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Sports Authority

O’Boyle: Leicester City made right move to fire Ranieri

| Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sports fans aren’t meant to be rational.

Your team loses its star player? It was secretly better off without him anyway. You lost six straight before meeting the best team in the league? You’re due. A star displays any number of character flaws? He’s just competitive. Analytics make your team look good? Numbers don’t lie. Analytics make your team look bad? Just random numbers from a bunch of nerds who’ve never played sports in their life.

It would be ridiculous to ask most sports fans to make decisions without emotion. You have to account for that kind of irrationality.

That’s why it can be so difficult when a team makes a decision that creates deep, visceral outrage, but just might be right when emotion is removed. That’s what happened last week at the home of the most incredible story in modern sports: Leicester City.

Leicester’s story in 2015-16 gained global attention. The 5000-1 outsiders finished comfortably on top of the Premier League despite transfer and wage bills dwarfed by expected contenders like Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. Considering the sustained performances it takes to win a 38-game league season, such an upset was unprecedented in any sport.

Few people expected Leicester to win the Premier League again, but few could have seen the Foxes collapsing right back to where they were before the miracle season — hoping just to stay in the Premier League next season — either.

And yet that’s what happened.

Apart from impressive performances in the Champions League, where Leicester has reached the last 16 and could still make the quarter-finals with a good result against Sevilla, there’s little evidence that the defending champions ever had the season they did less than a year ago. As of Feb. 23, they were on a five-game losing streak and sat 17th in the table — one place ahead of relegation territory. Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, stars of the 2015-16 campaign, looked more deserving of spots on the teams in the French second-flight and English fifth-flight from which they had been signed than they looked like Premier League Player-of-the-Year award winners.
So Leicester did something drastic. They fired Claudio Ranieri.

At first reaction, any fan of Leicester — and any sports fan who wanted to see the impossible happen — should be outraged. In just a year, Ranieri became the greatest ever Fox coaches by doing something lightyears ahead of what the best possible expectations could have been. But maybe it had to be done.

How Ranieri transformed Leicester into title winners is still somewhat of a mystery. The Italian was a well-known manager with past Premier League experience as well as time spent managing in Italy, Spain, France and on the international stage. He’d had his successes, but he was no miracle worker. In fact, his most recent stint was as coach of the Greek National Team, where a loss to the lowly Faroe Islands saw him removed from the job.

It’s even more clear that Ranieri didn’t really know how he won the league either. He made formation changes and changes to starting lineups, but nothing seemed to work. It’s clear that this team, which achieved something they never thought possible, needed some kind of change. Key players looked like they had lost all motivation, and when that happens, something needs to be changed. It happened last season for Chelsea, who fired their own club legend, Jose Mourinho, after shockingly sitting in 16th with similar issues of players lacking commitment. Unlike Chelsea, Leicester’s finances aren’t befitting a title contender, but with the financial boon from the previous season’s global attention and a place in the Champions League, they’re not minnows in terms of spending either, holding on to many of their key pieces from last year and adding expensive new ones like striker Islam Slimani in the transfer window.

If you still have your doubts, the decision by Leicester’s upper management seems to be getting early results, after the Foxes snapped their losing streak with a 3-1 win over Liverpool. After then-manager Nigel Pearson made an unlikely escape from the relegation zone in 2014-15 and Ranieri pulled off the ultimate miracle 2015-16, maybe Leicester again needs a new coach for their next chapter, whether it’s a Champions League fairy tale or just staying in the Premier League.

To anyone who cares about sports and the incredible stories they can produce, Leicester firing Ranieri is wrong. But when you strip away the emotion, it might just turn out for the best. It will never truly feel 100 percent right to me, but sports fans aren’t meant to be rational.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel