Trust the process - Watford have their ways and Claudio Ranieri knows exactly what he's getting himself into
The date is May 7th 2016.
Sunlight streams down over the King Power Stadium, ambrosial rays dappled with royal blue confetti as if God themselves were a Fox. The stands are heaving with flag-waving spectators and the immaculately coiffed turf is littered with knackered heroes and a dusting of disbelief.
Stood – almost absurdly – in the centre circle, belting out Nessun Dorma with goosebump-inducing ardour, is operatic heavyweight Andrea Bocelli, and there, just over his shoulder, oozing a timid suaveness and fighting back the tears of an impossibility incarnate, is Claudio Ranieri.
Leicester City’s Premier League title win half a decade ago was so incredible, so implausible, that even the Brothers Grimm would have been tempted to dismiss it as fanciful. At the time, bookmakers were of the opinion that there was a greater likelihood of Elvis being found alive, or of Dean Gaffney winning an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role – genuinely. There are rank outsiders, and then there was Leicester City – a horse so dark that they made Black Beauty look like Shadowfax.
But at the helm, tinkering and dilly-dinging his way to a modern miracle, was Ranieri. Few would have had much faith in the veteran Italian maintaining the Foxes’ top flight status at the beginning of the 2015/16 campaign – fewer still would have had him down as the man to lead Leicester to a first ever league title. By “fewer still”, I of course mean “absolutely nobody, not even himself in his wildest fantasies”.
With all of that in mind, you’ll struggle to find a Leicester fan – or a neutral, for that matter – who isn’t at least a little delighted to hear that Ranieri is on his way back to the Premier League. The concerning caveat is that he’s on his way to Watford.
To say managers don’t last long at Vicarage Road would be a bit of an understatement. There are bowls of potato salad at Death Valley picnics with more optimistic life spans.
Hornets owner Gino Pozzo wields the axe like a hyperactive lumberjack, and the fact that latest victim Xisco Munoz lasted a whole 10 months is almost admirable given the club's recent history.
Since June 2011, Watford have had 14 different managers, including caretaker boss Hayden Mullins. That figure would be even higher if it wasn’t for the fact that they gave Quique Sanchez Flores two cracks at the gig. Ranieri will be Pozzo’s 15th different appointment in a little over a decade. Some of us haven’t even had 15 dentist appointments in that time.
That being said, the Hornets’ managerial blueprint, as drastic as it may seem to the outside world, does tend to yield results – relatively speaking. For a club of Watford's size and financial capabilities, spending six out of the past 10 seasons in the Premier League is an achievement in itself. Throw in an FA Cup final as well – albeit one that made Ivan Drago fighting Apollo Creed in Rocky IV look like an even contest – and it’s hard to be too critical of Pozzo’s penchant for a swift dismissal. It may not be orthodox, but if it works, it works.
Given the precedent that his new employer has laid down, however, you have to wonder why Ranieri has been so willing to put his head on the executioner’s block. The two-year deal that he’s penned at Vicarage Road feels aspirational in the same way that it would be aspirational for a mayfly to book a month-long cruise around the Caribbean. Sure, it should be fun while it lasts, but seeing out the whole thing might be a bit of a push.
Then again, who are we to question the inner-machinations of a Premier League title winner? Ranieri, for all of his affability and laconic charm, is a wily old campaigner, steeled as much by his missteps as his improbable successes. At this stage in his long, esteemed career, accusations of naivety or credulity must feel fairly laughable.
Taking over at Watford might seem like sipping away at a poisoned chalice, but didn’t people say the very same about Leicester City?