The Tinkerman, El General, Il Mister – the list doesn’t end here for the Coach who seems to have accrued more nicknames than your old science teacher. But we have to ask ourselves, is there really enough substance behind this Italian’s ever-more-charming disposition to deliver the kind of success that fans of the Bianconeri both demand and now deserve?
Ranieri’s playing days, despite including four successful promotion campaigns, are hardly the stuff of legend. Making barely a handful of appearances for his maiden club Roma, he went on to spend the majority of his playing career yoyo-ing between the top two flights with Catanzaro and Catania before signing off with Palermo in 1986, without so much as a sniff of an international call-up. However, the best days of his career in football still lay ahead of him and just a year after his retirement, the butcher’s son from Rome answered his true calling within the beautiful game.
Having briefly taken charge at amateur club Vigor Lamezia, his first real managerial position came at Campania Puteolana and for a Coach who now commands such respect in light of his footballing success, his introduction to life on the other side of the white lines didn’t start with the glittering bang that many of us might have thought. Campania Puteolana was relegated in Ranieri’s sole season at the helm and, incidentally, immediately achieved promotion in the following season after he had left. Still, with so many squads still ‘un-tinkered’, the man they now call Il Mister was not about to throw in the towel at the first sign of adversity.
Ranieri’s career as a Coach really took off at Cagliari where he spent three very successful seasons. Lingering in the depths of Serie C when he arrived, Cagliari was a club in turmoil, having barely survived the drop to Serie C2 the season just passed. Cue the Tinkerman, and three seasons later the same club are sitting pretty in the Italian top flight. Ultimately despite his success there, Cagliari was simply too small a club to match the growing ambition of a man like Ranieri and in 1991 he left to take over at Napoli. Two sliverware-less season’s later and he was on the move again, this time to begin a three-year spell at Fiorentina, defined primarily by their instantaneous promotion from Serie B and dual cup success a year later in the Coppa Italia and SuperCoppa Italiana. After mixed-fortunes in Spain with Valencia and Atletico Madrid, Ranieri arrived in West London, ready to ply his trade in the cut-throat world of England’s Premier League.
Charged with delivering quick success to an impatient Chelsea, Ranieri’s first season in England was a struggle in all honesty, with his results no more consistent than his English. Still, despite the clear language barrier, he guided the Pensioners to sixth position and a spot in the following season’s UEFA Cup. After a summer spending spree in excess of £30m which saw the introduction of players such as Frank Lampard, Boudewijn Zenden, William Gallas and Emmanuel Petit, understandably expectations were high. That season again it seemed Ranieri had failed to hit his targets, finishing sixth once more, whilst the club also enjoyed another cup run, ultimately ending in disappointment as beaten finalists to Arsenal. When Roman Abramovich arrived in the summer of 2003 it became clear that the Russian billionaire would not tolerate short-comings from his team and domestic and European success would not the best outcome but the only outcome should Ranieri wish to keep his job. With such a considerable burden lying squarely on the Italian’s shoulders, Ranieri did what any one of us would have done – stopped tinkering and started spending. With a cheque-book left blank but for the Russian’s signature in the Chelsea Manager’s pocket, it wasn’t a surprise to see an ever-increasing number of new faces at Stamford Bridge. Damien Duff was brought in from Blackburn, Argentineans Juan Sebastian Veron and Hernan Crespo, Claude Makelele from Madrid and a whole host of future England stars from various Premier League sides that cost Chelsea a staggering £120m that summer. Ranieri was unquestionably armed to the hilt, the question on everyone’s minds, were they now good enough to launch an assault on the title? In short, no. But they came close, finishing second only to Wenger’s history-making Arsenal side who survived the entire season undefeated. Ultimately the repeated lack of ‘success’ cost Ranieri his job and in 2004 he was officially replaced by Jose Mourinho. Dubbed a failure by many, Ranieri often comes in for unnecessary flack. Fickle fans forget that Ranieri took over during a period in which ‘the big four’ were just beginning to assert themselves as the heavy-hitters of the Premiership or the fact that he was the driving force behind the development of now-Chelsea legends Frank Lampard and John Terry. Who is to say that given one more season’s worth of tinkering wouldn’t have brought about even greater success than under the Special One? In essence, Ranieri lost the Chelsea job for two reasons. Primarily due to the team’s shortcomings both domestically and in Europe and secondarily due to an inability to play the same team twice. However, in many ways, Claudio Ranieri was one of the forefathers of today’s game with his tinkering tactics. We need look no further than Rafa Benitez’s European glory or even Sir Alex Ferguson’s domestic dominance for proof that nowadays effective squad rotation is almost as important as those at your disposal to rotate.
After another disappointing spell at the Mestalla, Ranieri returned to his homeland where, after galvanising a Parma team devoid of spirit rather than talent, steered the Gialloblu away from relegation. However, his spell at Parma ended soon after as he signed to become Coach at Juventus in their reappearance in Serie A after a shameful but successful season in Serie B courtesy of their involvement in Calciopoli in 2006. After an impressive return in which the Bianconeri finished third, it seems as if Ranieri might well be back to his best with Juve, but is his best good enough for Italy’s most successful club side? Currently sitting in second place, seven points behind a particularly useful Inter side and this season’s campaign look all but done and dusted on all fronts, after the European exit at the hands of a rejuvenated Chelsea. Unfortunately for Ranieri, second place simply will not do in the long run (something that has become a running theme through the later years of his managerial exploits) and if he wants to gain the respect of the Old Lady’s fan-base then nothing short of lo Scudetto or the Champions League will do.
Il Mister has certainly silenced a few of his critics with his most recent Serie A exploits, although there are still plenty that maintain the opinion that, at the highest level, Ranieri simply cannot cut it. However, looking at the way he has revitalized players such as Momo Sissoko and preserved the quality in the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved, and he appears to be steering the club in the right direction. Juventus, whilst creditable, is a few faces short of being a great side and the man the Spanish called El General will certainly want to strengthen his side for next season’s title challenge. What is more reassuring is that the man himself seems under no illusions as to the grandeur of his task freely admitting, “there is great strength here, but I have to make it stronger – it can shine, but it has to shine brighter.” The key to this however, will be in his tinkering in this summer’s transfer market. The Juventus squad is not getting any younger and with the youngest of his strikers turning 30 before the beginning of the 2009/10 season, the players that make up la Vecchia Signora are in real danger of living up to their nickname.
If truth be told it is probably a little too early to pass definitive judgment on whether Ranieri is the right man to restore Juve’s former glory. If he spends well this summer and can keep the cogs turning with the aging heroes then there is no reason why the Bianconeri won’t be able to engage Inter in a season-long battle for lo Scudetto next term, but at the moment they are not good enough. Without new life in Juventus’ midfield it is hard to see them challenging for major honours, and without trophies Ranieri could be in genuine danger of achieving enhancing his nearly-man image. There is something about the man from Rome that, love or loathe his tinkering tactics, is unquestionably likable and the vast majority would love to see him achieve the success he deserves after so many near misses. But there is no room for sentiment at the top and if Ranieri wants his plaudits then he will have to earn them and, given his past record, this may prove to be his last real shot at the big-time. We await this summer with baited breath.