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By sacking Ranieri, Leicester City becomes just another football club

I was brought up with the game of football. My lovely sports mad Dad, Kevin, played for the local team alongside legend Joe Corrigan, until Joe was spotted by Manchester City.

Sport was a big part of my life growing up, and though I’ve always preferred more creative and academic pursuits myself, Saturday nights would be all savoury mince, carrots and smash for tea, whilst the scores spewed out from the telly.

In those days, at a match, the atmosphere would be electric in the ground, infused with collective supporter intimacy and a local team feel, even if most of the players were foreigners (from Ireland)! It felt like football had a heart, and being a part of it could evoke real passion and a great sense of loyalty and pride.

Years later as a lecturer, I was moved by the plight of a young fresher student, who felt so homesick, missing his local footie team Scarborough FC, that he left for somewhere closer to home. Psychologically, identity and a sense of belonging are inextricably tied up with football and thousands of likeminded fellow supporters, but it’s easy to forget this nowadays, whilst the professional game sits so firmly in the corporate world.

I lost interest in football as I grew up, put off by the big money, the greed, ‘overpaid and over here’ players and the ostentatiousness of it all.  But, having lived in Leicester for 24 years, my interest was rekindled when the ‘local’ team started to look like they really could grab the prize against massive odds. Winning the Premiership last year lead to such an outpouring of pride and good feeling in the local Leicestershire community, it was contagious and rippled out far beyond the counties boundaries.

Everyone knew that Jamie Vardy was having a party, and we all felt like we had been invited. I was in our local pub watching the game when Tottenham drew 2-2 at Chelsea, and the atmosphere was incredible. Standing there with Leicester FC’s loyal, committed ambassador and ex player, Alan Birchenall, we realised Ranieri and his team had only gone and done it, and it was one of those rare lifetime moments of absolute collective joy. There wasn’t a dry eye in the (public) house.

In a world where the sense of belonging is often hampered by long working hours and fragmented communities, Leicester FC winning the Premiership did more than just bring a title and cup home; it brought a community together in celebration of the underdog. It showed how it was possible to lead a team to success with warmth, charisma and humility.  For a moment we felt that anything was possible. In a world suffering from Impoverished Leadership, Claudio showed us how Transformational Leadership worked in practice.

So, this takes me to the terribly sad departure of this wonderful man, Claudio, from the club with whom he shared his special gift. Hearing the news last week actually brought more tears to my eyes, especially as for me, it provides further evidence of the inevitability of footballs slide into the corporate abyss.

Photo courtesy of The Leicester Mercury – Claudio Ranieri at a press conference

My heart sank when I heard that this ‘Manager of the Year’, who helped a whole city achieve its’ Fairy Tale ending, has been cast into the ex-football manager dump truck. This warm, gentle and ‘sans ego’ man, made people believe that football could still have a heart and more importantly, a Soul. He managed to achieve the unthinkable and created the ‘most unlikely triumph in the history of team sport’.

Nine months ago he was a hero. Today, he is a rejected leader of a currently underperforming team.   Boards in any business have to make tough decisions on occasion, but the approach that has been taken is a stab in the belly for any who thought that this heralded the arrival of a new kind of football manager – one pedalling empathy, compassion and wisdom.

I have spoken with many Foxes fans since the news of Ranieri’s departure. Many loyal and true supporters, who find their identities are inextricably tied up with the club, awoke Friday with very heavy hearts and a sense that the light had gone out.   I am sure this feeling will pass with time, but this tells us a lot about how people become emotionally attached to a leader who taps into their core values and gives them hope beyond the confines of a 90-minute game.

Ranieri left the club with the good grace and lack of drama that we have come to expect from him. He has qualities rarely seen in a leader, in any sector of the economy. Yet his are the qualities that researchers have found most of us crave. For whatever reason they have chosen to humiliate him in this way (because, let’s face it, it is humiliating), as he heads off into pastures new, we can look on and witness the ultimate values seen to be held by modern-day football –  a desire for wealth and status and the next title, above all else.  The loss of his ‘Claudio-ness’, means we have lost touch with the qualities that the game used to possess in those halcyon days, and the things which have led to hordes of young kids kicking a ball about on the park or going to a game with their family on a frosty Saturday afternoon.

Whoever takes over will have a hard act to follow. In spite of the players’ dismal performance lately, the crowd love Ranieri and were chanting his name right up to his exit. This team are now under even greater pressure, because by sacking Claudio, it implies that he is the problem. But, we need to look at the team and work out what is going on here. It is all too easy to put the responsibility and blame at the manager’s door.

There can be no doubt that the players, both individually and collectively, have struggled to regain the magic they had last season. They are, in reality, a young and relatively inexperienced team, who found themselves in a state of psychological and physical flow in 2016. But they are no longer in the zone. Last season they had nothing to lose and all to fight for, and everything came together, like it often does when we are faced with a challenging goal coupled with good leadership.

Now they have everything to maintain and a reputation at stake. It’s a different psychological place entirely. All eyes are on them, waiting to see if they can hold onto their crown.  A more experienced team with a longer history of success might have even struggled with that, but Leicester FC doesn’t have the tacit knowledge of how to come back consistently and reapply the same strategy. Now owners of flashy cars and with a greater price on their heads, performance anxiety has set in.

Though I strongly disagree with the decision, it is perhaps right that a different style of leadership is required in this situation – though in industry we would work with the leader to help them adjust their style accordingly. But ultimately, it is not the manager that runs out on the pitch to play. Whoever takes the helm after Claudio is going to have to be able to get into these players heads both as a team and, more importantly, as individuals.

There was only one Ranieri. Now, we will just have to wait and see who takes his place and what impact they will have on Leicester FC’s potential upcoming relegation battle. Claudio came into his own when the proverbial hit the fan, maybe they should have hung on a little longer to see if that was what was actually needed in the current situation.

Last night, everyone watched with baited breath to see if they could beat Liverpool and somehow they pulled it out of the bag, leading to a 3-1 win: a fabulous result. But I have to liken it to a gaggle of petulant teenagers who refuse to tidy their bedroom or do their homework. Their parents have to go away and a favourite relative comes to stay, so they pull out all the stops to impress.

Let’s see if they can keep it up.

As for Ranieri, he will never be forgotten though, especially by this one fan, who was quoted on social media as saying:  “I’ve been a miserable Leicester fan most of my adult life….He made me happy.”

This Blog post was written by Dr Cheryl Travers, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management, and member of the HRMOB discipline group. Cheryl can be reached on C.Travers@lboro.ac.uk