English Football

The first signs of Conte’s departure may be evident

Conte ponder what his contract extension adds up to Photo: Nazionale Calcio (CC BY 2.0)

CALL ME cynical, but are the first signs of the departure of Antonio Conte already visible?

Football managers are very movable objects, regardless of how successful they may be at some stage of their relationship with a club. But there is no other institution where you can go from “hero to zero” so quickly as Chelsea.

Conte won the Premier League with largely the same squad that under-performed in 2015-16. He was close to winning the double, but it looked as though his team had spent too much time celebrating their title win – it wasn’t the Chelsea that secured the Premier with relative ease that turned up at Wembley.

These days, managers are just as “cute” as players in sending out signals. Conte knows he can get a decent job almost anywhere, be it at home in Italy or elsewhere. To a certain degree, Chelsea need Conte more than Conte needs the club.  He has the benefit of being instantly successful as well as possessing a good track record. Chelsea have a reputation for having a Zsa-Zsa Gabor approach to football management that they are surely desperate to lose.

So when Conte made demands of Chelsea, such as a closer line of communication with Roman Abramovich and transfer tsarina Marina Granovskaia, he was in a better position than almost all of his predecessors. Or was he? Will his approach come back to haunt him at some stage?

There were stories that Conte and the club’s “technical director” Michael Emenalo (who curiously survives through the chaotic regime that is Chelsea) disagreed over transfer targets – Conte wanted to sign Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata while Emenalo was keen to bring Romelu Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge. It does make you wonder who is really in charge when it comes to team affairs. You can be sure that when things go right, everyone will claim they are involved, but when it goes wrong, the cock crows three times and Conte’s in control – and alone.

It does appear that no manager truly gets close to the owner and that there may be layers of management between the team coach and the man behind the glass screen (the image of Abramovich that we always see). Presumably, this apes modern day international business where the man in charge rarely gets his hands dirty and hires trusted acolytes to hire and fire and avoid those difficult conversations. Witness the way people like Carlo Ancelotti (whose short spell in London SW6 was ended prematurely and in bitter fashion) were shown the door.

So it is easy to be slightly sceptical when it is announced that Conte is about to sign a contract extension that has an expiry date of 2021 – we won’t say it will “keep him at Stamford Bridge until 2021”, because we all know that means nothing. It is just an indication of how much compensation he will be paid should Chelsea dispose of the energetic Italian before that end date. Think about it, 2021, that’s four more seasons. Who lasts that long at Chelsea?

Chelsea’s longest serving post-WW2 managers

  From To Games Trophies Win rate
Ted Drake June 1952 September 1961 426 1 37%
Dave Sexton October 1967 October 1974 371 2 44%
Tommy Docherty October 1961 October 1967 303 1 47%
Billy Birrell April 1939 May 1952 293 0 33%
John Neal May 1981 June 1985 203 0 41%
Claudio Ranieri September 2000 May 2004 199 0 54%
Jose Mourinho June 2004 September 2007 185 5 67%

The public image is one of harmony, there is talk of a “good bond” between Conte and Abramovich, but we’ve heard it all before. Of course, there’s a good bond, Conte has delivered Chelsea’s fifth Premier title since Roman Arkadyevich rolled into town. We will be hearing about “dynasties” soon, that mythical beast that doesn’t really exist in English football.

Deep down, we all know that Conte won’t see his contract out, that at the first sign of failure, or let’s say failing to meet expectations, the cracks will appear and Conte will disappear over the horizon, silenced by a non-disclosure agreement. If it happens mid-season, Avram or Guus might get a call, or someone from that group of trusted nightwatchmen. The fans will call for number 26.

But let’s be positive. It’s all going fine, Chelsea will sign a cluster of new players which will keep it fresh for Conte – it will start to look like his team rather than the side left behind by Jose Mourinho. Then he will be judged somewhat differently. But remember, it won’t be the team that Michael and Marina bought, it will be all yours Antonio.

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