea party since the one in Boston harbour. The meeting of Abramovich and Sven Goran Eriksson, who has now been joined by Marcello Lippi and Fabio Capello as a candidate for Ranieri's job, has been tightened like a vice on Ranieri's throat at every slip of a hazardous season.

Ranieri has said that he is solely responsible for the signing of the new personnel, but given all his circumstances you don't have to be too cynical to suspect some influence by Eriksson, for whom one of the least successful Chelsea signings, Juan Sebastian Veron, was a key player at Lazio. Such conjecture, unless you buy the official version of events that Eriksson and Abramovich were merely observing social niceties and never even touched on the Russian's plan to buy up as much of the world's football talent as was available, has been inevitable - and always guaranteed to further undermine Ranieri's position.

In all of this, right up to the latest knives tattooing his back, Ranieri has maintained astonishing dignity and warm-heartedness. Unlike all of his rivals, he has refused to distribute blame when things go wrong. Referees are a hazard rather than an excuse. There has been no public criticism of under-performing players. He has always maintained that it was a season to be negotiated rather than consumed. Arsenal and Manchester United, he said quietly, were rather further down the road. He would be happy if Chelsea were able to compete properly at their level.

It just so happens that, thus far, nobody has been able to strike even the beginnings of Arsenal's rhythm. Twice in a week, Chelsea shot into early leads. Twice they were overwhelmed by the sheer quality of Arsenal's football. On Saturday Edu looked a major player after a period of halting progress. Patrick Vieira was immense after a dozy start. Dennis Bergkamp played a pass into Vieira that split the heavens as well as Chelsea. Arsenal, undefeated and with their Spanish scoring sensation returned to wraps, were imperious - and now they have announced that all plans for their new stadium are in place. It was, all in all, a weekend to celebrate the genius of Arsène Wenger and the wisdom of the club that gave him time and support and room to breathe.

Instead, we had the almost formal, critical interment of Ranieri. Here, however, the instinct is to praise rather than bury him. When he goes, as he no doubt will on the pyre of unrealistic ambition, Chelsea will surely invite a few prayers at the altar of what they will term success. Alternatively, we might light a candle for decency. Some way, however, from Stamford Bridge.

Charles a giant, gentle and good

Roberto Bettega, the former striker of Juventus and now a vice-president of the club, spoke movingly, as so many did, at the death of John Charles. Most touching, maybe, was his softly uttered variation on the great man's nickname: Il Gigante Buono.

His admirers here have always translated that as "The Gentle Giant". Bettega, while talking of his love for the man who was the king of Italian football when he was a ball boy at Turin's old Stadio Communale, gave us the more literal "The Good Giant". Somehow, when you considered the sweep of his career and his lack of pretension - not a single booking - and, perhaps most of all, the great power that was unleashed by such dainty feet, it seemed just a shade more appropriate. Gentle, good: it's a fine point. Anyway, giant, whichever way you look at it, covers the ground pretty well.