It was fitting that Claudio Ranieri took his title-winning Leicester side to defending champions Chelsea on the final day of the 2015/16 season. As the match unfolded, both sets of fans sang his name with equal vigour, an incredibly rare occurrence in a modern stadium. Yet, given the Italian’s history at the Bridge, it was unsurprising.
When Jose Mourinho came to England, it was heralded as a new era in British football. As the charismatic Portuguese Coach entered the hot seat at Chelsea, Ranieri departed with little fanfare. He dropped off the radar in England, despite stabilising Juventus and bringing Roma within a whisker of the scudetto in 2009/10. A testament to Ranieri’s fallen stock was how his return to Leicester was greeted with almost universal negativity.
Within 12 months Ranieri had done the impossible. He had masterminded the most incredible league title win in British history. He was proclaimed as a miracle worker. Yet just 18 months after Andrea Bocelli serenaded the King Power stadium, the gloss had gone from Leicester’s incredible title. Ranieri departed and the traditional powers spent fortunes to ensure that such an underdog story would never happen again in the Premier League. To find Ranieri’s most substantial and long-lasting achievement, you must head to West London.
In September 2000, Chelsea insisted they would not make any hasty decisions, but three days after sacking Gianluca Vialli, they hired another, less well-known Italian. Ranieri entered English football with little hype. Few knew about his exploits at Valencia, where he had built the foundations for back-to-back Champions League finals.
Signs of discontent in the Chelsea dressing room came almost instantly. Newspapers were quick to write that the Roman would not last the season. Chelsea, who in the previous 10 years had hired seven managers, were not the patient type. But Ranieri was quietly going about his business. He was watching hours of BBC News 24 each day to improve his English.
Out went fan favourites Dennis Wise and Frank Leboeuf (both were troublesome voices in the dressing room), and in came the likes of Boudewijn Zenden and Frank Lampard. A more youthful Chelsea were emerging.
At the first reserve match Ranieri attended, he saw John Terry in the line-up. After rejecting a £750,000 move to Huddersfield Town and making just eight appearances in the previous two years, Terry was playing for his Chelsea career. Ranieri saw enough and quickly Terry became a first team regular. A year later, the academy graduate was vice-captain behind Marcel Desailly.
Chelsea were making unspectacular but steady progress, just as Roman Abramovich entered the door. Abramovich wanted to bring in English boss Sven Goran Eriksson but could not prize him away from the FA. Rumours about Ranieri’s imminent departure would not go away. Yet despite the incredible media scrutiny around his position, the dignified Italian got on with the job.
With the huge amount of money available, Ranieri bought well. After already signing the likes of Lampard and Gallas, an array of stars joined the club. Claude Makelele signed for £16m, with Ranieri declaring he would be the “battery” of the team. Wayne Bridge, Damien Duff, Juan Sebastian Veron, Joe Cole, Adrian Mutu and Hernan Crespo completed the boldest summer window in Premier League history.
With his new stars, Ranieri took Chelsea from a side used to finishing outside of the top four and made them title challengers. They fell short in the league, pipped to the title by Arsenal’s Invincibles. Ranieri’s first game in charge in 2000 was away at Old Trafford against Alex Ferguson’s treble-winning side, the dominant force in English football. During his time at the Bridge, the Italian was pitted against two of the best teams England had ever seen.
It was in Europe where Abramovich wanted to see an immediate return from his investment. Chelsea reached the quarter-finals where they were drawn against London rivals Arsenal. After a 1-1 draw in the first leg at the Bridge, where Ranieri’s side had been down to ten men following Desailly’s sending off, Chelsea had everything to do at Highbury.
Early in the second leg, Arsenal went 1-0 up and Chelsea looked to be heading out. Yet two goals, including a famous late winner from Wayne Bridge, saw the Blues knock out the favourites. Chelsea had ended a 17-match winless streak over Arsene Wenger’s side, stretching back over six years.
In the semi-finals, Chelsea travelled to unfancied Monaco. It was to be the beginning of the end for Ranieri. With 20 minutes to go it was 1-1 at the Stade Louis II. The Italian decided to twist. Monaco had been reduced to 10 men after 53 minutes and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, thrown on as an extra attacker, should have put Chelsea 2-1 in front in the 78th minute. A minute later Fernando Morientes scored for the hosts.
The match finished 3-1 and Ranieri’s reign looked to be over. It was a horrific night, capped by Ron Atkinson, the ITV football pundit, making racist comments about Desailly that were broadcast around the world.
The return fixture was all or nothing for Ranieri. By the 44th minute, goals from Lampard and Jesper Gronkjær had turned the tie around but Chelsea could not hold on until half-time and Monaco grabbed a crucial away goal. Chasing the game in the second half, they were open to the counter attack and Morientes capitalised, ending any hope.
After the final league game of the season, a 1-0 win against Leeds, Ranieri said goodbye to his players. He knew the end had come. Chelsea had been unable to progress past the semi-final stage but Ranieri had made Chelsea a European force. Mourinho, during his time at Chelsea, only ever reached the semi-final stage once and never went beyond it.
Ranieri had a contract until 2007, the support of the fans, a second-place finish in the league, the club’s highest league position for 49 years, but it was not enough. As a Chelsea spokesperson said: “Claudio has done a first-class job for the club and paved the way for future success.” Petr Cech had agreed to join the Blues from French club Rennes for £7m in February 2004, three months before Ranieri was sacked. Arjen Robben had been scouted and Didier Drogba chosen as the main target for the following summer.
The crowning achievement of Ranieri’s time at Chelsea came a year before his departure. During the 2002/03 season, the only player the Italian signed was Enrique de Lucas on a free transfer. There was rising financial troubles at the club. Yet Chelsea’s quest for Champions League football went down to the final match of the season.
Liverpool were level on points with Chelsea. It was a winner’s take all match with £20m on the line. It did not start well. Danny Murphy’s flighted free-kick was headed home by Sami Hyppia to give Liverpool an 11th minute lead. Chelsea looked set to miss out on the big prize. Just a minute later, Gronkjaer fired in a cross which Desailly glanced past Jerzy Dudek’s right-hand post.
In a dramatic opening half, Gronkjaer curled in a delightful effort to the turn the match around. The goal and the Dane’s knee slide celebration remain one of the most iconic images in the club’s history. Chelsea hung on as the party started in West London. The result and the elite European football that followed was crucial in prompting Russian businessman Abramovich to buy the club from Ken Bates just weeks later.
A new era had begun at Chelsea. One in which Ranieri would only be a part of for another 12 months. As the Italian said on his departure:
“I started this job, the house isn’t finished yet, only the foundations and the ground floor.”