But it was their manager walking out between two rows of applauding Chelsea players and staff that was a really big deal.
Champions get heroes’ welcome — and Leicester City got one when they visited Chelsea in the final game of a stunning Premier League season in which they were emerged the unlikeliest of winners.
Claudio Ranieri walks out to a guard of honour from the club that sacked him…Gotta love football! 🙌🏼 https://t.co/JzbsIpzlGv— BreatheSport (@BreatheSport) May 15, 2016
A bloody big deal, and here’s why:
You see, Ranieri was Chelsea manager from September 2000 to May 2004, and the man behind their mini transformation that came before the massive Roman Abramovich overhaul. It was Ranieri who signed Frank Lampard, Bolo Zenden, William Gallas and Emmanuel Petit – players who would go on to make Chelsea an attractive prospect for rich foreign owners.
Then, just before the season Abramovich came in, Ranieri led Chelsea to Champions League qualification. This was the turning point – the club were onto the big stage. It was only the second time in their history that they were going to compete for club football’s grandest trophy. He managed this by making only one new signing as Chelsea suffered from financial constraints. At least that gave him the chance to nurture a certain John Terry.
‘The Tinkerman’, as he was nicknamed for rotating his squad too often – was then given an open chequebook after Abramovich’s takeover. He spent £120 million on Joe Cole, Wayne Bridge, Glen Johnson, Juan Veron, Hernan Crespo and Claude Makalele and steered them to second in the Premier League and the Champions League semi-final as well.
Maybe next season he would take them all the way — he already asked the club to sign Didier Drogba and Arjen Robben — but he would not get the chance to coach them. There was no next season.
Ranieri was sacked and replaced by Jose Mourinho – first of the eight managerial sackings in the Abramovich era.
Then came the redemption. That was 2004, this is 2016.
Asked what the Russian owner had said to him, Ranieri smiled: “‘Welcome to the champions!’ Very warm.”
Ranieri, slightly frailer but smiling as ever, returned to Stamford Bridge – where his career initially took off before being crash landed by Abramovich.
Twelve years since he called himself “a dead man walking” when recognising sagely that new Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich would sack him as manager, the Italian returned to his old club as the all-conquering hero.
He was walking into the stadium as a champion. The sacked tinkerman, returning a hero — ‘thinkerman’ as he himself put it — achiever of the most stunning feat in Premier League history, that of taking Leicester City to the title. Calm, smooth, like the Godfather. Returning applause with gracious nods – knowing deep inside that revenge has been served, in cold.