‘I am strong, I am still young’: Claudio Ranieri ready for Watford challenge
It is likely that if most managers found themselves in charge at Vicarage Road at this moment they would glance at Watford’s fixture list – which in their next eight games includes encounters with both Merseyside teams and both Manchester sides as well as Chelsea, Arsenal and Leicester – look at the average lifespan of their recent head coaches and then book in a removals company and a flight home.
But to arrive at this moment, with Xisco Muñoz having been sacked for collecting seven points from seven relatively gentle opening games, something of an injury crisis brewing in central defence and the gates about to open on the raging fires of footballing hell, takes an unusual level of optimism. The kind of optimism generally found either in young men, eager, cocksure and yet to learn the meaning of failure, or by those burned by it so often they no longer notice the scars.
“It’s football – sometimes you go up, sometimes you go down,” shrugged Claudio Ranieri, who on Wednesday, seven days before his 70th birthday, three before the visit of Liverpool for his debut fixture and a week after agreeing to join the club, was formally introduced to the media.
“But I never give up, I continue in my way. I have a strong character, I am still young and I want to continue. Why are you laughing?”
It is five months since Ranieri announced that he was stepping down as head coach of Sampdoria, but it is clear that retirement was never on his mind. “I’m very boring if I don’t stay in football,” he said. “I love football, I love the life, and then why not [take another job]? Maybe I’m 70 or 50, or 80 maybe, the oldest manager in England, with a walking stick. Why not? The brain is important, and my brain is very young.”
This is a typical Ranieri answer: brief and gently amusing. He ran through a selection of his greatest hits, from dilly-ding dilly-dong to squad pizza parties (there will be none of those if they manage to keep Liverpool at bay on Saturday: “Not pizza! If we keep a clean sheet, pizza is too little!”), and perhaps coined one or two more. There was a moment that called to mind Roy Hodgson’s announcement of his retirement last season at the age of 73, when the then Crystal Palace manager spoke about the impact of the job on those closest to him – “I have had so much support from my wife and family throughout my career and now I believe the time is right to consider them.” Dynamics in the Ranieri home seem somewhat different. “My wife, she’s happier than me!” he said of his return to work. “I kept my house in London and because of Covid for two years we didn’t come and she was crazy. Now she’s happy. Happy wife, happy life!”
There will surely be fewer jokes on the training ground as the Italian seeks to reproduce, of all his previous achievements, those at Sampdoria two years ago, when as here he arrived seven games into the season.
The Blucerchiati had lost six of them, but Ranieri swiftly produced a well-organised and extremely hard-working team. They stayed up that season with four games to spare, and last season they pressed more than any other side, blocked more than any other side, had the most aggressive actions, and finished ninth.
“Every manager has a different book, a different philosophy,” he said. “I want that they bring my spirit, take my spirit; that is very important. After that, victory or defeat is important, but not a lot. It’s important that you fight until the end. If you believe and never give up, that’s important. All the world knows Liverpool and if you lose to Liverpool it’s OK, it’s nothing. But if you work hard, if you fight until the end, maybe sometimes you can win. If you lose but you use 100% of your strength, of your stamina, it’s OK.”
This is Ranieri’s fourth job in English football, his previous three having brought unimaginable success at Leicester, unmitigated failure at Fulham and one of many experiences with trigger-happy chairmen at Chelsea, where he was in charge when Roman Abramovich took over in 2003. “I came second behind the unbeaten Arsenal, I reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, and I was sacked. That is my life,” he said. “Now you tell me Watford change coaches a lot?”
Ranieri suggested that Watford would be taking a defensive approach into their forthcoming rush of ferocious fixtures. “It’s like a boxer,” he said. “Some moments you can hit and some moments you have to stay covered up.”
But whatever happens in Hertfordshire no one will be landing a knockout blow on him. “I maintain my spirit. Nobody can kill me,” he said.
“Nobody. I maintain my spirit, my love, my life. Because sport is fantastic.”