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Claudio Ranieri and the Dreaded Vote Of Confidence

It’s meant to be an affirmation of faith and stability, but it’s usually anything but.

Leicester City v Derby County - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

How would you feel about a vote of confidence? You'd like it, wouldn't you? If things weren't going so well at work, if the important numbers were down, if the trends were all pointing the wrong way … and then somebody senior came up to you and said "Don't worry. We trust you. We know you're the right person for this. We've got your back." Then, as if to reinforce the point, went out and told everybody else. That would be pretty good, right?

Well, congratulations or commiserations, because you are not a football manager. In the looking-glass world of elite sport, all votes of confidence are precisely the opposite. They are harbingers of doom. They've even got their own cliché: the dreaded vote of confidence. A sacking inevitably follows, sometimes within days. Any time a stressed football manager gets a pat on the back, there's a knife in the other hand.

In recent seasons, José Mourinho and Brendan Rodgers have lasted just a couple of months beyond their respective endorsements, and Tim Sherwood barely a fortnight. The latest poor sap to receive their black spot is Claudio Ranieri, adorable manager of Leicester City and mastermind of last season's Most Surprising Title Ever, Probably. With the club now just one point above the relegation zone:

Leicester City would like to make absolutely clear its unwavering support for its manager, Claudio Ranieri. While there is a collective appreciation [...] that recent form needs to improve, the unprecedented success achieved in recent seasons has been based firmly on stability, togetherness and determination to overcome the greatest of challenges.

On the one hand, those that make the hiring and firing decisions have very little choice in the matter. After all, if a manager's position is under consideration, but no final decision has been made, then coming out and admitting it would likely amount to a self-fulfilling threat. "One more loss and they're gone!" We shouldn't be surprised that such votes are often followed by sackings, because there isn't really any other way to go about it.

But the stickiness of the cliche is such that it renders actual, honest backing almost impossible. When a public statement of "We back you" is instinctively parsed by the public as "We're going to sack you" — when the negative has entirely consumed the positive — then there is nothing good to be said. And saying nothing? Looks very suspicious indeed.

Top-level football operates according to a kind of quantity theory of crisis: Some club, somewhere, must always be in crisis, and as soon as they clamber out of it, another tumbles in. This is fueled by many things — 24/7 news coverage, knee-jerking chairpersons, bloated broadcast budgets, the ongoing attempt to fill the yawning void of the internet with content — but the inability to trust endorsements certainly plays its part. All it takes is a few bad results, and then any kind of response — or lack of — from the powers that be can be folded into the crisis, then consumed for fuel.

It is, perhaps, a little bleak that we've got to a position where every expression of institutional support for a manager is assumed to be at best ambiguous, at worst a flat-out lie. In a better world, Ranieri would be able to pick and choose the moment and manner of his departure, and applause would follow him no matter the circumstances. But in that better world, relegation from the Premier League would be simply a sporting question, not also an existential or financial one. And football would be important without being spirit-breaking, and unicorns would vomit rainbows down the gold-paved streets.

Here in our unicorn-free timeline, we've got the game we've got, and we've got "form needs to improve" tucked into Leicester's statement above. Votes of confidence are dreaded not because they're necessarily untrue or provided in bad faith, but because their truth is subject to the tyranny of results. The words say "We back you." The very fact that it needs to be said, that the statement exists, says otherwise. Thinking about the unthinkable isn't the same as thinking it, but it's far too closely related for comfort.