Column inches, airwaves and clicks have been dominated in the past couple of weeks here in the UK by Leicester’s unprecedented march to Premier League glory. And rightly so, the Foxes’ achievement has been nothing short of miraculous. But amidst the hype over Jamie Vardy’s “conference to conqueror” narrative, the magic of Mahrez and N’Golo Kante’s ceaseless engine, the role of the manager has been somewhat overshadowed. Claudio Ranieri was undoubtedly a popular winner. An almost universally liked personality, the plaudits have been forthcoming albeit somewhat tinged with faint praise. “Gentleman” is arguably the most common adjective whenever the genial Italian is referenced. “Winner”, “leader”, “determined” are somewhat lagging behind.
But why shouldn’t nice guys finish first? Ranieri’s stock was undoubtedly perceived to be at a low ebb on his return to the UK. The vaguely derogatory “tinkerman” moniker from his time at Chelsea had stuck, despite hindsight now proving he was somewhat of an innovator in the concept of squad rotation. And in any case, his title-winning side from the midlands used one of the lowest number of players in the league. Rather more damningly, he seemed to carry the perception of a losing mentality among the general public, and certainly among the media. While he undoubtedly had some dark days in his previous posting with Greece (defeat to the Faroe Islands a nadir), a career of any longevity will naturally experience peaks and troughs.
This was a man who had led Chelsea to second place in the league under pressing circumstances at the dawn of the Abramovich era. This was subsequently followed by runners up spots with Roma, Juventus and Monaco. When losing to fierce rivals Lazio in the Rome derby, he once replaced both club icons Francesco Totti and Daniele de Rossi, and ended up winning. Whatever the uninformed consensus may be about Claudio, two things he most certainly isn’t lacking in is confidence or conviction.
As ever, this seemingly wholly unconnected series of sporting events raised similarities with the Green and Red. Thoughts of our own struggles are never far from the mind – “Mayo God Help Us”. The lack of that elusive Championship title is a blind spot in the public perception of Mayo football. While the roll-call of second bests will forever string a nearly-men tag to Mayo teams that perform on a national stage, the level of sustained competitiveness is so often taken for granted. 5 Connacht titles on the spin. Countless great days out in Croke Park. Heartbreak on the big day undoubtedly, but relentless perseverance and will to improve. This year alone, all three club finalists hailed from the Plains of the Yew Tree. All three vanquished as the naysayers will point out, but to simply navigate the long road from county group to provincial representative and onto Drumcondra in the spring is a phenomenal achievement for any club. For all three to hail from a single county in a single season is exceptional.
But all moot. Until that final line is crossed, all other achievements hold a caveat. History is written by the winners. Claudio knew it. We know it too. Which is what ultimately made a glorious day in Ennis a few weeks ago so special. The template was in place for another “almost-but-not-quite” tale, that sinking feeling that all present were familiar with. But with exemplary leadership from Stephen Coen, this under 21 group displayed a truly ruthless streak to claim a title that at many stages of the contest looked like it was out of reach. A trait of true champions.
Whether any or all of that squad progress to have successful senior inter-county careers is for another day, and with two underage All-Ireland titles already in several pockets, many of that panel are already in exalted company. Mayo fans are forever associated with “the journey”, but perhaps we got a glimpse of the final destination on that sunny evening in Cusack Park. A journeyman like the wily old Fox at the King Power stadium would no doubt empathise.