Claudio Ranieri said he was ready to be the oldest manager in the Premier League – even, he joked, with a “walking stick” – but added that “the brain is very young” as he began his mission to steer Watford away from relegation.
The Italian is 70 in a week’s time, and his new job at Watford is his 22nd appointment in a 35-year coaching career across 18 clubs, and one national team. Optimistic about the future, and philosophical about the past, Ranieri is back in the Premier League at his fourth club – four spells that have encompassed everything from a league title to relegation form, with just one thing in common: in each case an abrupt sacking.
From the hardline Italian at impoverished pre-Roman Abramovich Chelsea, to the miracle worker who won the Premier League at Leicester City, Ranieri was largely ineffective at struggling Fulham, his most recent English job, where he lasted little more than three months up to late February 2019.
At Vicarage Road, at his introduction as manager yesterday, he espoused a familiar blend of good humour, common sense and the occasional eccentricity of a man for whom the English language is still yet to be completely tamed.
Why was he back now, well past retirement age, with four decades of contractual compensation payments to feather his later years? “I’m very boring if I don’t stay in football,” he said. “I love football, I love the life, and then why not? Seventy [years old] or 50 – or 80, maybe – why not?
“The oldest manager in England, maybe with a walking stick. But the brain is important, and the brain is very young.”
His past two seasons at Sampdoria were exactly what the Pozzo family ownership of Watford have in mind for their club – rescuing and stabilising a top-flight club previously in danger of relegation. Ranieri said that he had known the senior member of the Pozzos, Giampaolo, for many years and had once been offered the chance to coach the family’s Italian club, Udinese – one of the few jobs he turned down.
Ranieri mentioned often that he was an “ambitious man” and that Gino Pozzo, son of Giampaolo and the master of hire and fire at Watford, was ambitious, too. Quite what that ambition means for Watford no one has ever been sure – just that as soon as it is threatened the family do not wait around to make a decision on the manager. There was not much more insight offered on Wednesday other than that Ranieri will have to make quick decisions about his squad when they gather for the first time together on Thursdayday in preparation for Saturday’s lunchtime visit of Liverpool.
Otherwise it was a pleasant tour of Ranieri opinions on the big issues of the day, including the Super League proposals of April, which many regarded as in part a reaction to the shock of his historic 2016 title with Leicester. “You are talking about the Super League,” he said. “I don’t like the Super League. The Premier League is a super league, why do you want a [European] Super League?”
“I think another Leicester [surprise winner] could happen in 100 years. It’s not this [why the Super League was launched]. Maybe they want to do this to achieve more money, that’s normal. But I think the normal is to maintain in every country the league. I tried to do my best. I’m happy if some people, not only in sport but in life, think, ‘If Leicester did this, then why not?’ That is very good hope for the people.”
He was at his most animated when asked, in light of the Newcastle United takeover, to reflect on his role as the incumbent manager when the Abramovich revolution hit Chelsea in 2003. He had a year under the new Russian owner before being swept aside. “I was sacked,” he said. “That’s what happens straight away. I finished second behind the unbeaten Arsenal [in the league]. I arrived in the semi-finals of the Champions League. And I was sacked. That is the life. Now you tell me Watford change [managers] a lot. It’s unbelievable.”
Ranieri has been around for so long that this is the second time in England he has succeeded a former player of his in a job. Xisco Munoz, Watford’s most recent managerial sacking, played for Ranieri at Atletico Madrid.
Slavisa Jokanovic, his predecessor at Fulham, had been his first signing at Chelsea.
There was a time when Ranieri’s tendency to change his line-up game-to-game was considered such a novelty that he earned a nickname for it – “The Tinkerman” – which he cheerfully accepted. “A long time ago a lot of people told me I was a tinkerman because I changed the team, the system, so many times,” he said. “Twenty years later a lot of managers are tinkermen. Yes, unbelievable. I created the flag. I have the flag and they are all behind it.”