Claudio Ranieri is always a welcome presence in the Premier League – with even neutrals warming to the dignity, class and gentle humour of the man who was sacked after taking Chelsea to the Champions League semi-final before producing one of the greatest feats of management in sporting history at Leicester City.
The 67-year-old Italian replaces Slavisa Jokanovic as manager of bottom club Fulham, a little over two years after masterminding arguably the biggest surprise in British sport at the King Power Stadium in 2015-16.
His popularity sometimes overshadows the years of experience Ranieri has gathered in the game at elite locations such as Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Juventus, Inter Milan and Monaco.
It is this experience Fulham owner Shahid Khan is calling on when he describes Ranieri as “risk-free and ready-made” for Fulham and the Premier League. He will enjoy his new manager’s popularity but he will also want his pragmatism and expertise to get results.
Ranieri’s warm personality will lift some of the clouds over Fulham in an instant and they will also garner support among neutrals purely because of the Italian’s presence.
Yes, it did go wrong in the final months at Leicester City but his methods were still enough to take an unheralded squad to unimaginable heights in the previous season.
And they were not always conventional.
Who can forget Ranieri’s imaginary “dilly-ding dilly-dong” bell he claimed to use when players were not paying attention – even giving his players a small bell as a light-hearted Christmas present?
Earlier in that glorious campaign Ranieri complained about a lack of clean sheets, promising his players a pizza as a reward. He duly delivered with a trip for his squad to a local pizzeria after his demand was fulfilled.
Ranieri’s man-management also fostered the sort of spirit Khan hopes he can reinvent at Fulham.
Leicester City’s players asked for a break if they got nine points from three tough games in February 2016. A last-minute loss at Arsenal meant they only got six – but Ranieri gave them their holiday anyway.
And to show his human side, he spent the day Leicester City clinched the title – when Spurs only drew with Chelsea – in Rome celebrating his mother’s 96th birthday.
When his arrival at Leicester was questioned he said: “I like to travel. I like to discover new places. I am like Christopher Columbus.”
But will charm and affability be enough for what he will he discover at Craven Cottage?
Can popular Ranieri get tough?
There is no doubt that Ranieri’s charisma will be crucial in lifting spirits at a club that started the season high on optimism before plummeting to the foot of the table, despite spending £100m in the summer following promotion from the Championship.
And Khan will be hoping he gets the Ranieri who inspired Leicester City to the Premier League on a tidal wave of momentum that saw his ‘Tinkerman’ reputation ditched in favour of continuity – although this Fulham side will certainly need some tweaking to achieve its potential.
Khan will not want the second-season scenario at Leicester, where Ranieri’s glory boys quickly went off the rails and the manager lost his sure touch to such an extent that he was sacked only nine months after his greatest moment, with the Foxes one point off the relegation zone.
Ranieri also left amid suggestions of discontent among the players and his own backroom staff. It was certainly not a happy ending to that mercurial management tenure.
Khan, then, will want a manager with fire in his belly and a determination to end his Premier League story on a high after the disappointing end to his short time at Leicester, although the love he still inspires at the King Power was illustrated when he was back recently to pay tribute to owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha following his death in a helicopter crash.
What are Ranieri’s biggest priorities?
Ranieri will walk into Fulham’s secluded Surrey training ground and Craven Cottage to find plenty of sympathy for Jokanovic, who was actually his first signing as Chelsea manager.
Jokanovic took Fulham into the Premier League playing attractive attacking football and Tom Greatrex, chairman of the club’s Supporters’ Trust, said in a glowing testimonial: “He will always go down as one of the great Fulham managers.”
Indeed, it was only two weeks ago that owner Khan delivered combative support for Jokanovic in his programme notes for the home game with Bournemouth in response to stories he was facing the sack, writing: “I’m in equal parts amused, astonished and disappointed. I ask you not to believe everything you read. Or, in this case, don’t believe anything you read.”
The subsequent 3-0 loss to the Cherries, a damaging 1-0 reverse at fellow strugglers Huddersfield Town and Sunday’s defeat at Liverpool meant things changed quickly – as Ranieri knows they can after his own sacking at Leicester.
Now he must use his well-honed brand of charm and personal magnetism to not only lift a team short on confidence and low on morale, but also apply a fix to serious flaws in a Fulham side that was expected to live comfortably in the Premier League.
Fulham spent big in the summer to confirm the loan signing of Aleksdandar Mitrovic from Newcastle United for £20m and bring in the likes of Jean Michael Seri from Nice for £25m, Marseille midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa for £22.3m and Germany World Cup winner Andre Schurrle on loan from Borussia Dortmund, as well as Swansea City defender Alfie Mawson for a deal that could eventually be worth £20m.
There have been questions about how many of these deals were at Jokanovic’s request but only Mitrovic has been a real success and the result has been an imbalanced, uninspired side that has lost its best attacking qualities and has also conceded more goals than anyone else in the Premier League – 31 – and has the worst goal difference at minus 20.
Curing that defensive flaw will be his biggest challenge but he has proved he can do it before – while also getting those big-money buys to justify those lavish price tags.
Ranieri will arrive at Fulham on a tide of goodwill, despite replacing the much-admired Jokanovic, but Fulham’s situation is so serious he may not be able to use the light touch immediately as one of management’s most enduring and popular characters gets back to business.