And, knowing what we now know about what was to come the following night, what an even more pleasant surprise it was to switch on RTÉ’s coverage of Seville v Leicester in the Champions League on Wednesday and discover that, without any fanfare whatsoever, a terrible wrong had been righted and John Giles had been parachuted back onto the panel.
Astute, authoritative and with his bullshit detector as finely-tuned as ever, he was in vintage form, up to and including those familiar instances of head-shaking resignation as he was obliged once again to survey the baffling foibles of “the modern day footballer.”
Except that, soft, this wasn’t Gilesy at all but, rather, the pundit who is fast emerging as the great man’s spiritual son and heir – none other than The Duffer. (For his part, Giles appears to have had “some work done”, as they say, and has assumed a new identity as the current manager of Southampton, meaning your next chance to see him on the box will be tomorrow when the Saints take on Man Utd in the League Cup Final. Tune in and tell me I’m wrong).
Since it’s hard to fathom any good reason why John Giles was ushered off the main stage other than to satisfy some entirely wrong-headed ageist agenda, I’m trusting that Damien Duff’s tender years will protect him from similar discrimination, even though there are times when his expressed worldview could hardly be more old-fashioned if he appeared in studio wearing a cloth cap and muffler and with half a Woodbine dangling from his lips.
More than once while watching Leicester struggle on Wednesday night, Duffer waxed baleful about the “modern day footballer”, on the face of it an odd phrase to escape the lips of a 37-year-old who only played his last game for Ireland at Euro 2012.
True, that might have been the point at which we began referring to Damien as a “centurion” but always with the understanding that people knew we were referring to his international caps, not his years.
But here’s the thing: for all that Duffer might have come across at times like he’d wandered into Montrose from a more sepia-tinted age, he wasn’t wrong in calling out the Leicester players for their failings this season – failings for which, to widespread sadness and astonishment, Claudio Ranieri has now been made the fall guy.
In analysing why the champs have turned chumps, you can identify the loss of N’Golo Kante as critical, while also pointing to other factors such as poor recruitment, some class of motivational deficit after last year’s incredible achievement, a gathering collapse in form and confidence once the difficulties of the new season had become apparent, and, yes, Ranieri’s own reversion to the role of tinkerman – albeit the latter was surely more in the way of a response to Leicester’s problems, rather than their cause.
But, reinforcing what we’ve seen in their abysmal Premier League form, the inescapable evidence of at least an hour of the game in Seville was that, this season, the Leicester players haven’t been putting in anything remotely like the collective and individual effort which was the basis for their staggering success last time around.
And it was this basic lack of application which most perplexed and angered Damien Duff who, in addressing the popular perception that Ranieri had “lost the dressing room”, recalled the affection and admiration with which the Italian was held at Chelsea and how the players would gladly have “run through a brick wall for him.”
The apparent unwillingness of Riyad Mahrez to do much running was the focus of much of the RTÉ panel’s disapproval, with Liam Brady and Ronnie Whelan speculating that last year’s Players’ Player Of The Year might be more concerned these days with wondering how and why he hadn’t followed Kante out the door to bigger and better things.
Fortunately for Leicester, Jamie Vardy’s rediscovery of his goal touch and the mini-revival it inspired on the night, meant the visitors salvaged an improbably decent result from their trip to Seville.
Goals change games, as we know, and away goals can certainly change two-legged ties, but a lot of the giddy post-match talk – including from the oblivious Ranieri himself - was about how Vardy’s strike might even change Leicester’s season, restoring enough confidence and momentum to help them keep relegation at bay and, against all the odds, perhaps even secure a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
What the manager didn’t know then but would learn on his return to Blighty, was that Leicester’s owners, with one eye on the bottom of the table and the other on the bottom line, had already thoughtfully planned his exit strategy. They had a very different catalyst in mind to an away goal in Europe. And this barely two weeks after assuring everybody that he retained their “unwavering support”. Of course, we have long come to understand that, in football, a vote of confidence from the board usually means precisely the opposite but, given the exceptional circumstances of Ranieri’s reign at Leicester, here was one occasion where many of us, fools that we are, were duped into thinking the suits actually have meant what they said.
After all the joy they brought us last season, and as a sucker for a happy ever after ending, I wouldn’t have objected to another kind of ‘Nessun Dorma’ day on Sunday May 21, with Leicester staying up by beating Bournemouth on the last day of the season in front of a King Power stadium partying like it was 2016, following which Claudio Ranieri would have been entitled to mosey off into the Italian sunset, smile and with reputation intact.
Now we’ll never know if he might yet have worked another kind of miracle – the cold, hard and heartless logic of the business of football has seen to that.
Claudio Ranieri didn’t deserve to keep his job because he’s a nice guy. He deserved to keep his job because he’s a nice guy who finished first and whose team, at the moment of his sacking, still had so much to play for.
For the sake of Leicester’s supporters, I can’t bring myself to join the chorus of voices now hoping to see their team consigned to the Championship but I certainly care less about the club’s well-being than I did just 48 hours ago.
And if they are to go down, I guess there’ll be some consolation in knowing that while history will record that Leicester City won the Premier League under Claudio Ranieri, it won’t be able to state for the permanent record that they were relegated under him.
To that extent, the hopes Damien Duff was expressing for his former gaffer before the axe fell have already come to pass: he can leave a winner and with “his head held high”.