Some say he is little more than his chairman's puppet; others believe he is just a stop-gap manager; but recent events suggest that Claudio Ranieri is in fact the Keyser Soze of Stamford Bridge – the underrated mastermind behind Chelsea's very deliberate revolution. Those are certainly the views of Celestine Babayaro, one of the club's longest-serving first-team players, who insists that Ranieri is the ideal manager to lift the lingering blues.
Results since Christmas make it difficult to argue with Babayaro's assessment, notwithstanding Ken Bates' decision to reward the Italian coach with two more years at the helm. Three consecutive 4-0 wins would amaze even the most confident of Manchester United supporters, so it is perhaps no surprise that the Chelsea faithful are starting to believe in their manager. Glenn Hoddle was an exciting player-coach, Ruud Gullit an attractive figurehead, and Gianluca Vialli an engaging personality. Ranieri may not have the sharp suits or designer facial hair, but, unlike his three predecessors, the 52-year-old is a respected tactician.
As ever, the best way to gauge the impact of a boardroom decision at Chelsea is to monitor the team's reaction on the pitch. Judging by last Saturday's 4-0 demolition of Sunderland, it is clear that Raneiri's contract extension has been well received by the players. "The good showings are our way of expressing our content," Babayaro says. "From a personal point of view, I believe the gaffer has definitely improved me. His main strength is to instill confidence in his players. He's really helped me to believe I can hold on to the ball without thinking I'm going to lose it. He encourages us all to enjoy ourselves, be free, and play our games."
Ranieri has often given the impression that he is aloof, almost goofy. Babayaro, though, insists the real Ranieri is anything but. "He knows exactly what he wants and he gets it done," the Nigerian says. "Perhaps when he first arrived, the language barrier was a problem. But now he speaks English and he gets his message across clearly. People don't realise that he is a real football sage. He tells us to start thinking about a Sunday game the previous Monday. He is so meticulous that we have watched more than three hours worth of videos on Liverpool to ensure that we're fully prepared for today's match at Anfield. All week in training he will make the players think about who they will be facing in the next game. He'll come up to individuals and tell them, 'Do this, don't do that'."
On Thursday, the Italian was giving his back four of Mario Melchiot, William Gallas, Marcel Desailly and Babayaro strict instructions ahead of the expected aerial bombardment at Anfield. "The manager knows that Liverpool like to knock the ball up to Emile Heskey, who heads it down for a third man to come running through," Babayaro says. "That's why we were practising clearing our lines and pushing up as quickly as possible."
The more you talk to Babayaro, the more you realise how much Ranieri has achieved behind the scenes. Perhaps it was time for Chelsea to move away from player-managers and opt instead for someone with experience and detachment from the dressing room. Babayaro hesitates, before offering his opinion. "If you have a coach who played for the team and then becomes the player-manager, maybe that affects some players," he admits. "They might think, 'What the hell, I played with you so you can't tell me what to do now'. I think it helps knowing that Claudio has come from a foreign place and that he has managed top clubs before [most notably Valencia, Napoli, Atletico Madrid and Fiorentina]. He's done it all, so maybe that respect is there."
Babayaro's own background is fascinating. Born in a small village called Kaduna, in the rural northern section of the country, he is one of 10 siblings (only eight are still alive). His father died at an early age, so he was entrusted to his godfather and local football coach, Sabo Babayaro. The young Celestine soon became a surrogate son and even chose to abandon his given surname of Hyacinth ["Like that posh lady on TV," he jokes] in order to become a Babayaro, too. Football in the village was, as is still the case throughout Africa, a huge passion for the kids, although the prospects of success were remote. "My mother never wanted me to be a footballer," Babayaro says. "She always used to say to me, 'Go to school and be something'."
Instead, Babayaro boarded a plane for the very first time in his life and flew to Europe to join the Belgian club of Anderlecht in 1993. It was his maiden voyage outside Nigeria. He was 15. "That was tough," the 23-year-old says, "because I was so far away from my family. That's why I'm so happy to have my three brothers with me in London. They're all studying at Greenwich University, and live in my house. It means there is always a friendly face around. And, because I'm the pay master, I can boss them around and don't have to lift a finger."
Babayaro's accent is as varied as his colourful past. Part Australian, part Dick Van Dyke Cockney, part Continental, it is somewhat difficult to pinpoint its exact origin. "It is f***** up, isn't it?" he jokes. "It makes everyone at Chelsea giggle." Such is the current mood of optimism in SW6 that many seem to have forgotten the early-season troubles. Even the elimination at the hands of Hapoel Tel Aviv in the Uefa Cup is now but a distant memory. "Before, we were totally inconsistent," Babayaro says. "Today, though, we can get wins everywhere."
Roma obliged on Gérard Houllier's return to the Liverpool bench in the Champions' League match in midweek. Chelsea are unlikely to be quite so generous. "We intend to continue the good work in Liverpool," Babayaro says. "There's a really good atmosphere at Chelsea at the moment. You can see it in training and around the ground. Players have a smile on their face and a spring in their step. It's a laugh."
Much has clearly changed in the last three months at the Bridge, but some things will always remain the same. "I expect us to beat Liverpool," Babayaro says. "I don't know why, but we've always got that confidence whenever we play against a bigger team. I'm sitting here now, and I can tell you that I have no doubt we'll win at Anfield. Equally, though, if we were preparing to play Charlton, say, then I would be thinking, 'Oh shit'. With us, you play against Bradford and lose 1-0 at home, then you go to Leeds and win 2-0 away. It's crazy, but that's Chelsea."Reuse content