Claudio Ranieri thrives on the nickname of Tinkerman. He wears it like a badge of honour and that says much about the man and his attitude to life. "Tinkerman? The press, or was it Colin Hutchinson, called me that - it's true because I like to change," says the 52-year-old Italian as he holds court at Chelsea's antiquated training ground ahead of today's Premiership match against Newcastle United.
It was following a meeting with Hutchinson - then Chelsea's managing director - and Ken Bates, the chairman, that Ranieri was given the job at Stamford Bridge in September 2000. He had been invited from his holiday home in Tuscany to watch his new charges struggle to overcome the minnows of Switzerland, St Gallen, in the Uefa Cup. Ranieri hesitated before accepting the post - although his misgivings had nothing to do with football. "Never, I thought, would I want to come to England because my English was poor," he says candidly, before adding: "But then I thought, why not?"
"Why not?" The phrase seems to be his credo, having managed seven clubs in three countries in 13 years and now, daily, living with the brutal expectation that he is to be sacked in favour of Sven Goran Eriksson. The two superb victories over Lazio in the Champions' League - doubly satisfying for a fan and former player of city rivals Roma and perhaps trebly satisfying as it was the Swede's former club - will have done much to buy time. The manager has, after all, won as many League matches this season as either Manchester United or Arsenal. Nevertheless he still maintains that "third place" would be acceptable despite the £111m outlay over the summer.
Unsurprisingly the conversation turns to "pressure", which has surely ratcheted up a few units in the Abramovich era. "I think it's the same," responds Ranieri. "When you start to be a manager you know that the pressure is a lot. Now when you have the right balance you start to live with this pressure." The right balance for him, despite his avowed passion for antiques (his wife owns two shops) is to live and breathe football. "I like other things, but in this month I like to watch tapes of football," he says. "I'm a lucky man because I love my job. For me it is not my job, it is my life."
It is undoubtedly a big month for Chelsea. Qualification into the knock-out stages of the Champions' League has all but been secured while after today Manchester United coming calling. Games which may shape Ranieri's season and, perhaps, his future. He will take it all in his stride. "My philosophy is the same as before. I want to win, I want to win, I want to win," he says.
Other things have been altered. "Last season we did not buy any players. This season we buy 10 or 11 players and change everything. Now we are working to build a good team. I know that Roman Abramovich wants to put Chelsea at a high level like Milan or Real Madrid."
Mention of Madrid reveals how Abramovich operates, according to Ranieri. "I said to Mr Abramovich that Real Madrid are one of the best teams in the world and they have a great player and everything goes around him, and this man is Claude Makelele. I would like to buy him. For me Real Madrid was Claude Makelele."
And so Chelsea bought him. The club's billionaire owner, Ranieri maintains, has been supportive in other ways. "He is a good man and always comes into the dressing room after a match," Ranieri explains. "Always he is smiling. After losing against Arsenal he was fantastic. I had said to him that it is important when we lose that he stays with us. When we lost against Besiktas and against Arsenal he was the first in the dressing room and we all appreciated that."
Now Ranieri wants the spending to stop for a while. He says, unconvincingly, that there will be no new arrivals in January. The Tinkerman wants the squad he has to gel. "I have 25 players now, please," he says when questioned. "What do you want... do you want my blood? No, no, no more players."
On the subject of new players, the acquisition of one of his most recent - Damien Duff - leads to an explanation of Ranieri's footballing beliefs. "For the Tinkerman, he is right," - because the brilliant young Irishman can play anywhere across the midfield or up front. This philosophy is, Ranieri offers, an Italian-Spanish-English hybrid of the Dutch concept of Total Football. He is "an Italian manager and they are always looking around the world at how other teams are playing". An immediate, domestic influence was the Milan of the early Nineties and Arrigo Sacchi, who did much to dispel the catenaccio approach of the Italians although, further back, Ranieri expounds enthusiastically of the Dutch national team of Rinus Michels. "It was crazy with the tapes - I knew all the movements they made across the pitch," he says.
Ranieri will duel with another eternal enthusiast today - Sir Bobby Robson - and is "curious" to see how his players respond after their midweek triumph. "I like him because he is full of enthusiasm and is fantastic. I would love to be like him." Still working at 70? "I hope, I don't know. I like the pressure. I feel alive," he says. Never more so than now.
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