Friday 21 September 2018

James Lawton: Resolute Antonio Conte deserves praise, not long goodbye

Abramovich scrapheap highlights a grim reality

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte can’t hide the strain during Monday’s shock loss to Watford. Photo: David Klein
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte can’t hide the strain during Monday’s shock loss to Watford. Photo: David Klein
James Lawton

James Lawton

Huge questions now bombard the tortured brow of Antonio Conte as the belief grows that he is Chelsea's latest 'Dead Coach Walking'.

There is even a theory that in the depth of his frustration over the defeats by Bournemouth and Watford he has become, for the moment at least, somewhat slightly off his head.

If it's so, his fiercest defenders must be tempted to say, "Who can blame him?"

There is, however, something else that needs to be asked - and on behalf of a football man who not so long ago seemed to embody all that was best and most inspiring in today's often jaded, money-soaked football.

It can be put plainly enough against the growing likelihood Conte becomes owner Roman Abramovich's 10th discarded manager in the 15 years of his rule.

Did Chelsea either properly understand or deserve the onslaught of brilliance and passion and commitment Conte brought to Stamford Bridge last season in a memorable title win?

Did they feed off the joy and the energy and did they draw any lessons on how they might begin to see a new way of presenting themselves?

Not, despite a run of prizes second only to Manchester United, as a hotbed of intrigue and passing preferment but a force of unity under a football man hell-bent on delivering the highest standards of performance.

Luis Enrique. Photo: Oli Scarff
Luis Enrique. Photo: Oli Scarff

Truly, did Chelsea get it? Did they grasp that Conte sought to impose not only new methods but a different culture, one in which players were answerable to one insistent voice - and their own understanding of what they had to do to justify their huge rewards?

No cabals in the dressing-room. No special pleadings by such as the influential John Terry.

No preening that the new coach was the new 'Special One'. Just, it seemed, an insatiable drive to get the best from his players and himself.

Conte promised success - and almost every aspect of his career as a serial-winning player and coach underlined that potential - and he expected his reward: confidence in his judgment on the character and talent of players at his disposal, and those he might bring in.

When he made a firm and negative judgment on the values of Diego Costa, when he measured the player's ability to score goals against his contribution to a sense of team, he plainly did not realise that in the eyes of some at Stamford Bridge he was putting football values above those of commercial convenience.

It was perhaps not the smartest move under the command of an oligarch who became one of the world's richest men after starting off selling plastic ducks from his Moscow apartment.

Exhausted

The common wisdom now is that Conte's players are exhausted, disaffected, that he is too extreme in his approach and his expectations.

But as former Barcelona coach Luis Enrique and Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri are said to be potential successors, Conte remains defiant, saying, "We are trying to build something important with work - not with words or money."

He might have added that it had worked well enough for him to claim three Serie A wins with Juventus and the revival of the Italian national team, to which many at home expect him to return now that his Chelsea triumph has turned into an ordeal.

A key lieutenant in both those successes, veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini, felt it necessary this week to confirm he never worked so hard in his long career than when he was under the Conte whip, but then he added something that might just even register with Abramovich and his corps of advisers.

He said that even when a Conte session left him not tired but feeling dead, he never lost belief in what his coach was doing.

Can Conte conjure some of that old faith as he seeks to guarantee a Champions League place next season, remains in the FA Cup, and faces Barcelona in the last 16?

His sombre face as Watford overwhelmed his 10-man team after some stirrings of fight and a sublime equaliser by Eden Hazard may not have commanded confidence, but there is no evidence in a long, combative career as a player and coach to suggest he has ever been inclined to quit on a challenge.

The opposite is true and to the point where it might be said that it is not the nerve of Conte most in question now but the pattern of Abramovich's control of his club and the coaches he picks and tosses away, sometimes as if they were not much more than casual labour.

Of course, the oligarch can point to success - 14 trophies in his 15 years at Chelsea, but none of it has come with any sense that the men responsible - Jose Mourinho, the most successful with five, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Di Matteo, fired months after winning the FA Cup and the Champions League, Conte and the Europa League-winning Rafa Benitez - had achieved a degree of trust to stretch beyond a few bad results or, who knows, perhaps a little bit too much personal glory.

Lavishly

Abramovich has spent his money lavishly enough at times, though not so recently, but rarely has he given a coach a sense that he was firmly in charge of his own destiny.

Mourinho was badly undermined first time round when Abramovich imposed upon him his Ukrainian friend, and fading superstar, Andriy Shevchenko - a move that did much to break the winning rhythm the coach had established while gathering two Premier League titles.

Ancelotti was chopped down a year after winning the double of Premier League and FA Cup and Luiz Felipe Scolari, a World Cup-winning coach, lasted barely six months.

Perhaps Abramovich's greatest exhilaration came in 2008 with Chelsea's appearance in the all-English Champions League final in Moscow.

He went home to organise a party as lavish as anything in the days of the Czars but Manchester United won the shoot-out, albeit with a share of good fortune. His friend - and Mourinho's successor - Avram Grant was out before the end of that May.

It is a story that hardly encourages the idea that Conte will not be returning to his homeland soon enough.

Or that Italian football will not show a little more respect to one of its most passionate - and successful - football sons.

Irish Independent

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