(Reuters) - Claudio Ranieri does not believe Leicester City's players conspired to get him the sack as manager, he said on Monday, reflecting publicly for the first time on his controversial dismissal in February.
The Italian helped write one of the great chapters in soccer history by leading the 5,000-1 outsiders to the Premier League title last season but was sacked nine months later amid a poor campaign and media speculation that his under-achieving players had been involved in moves to oust him from the job.
"I cannot believe that my players killed me. No, no, no," Ranieri told Sky Sports in his first major interview since Leicester's board sacked him and brought in his assistant Craig Shakespeare, who has since inspired a revival.
Instead of player power being behind his dismissal, Ranieri felt that other problems might have been responsible for the team's slump, including the distractions of new-found fame and fortune.
Asked about reports that the players were involved in his sacking, Ranieri, 65, replied: "No, I can't believe it.
"The players maybe didn't give their maximum because there were other problems.
"Other problems could be that when they were here before they earned a little less, and after that they earned double or triple.
"When you come back in pre-season when you have won the title, you go around the world, you go to America to play against big teams for the first time in your life... the situation is totally different."
Ranieri believes there were some people behind the scenes who were against him -- but he was too honorable to name names.
"I listened to a lot of stories about this," Ranieri said. "Maybe it could be somebody behind me, but also the little problem I had the year before and we won the title.
"Maybe these people, this year, when we lose they push a little more. That's it.
"I don't want to tell. I am a serious man, a loyal man. What I have to say, I say face-to-face."
Ranieri was dismayed at losing his job the day after his side battled in a 2-1 defeat at Sevilla in the Champions League round of 16 first leg suggested a "turning point" to him.
Yet the Italian said he was happy to see how the team had then won six games on the trot under Shakespeare and now faced an historic Champions League quarter-final tie on Wednesday against Atletico Madrid.
"Of course, it wasn't easy (earlier in the season)," Ranieri said.
"I knew that the second year was totally different, because when you have won the title, the players must reset their mind.
"We were a little team with some players used to playing in the Premier League and there was an explosion. You won the title... amazing!
"Then we had to stay calm. I believed that, sooner or later, we would switch on.
"I am very, very happy to see my players play in the system and in everything I taught them. They play the same.
"Shakespeare was very, very intelligent to follow that way."
(Reporting by Ian Chadband; Editing by Ken Ferris)