Half an hour before kick-off in Seville on Wednesday night, I was introduced on the touchline to Leicester owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and his son.
It was only a brief encounter, but it was light-hearted enough for me to tell them, “Whatever you do, please don’t get rid of Claudio Ranieri .” They just smiled, but nothing about their reaction suggested they were about to fire him.
Now, if I bumped into them again, I would not be able to look them in the eye because Ranieri’s sacking is totally wrong – and it marks the death of sentiment in football.
That vote of confidence two weeks ago, where they offered Ranieri “unwavering support” as Leicester slipped towards the relegation zone, wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.
And if it’s true that certain players complained to the owner about Ranieri’s methods behind their manager’s back, shame on them.
Instead of growing a pair, fighting for the shirt and fighting to keep a good man in his job, have they been telling tales out of the classroom to Srivaddhanaprabha?
And do you think any players will come out in public and admit: “Yes, we complained to the owner about our manager”? No chance.
Look, I get it that Leicester players did something unbelievably special by winning the title last season. It was the greatest football fairytale ever told.
And they deserved to be rewarded for turning an impossible dream into reality. But you can’t bank a big pay rise, then turn in a string of gutless, inept, spiritless performances in the Premier League knowing one man – the manager – will pay the price and just slink back into your cliques in the dressing room.
Everything that served them so well in the last two years is missing.
When I was a Leicester City player, I had experience of going to see the chairman as part of a senior players’ delegation.
Peter Taylor had taken over from Martin O’Neill as manager, he was struggling to get results and a few of us were asked to go and see the chairman, John Elsom.
But instead of stabbing Taylor in the back, we told Elsom that the players were to blame for our poor start and we should be carrying the can, not the manager.
We went back to the dressing room with the message that we should fight to keep Taylor, who was a good man, in his job.
As it happened, he got the sack later in the season anyway because we weren’t good enough – but at least we could sleep at night, knowing we gave our best for him.
I’m not sure the same can be said for some of Ranieri’s players. Some of them won’t give a stuff that he’s gone, but for me this a case of player power going too far.
I felt empty when I went to bed on Thursday night because Ranieri’s cynical, ruthless, soulless sacking appalled me. It is an absolute f****** disgrace.
Two years ago, with 13 games left, Leicester were bottom of the Premier League, five points adrift of safety.
Nigel Pearson was given the chance to turn it around, and look what happened – Leicester went on a fantastic run, won seven of the last nine, and pulled off a great escape.
Why wasn’t Ranieri, who has never been in the bottom three with Leicester, afforded the same opportunity, even though they have not scored a goal in the Premier League in 2017?
Is it because the players were more loyal to Pearson than Ranieri?
People say it’s worth £100 million to stay in the Premier League, but just over three years ago Leicester’s Thai owners – who have been brilliant for the club overall – effectively wrote off £103m by converting debts into equity.
If money wasn’t be the be-all and end-all for them in 2013-14, was it a major factor in their decision to ditch Ranieri?
People shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh well, that’s football for you” – but Claudio Ranieri’s treatment doesn’t paint the game in a very flattering light.
I agree with Gary Lineker, who expressed surprise when Ranieri was appointed in 2015 and outrage when he was ditched on Thursday: It’s inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad.
If you ever want to know why so many ex-players prefer punditry to management, here’s your answer.
Who, in their right mind, would want to become a manager if you are sacked 297 days after delivering a 5,000-1 miracle and giving a city the greatest sporting story of all time?
There were loads of Leicester fans on my plane home from Spain, and all of them – every single one – wanted Ranieri to stay and blamed the players for their slump in the Premier League this season.
My pal Roberto Mancini is front runner with the bookies to replace Ranieri, but my sources tell me there has been no contact from Leicester, and I just wish he was not being linked with the job in these circumstances.
Respected journalists and pundits say it was the right decision to fire Ranieri now because Leicester were going down if he stayed.
They are entitled to their opinion, but surely there has to be some slack for a man who gave a generation the greatest experience of their lives, a magic carpet ride they will never taste again.
On the other hand, one old sparring partner of mine – whose Twitter profile pic is a screen-grab of Marouane Fellaini with him lurking in the background – said Ranieri should have gone last summer because, seriously, what else did he expect was going to happen?
What utter nonsense. Here’s what happened: Leicester City are potentially one goal and a clean sheet away from the European Cup quarter-finals and, for all their problems in the Premier League, they have NEVER been in the bottom three this season.
As I have said in previous columns, even if Leicester go down, Ranieri should have been given the first shot at bringing them back up again.
And he should have a statue next to King Richard III in the city centre to thank him for bringing unprecedented glory to the King Power, not a P45.
Over the last 10 years, Leicester’s average finish among the 92 League clubs has been in the top six of the Championship.
In other words, if they go down, recent history suggests Leicester’s natural place in English football’s pecking order is either side of the trapdoor between the Premier League and the second tier – which is where they are now.
Did Burnley sack Sean Dyche went they went down? No – and he brought them straight back up, stronger and better-equipped to survive.
Will Bournemouth sack Eddie Howe if they get sucked into the bottom three? Only if the owners suffer a terrible attack of amnesia and forget where they were when he took over.
Maybe Dyche and Howe’s teams have never won the title but at least they have stayed grounded. Maybe that is the difference.
This time last year, Leicester were just about everyone’s second favourite team. Now, if they are relegated, I bet all those people would say it serves them right.
Claudio Ranieri’s sacking will go down as the day football lost its soul.
More than turning also-rans into the champions of England, he gave hope to everyone in the game that nothing is impossible – and instead of dumping him on the scrapheap, we should all thank him for that.
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