When he walked through the revolving doors at Stamford Bridge, few touted him as the real McCoy. Miles away, somewhere in Manchester, resided the main event. It was all about the ingenious tactician, Pep Guardiola, and the serial winner, Jose Mourinho. They were the dual box office beside which every manager and every other pre-season story had to pale in comparison.
Make no mistakes about it, Antonio Conte did not arrive in a quest to have a surgical operation on his ailing career. He had won three Serie A titles on the bounce and had led his team to a Champions League final. More importantly, he left Juventus in the best possible healthy state going into the future. It was Chelsea who needed an operation. A season of indescribable little but fatal foxes had led to a league season finish of 10th place, after being champions the previous. The reality was that Conte’s arrival to the Bridge inflated hopes but it was an appointment that still had its many critics. With player power being the crux of the matter in Jose Mourinho’s exit the previous season, the Italian had his job well cut out. He had to get the house together, steer a direction and lead them through. Reason demands that one mentions that despite the calamitous state of Chelsea last season, the team still had a fantastic squad. The spine of the victorious 2014/2015 team was still very much around. Having said that, Conte has done a fine job, and that is putting it mildly. Fourth place finish would have been good enough but to win the league at a canter, and achieve it in the manner he did makes him the real deal.
When the intoxication from a champagne-filled weekend gives way to some introspection for Conte, he will do well to pick the moments that made it a sublime year for him. The three nil defeat to Arsenal on September 24th will be the watershed in that inquest. It was mid-way into that match with Chelsea trailing three nil to the Gunners that Conte decided to discard the 4-3-3 formation for his more favoured 3-4-3. The immediate altercation did not change the outcome of that game, but it was to lay the platform for a 13 game winning streak; an amazing record run that meant the walk to the league was a procession (forget the Spurs challenge – it was a desperate fabrication of the media). Yet, there was more to his masterstroke than a formation switch. The revival of Victor Moses and his excellent man management of the Costa/China brouhaha in January were sterling examples of his brilliance.
The most beautiful thing about what Conte has done is the manner he went about it. When he was dragged into flimsy mind games, he looked away. When the media was beginning to ask questions on his tactics, he remained consistent. When the heat was partially turned on by a few blips, he stayed true to his methods. He was a fine man with a genuine passion. His intensity on the touchline on every match day was a joy to behold. He wasn’t a man to give away so much in his media conferences; a blessing partially inflicted by his lack of command of the language. In all, he was a good man. The gesture to applaud the Middlesbrough fans in the aftermath of their defeat at Chelsea with relegation sealed for the Riverside team, was a class moment. Whatever happens in the summer, he will be remembered and revered fondly. Abramovich’s revolving door have made the Russian some sort of a cult hero and ruthless owner to the Chelsea fans, but his method has brought immense success. 5 premier league trophies, 1 champions league, 1 Europa league, 4 FA cups, 3 Carling cups and 2 Community Shield medals makes for a densely populated cabinet for 13 years’ work. The last eulogy should fittingly go to John Terry. He has indeed been a captain, leader and legend. Anytime his name is mentioned, it will elicit a polarization of opinions, but no dissenting voice could deny that he was a great footballer. His longevity, one-club man status, achievements and shenanigans will forever make him a demi-god on Fulham road!