Colourful striker was hugely popular at Stamford Bridge and returns in Wolves’ clothing tomorrow
To Diego Costa, a golf cart with the key in the ignition was an invitation – and no matter how many mornings he left it in a ditch on the other side of Chelsea’s Cobham training ground or behind some trees, the joke never wore thin for his team-mates.
The only staff members who were not in on the joke were the medical team, who each morning had to trudge out to find their cart dumped in a different location. And yet, inexplicably, they still left it with the key dangling in the ignition the next morning for Costa, who arrived early specifically to play his favourite prank, to take for another joyride.
Costa was caught in the act one rainy morning by a member of staff taking cover in a shelter at the side of one of Chelsea’s training pitches. It was his high-pitched screams that initially gave the game away, as Costa accelerated towards the shelter and slammed on the brakes only to lock the wheels and lose control.
As the cart skidded towards the shelter, the member of staff jumped up onto a seat to make sure his legs did not get taken off, and Costa crashed his way to a halt. As was so often the case, despite seeing his life flash before his eyes, the individual could only collapse into fits of laughter with the striker.
Life was never dull at Chelsea with Costa around – and the mention of his name will always be followed by an anecdote from those who worked with him at Stamford Bridge and Cobham, and cannot wait to see him again on his first return to the club as a Wolverhampton Wanderers player tomorrow.
While backroom staff who are still at Chelsea will queue up to give Costa a hug or have him jump on their backs, as he would frequently do, not one of the four people present in Roman Abramovich’s emergency summit to keep Costa at Chelsea, long enough for the club to win their last Premier League title, are still around to greet him.
As Costa prepares for a hero’s welcome, despite having gone on strike to seal his departure five years ago, we reveal how former owner Abramovich intervened to stop Chelsea’s man-of-war leaving sooner, and potentially derailing the club’s title bid.
Costa’s interest in a lucrative move during the 2017 January transfer window came to a head when he was involved in a blazing row with then head coach Antonio Conte that resulted in the Italian screaming “Go to China” and dropping him for the trip to Leicester City that Chelsea won 3-0.
With Costa told to train away from his team-mates and ready to act on Conte’s advice, Abramovich acted fast – calling a meeting between himself, Conte, former director Marina Granovskaia and former technical director Michael Emenalo.
Up until now, that specially-arranged meeting had remained a secret, but those with knowledge of what was said claim the broad instruction was that Costa would not be sold, for everybody to find a way of seeing the season out with him, and to revisit the situation again in the summer.
Abramovich’s intervention was enough to make sure that Costa helped Chelsea lift the title, scoring 20 goals in the process. But Conte then took matters into his own hands by sending the 27-word text message from which there was no coming back.
Costa had celebrated the title success by threatening reporters with a fire extinguisher at the Hawthorns, following the decisive 1-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion – and only thought better of soaking everybody with a tape recorder when director of communications Steve Atkins warned: “No, Diego. No, no, put it down.”
But a month later he received the famous message from Conte that read: “Hi Diego, I hope you are well. Thanks for the seasono [sic] we spent together. Good luck for the next year but you are not in my plan.”
It took three more years, in an exclusive interview with The Daily Telegraph, for Conte to give his version of events by saying: “For sure, the truth, we know the truth. The player, his agent, the club and I. We know how many times he asked to go away to Atletico Madrid at the start of the season, during the season to go to China, and at the end of the season to join, again, Atletico Madrid.
“It was an incredible season and I managed, together with the club, the Diego Costa situation in the best possible way. But, in the end, the truth was only that the player wanted to leave many times to Atletico Madrid and during the season to go to China because he wanted the best contract.”
Chelsea and their fans had to follow Costa’s movements on social media from that point, as he refused to return from Brazil and posted videos of himself quad-biking in mud. He watched the 2017-18 opening-day defeat to Burnley from his family home in Lagarto, a location once described by Jose Mourinho as a place so remote it sits “beyond the sunset”, during which he gave an interview in which he accused the club of treating him like a “criminal”.
But Costa also revealed that he remained in touch with “the boys” – Cesc Fabregas, David Luiz and Willian, who “love me for the person I am” – and that his old manager Mourinho had been in touch. It was Mourinho who signed Costa for Chelsea, despite warnings that, for all his talent, the player would bring problems with him after club scouts had witnessed a couple of particularly eventful displays for Atletico Madrid against Sevilla.
One source said: “He took on the entire Sevilla team, their coaches, his own team and the whole city of Seville – it was memorable and not all in a good way.”
But Mourinho was convinced he could manage Costa’s temperament – and so it proved as the pair won a league title in their first season together, and the Spain international instantly made himself a hit in the dressing-room.
Costa introduced himself to former Chelsea captain John Terry with a handshake, a steely look and the words: “I got to war. You come with me.”
It was last November that Terry tweeted a video from Costa’s first pre-season at the club, in which he boxed against Chelsea’s popular masseur Billy McCulloch.
Erling Haaland’s stunning start to life at Manchester City rekindled memories to the brilliant start Costa made at Chelsea, scoring seven goals in his first four games – including a hat-trick against Swansea City – and only narrowly failing to break Micky Quinn’s old record of netting eight times in his first five matches, which was bettered this season by Haaland.
Mourinho wanted Costa to be a fighter, and the player responded in kind. He always maintained that a stamp on Emre Can in a game against Liverpool was accidental.
But a second stamp in the same match, on Martin Skrtel, was very much intended – and Costa was retrospectively banned after being charged with violent conduct.
As his on-pitch behaviour was condemned by television pundits, Costa complained internally that he deserved more public backing from Mourinho for simply carrying out his orders. After the Portuguese was sacked, interim manager Guus Hiddink took a different approach, telling Costa to relax on the pitch. He finished the 2015-16 season with 12 goals, but was sent off in an FA Cup defeat to Everton.
For all the controversy and chaos, Costa remained a hugely popular figure among his team-mates, their families and club staff, once spending half-an-hour playing football against a group of star-struck visiting children at the end of a typically intense Conte training session.
Chelsea finally struck a deal with Atletico in September 2017 for Costa to return to Spain, where he became eligible to start playing again on January 1 the following year. Club staff quickly got the chance to say their goodbyes at a Champions League game, which he could not play in, and learned some Spanish phrases to convey their fondness in the tunnel ahead of the game.
But, for the Chelsea fans, Costa left without a farewell or proper acknowledgement of the two league titles, one League Cup and 59 goals he amassed over three seasons. On Saturday, Stamford Bridge will say thanks for the fireworks.
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