The brutal sacking of Claudio Ranieri, the Leicester boss, and the forced resignation of Sutton United sub goalkeeper Wayne Shaw are symptomatic of a game that sold its soul to the moneymen over 20 years ago and is overseen by a body lacking any credible sense of moral authority.
A few years back Frank O’Farrell reflected on a turbulent but rarely dull life in football management from his adopted seaside home in Torquay. The genial Corkman had been among the casualties during that strange and ignominious lull in fortunes that constituted the post-Busby era at Manchester United. In O’Farrell’s account the former manager remained a distinct and undermining presence, turning an already thankless task into a near impossible one. He was mercifully cut adrift after 18 months. The bitterness would take years to subside.
A couple of years later, following a brief interlude at Cardiff, O’Farrell received an invitation to coach the Iranian national team. Intrigued by the offer, he sought the advice of trusted friends before making his decision. “Be careful Frank,” one knowingly warned him. “There are some funny people over there.” O’Farrell laughed. “There are some funny people over here too,” he scoffed, recalling those who had made his life such a misery during his brief stay at Old Trafford.
And that’s the truth of it. There are some funny people in football: of all colours and creeds, all shapes and sizes, rich and poor and all points in between. Funny ha ha or funny peculiar? Well, that’s a matter of opinion. A club sacks a beloved manager nine months after delivering the most unlikely trophy in the history of English football. Hilarious. A player is forced into a hurried resignation for chomping a pie in the dugout during a game. You’ve got to be kidding.
Who is the real joke on here? The most shocking thing about the ousting of Claudio Ranieri as Leicester City manager is that it barely registers a blip on football’s richter scale at all. He is not even the first title winning manager to be gone within a season in the past two years. For all the feverish discussion and emotional grandstanding it elicited, the fact remains that it is not the most irrational decision taken by a board of directors this season. Not even close.
That dubious honour belongs to Birmingham who dispensed with the services of Gary Rowett in mid-December for only steering the club to seventh in the table, one place shy of a play-off berth. This from a club that had finished no higher than 10th in the previous four seasons. Since Rowett’s departure, Birmingham have played 12 League games and won just once and if there is some celestial sense of karma at play here, there are those now praying it wends its way a few miles east to pay a visit to a rival midlands’ club.
So it goes in the La La land of Championship football, a place now almost entirely reduced to the status of a gateway to the garlanded riches of the Premier League. Since the outset of the season no fewer than 10 Championship clubs have seen fit to send a manager packing, one club, Rotherham, having done so twice to no discernible improvement (hint: maybe the problem isn’t the manager). In the midst of this flurry of hiring and firing, even basket-case Leeds have come to appear as a paragon of virtue and good sense. That is the funniest thing of all.
Of course, you can make an argument (and many are) for why removing Ranieri made sense in cold, calculating business terms. And in eating that pie during his club’s FA Cup fifth round tie against Arsenal, Sutton United reserve keeper Wayne Shaw was flouting clearly defined betting rules. By the letter of the law, Shaw had to be punished, even if the loss of his job seemed a tad harsh and heavy-handed. That much is debatable either way.
But football, and the specific activity of loving a particular club, isn’t really a rational kind of business, it eschews normal business rules. It is predicated on a deeply emotional attachment, unquestioning and, almost by its nature, an irrational act: “Forever United”, “City till I die” and so on. Supporters crave success and will sometimes tolerate any number of compromises in order to maximise its chances, but there has to be a line in the sand and, for many, the sacking of Ranieri comes dangerously close to skirting it.
There is no material connection between Ranieri and Shaw other than they are both, to some extent, victims of a long-standing process by which ordinary supporters feel increasingly disenfranchised from a sport still billed, without apparent irony, as the “people’s game.” However defensible these decisions, however righteous by the letter of the law, they simply don’t feel right. They seem the product of a game that barely feels familiar or even likeable anymore. When the price of success finally becomes apparent and the realisation dawns that it might not be worth paying after all.
Shaw might have acted foolishly, a slave to his own hankering for publicity as much as anything, but what about a game that has entwined itself so thoroughly with betting that it is difficult to see how it can rule on individuals with any sense of moral authority? There is scarcely a top-flight club or international federation now which hasn’t sought to feather its nest by signing up some bookie or other as its official “betting partner” and help spread the message that it’s a lot more fun when you have a bet on it.
This wouldn’t seem to bad if it didn’t seem so invidious – loud-mouthed celebrities shouting the odds at us during every available intermission – and if we were somehow blissfully unaware that these betting firms generate their obscene profits by preying on the most vulnerable in society. Football doesn’t need that money and shouldn’t want that tacky association. Shaw enabled his friends to profit from a novelty bet which is against the rules and had to be dealt with, but the FA’s hypocrisy is still galling.
Of course, it is many years since the terms Football Association and moral authority could be safely employed in the one sentence. This is the body that sold the game for a song in the early 1990s and has overseen the near destruction of a storied competition that could once light a romantic flame like no other. Sutton United don’t emerge a lot better. Already prospering from their Cup exploits, the club demeaned itself by doing a deal with a despised tabloid newspaper, simply to eke a few more quid out of their big day. And yet, it is Shaw’s behaviour, a little bit foolish, a little bit naive, that we are expected to get all hot and bothered about.
As for Ranieri, the Italian will leave Leicester a wealthy man with the goodwill of the vast majority of supporters to warm him on his way and the memories of last season’s achievement to ease him into retirement, if that is the path he chooses. He leaves too with his dignity intact – something that can’t be safely said of the club itself or the players implicated in his removal – and the deep gratitude of thousands in Leicester and elsewhere for serving a timely reminder that good things could still happen to good people and for, however temporarily, shaking up an old football order that had become stodgy and boring.
This is the “new football”, as Jose Mourinho, no stranger himself to a curt sacking, observed after hearing the news, a time when club owners, mostly foreigners, try to reassure long-suffering fans that they know best. You can have terrible British owners too, it must be said. But it was an eyebrow raising moment last year when, with the title success barely 24 hours old, the Leicester players boarded a plane for Thailand where the real celebrations began. And when Rowett was being sacked in December, it was a conglomerate by the fancy title of Trillion Trophy Asia promising supporters they were on the cusp of something very big.
It feels an uncertain time for the game right now. The European Championships expand, the World Cup moves on to inhospitable locations and Fifa talks of adding more teams. Everybody wants growth and the influx of Chinese money puts a halt to everyone’s step. No-one is quite sure where all the money is coming from or where half of it is going to end up and to what purpose. The consensus is that English football will be okay until the bubble bursts which doesn’t seem anytime very soon.
Yet, it is known that subscriptions are in decline and more people than ever are just switching the games and all their untrammelled hype off. It is either alarming or encouraging, depending on your viewpoint, to read on newspaper websites or fan forums accounts of how former fans of big clubs renounced their allegiance in favour of the more homely, authentic experience of following their local non-League, often supporter-owned, club. For big clubs relentlessly scouring the globe for lucrative markets abroad, such losses are easily enough absorbed. Still, it is nothing to be complacent about.
And whatever way the Claudio Ranieri sacking is spun, it is impossible to resist the feeling that something vital was lost last week, that the decision by the club’s Thai owners offered a further commentary on a game that has spiralled out of control. In one act of brutal bloodletting, a small, midlands club, the toast of the world last season, became the villain of the piece, ensuring that many of those neutrals who happily roared them to glory last season will now, at a minimum, feel entirely indifferent to their fate and might cheerfully conclude that a sense of justice will be served if Leicester do end up going down.
It is an appallingly sad way for this chapter of Leicester’s story to end. Ranieri’s wonderfully unlikely achievement said so many good things about the game that it felt good to wallow in them, maybe even milk his input for more than it was worth. But the obverse is true too for the fall. Look how quickly it has all come crashing down. Look how soon it took for our illusion that the game was about something more than grubby commerce to be shattered into pieces, how little credit in the bank a decent manager could build up. How quickly the old order reasserted itself and pushed the unruly upstarts back into their rightful place.
The show will go on, of course. It always does without fail. If football is suffering a death from a thousand cuts, then there is probably some distance to go yet. It’s just that this one cut a little deeper than the rest.