Antonio Conte one of the hardest taskmasters in football

When Antonio Conte checks in at Chelsea’s Cobham training centre sometime in early July he will be the latest in a unique management line.
Antonio Conte one of the hardest taskmasters in football

No European club outside Italy has ever had five different Italian managers.

Even Monaco, just across the border, have only had four.

Conte’s predecessors, right back to his former Juventus team-mate Gianluca Vialli, have all tasted success in England.

Claudio Ranieri, now on the brink of winning the title with Leicester, is the only one not to have lifted a trophy, and he can be credited with building the side that Jose Mourinho inherited.

Moreover, several of Chelsea’s Italians have acquired legendary status at the club, Vialli among them, and also Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola.

Carlo Ancelotti is probably the most popular former manager around, and former goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini is now a club ambassador.

In all 25 Italian players and managers have worked for Chelsea over the past 20 years; they even have an Italian chef running the Cobham canteen.

So Conte and his five-man coaching team, including his brother Gianluca, should feel at home and Chelsea and their fans will feel no doubt feel comfortable with the new man.

But comfortable is almost the last word you would use to describe the new head coach, as the club describes him.

On the contrary, he is one of the hardest taskmasters in football with a ferocious reputation. Former players describe him as inspirational, but with the inspiration comes an exacting, meticulous attitude to training, preparation and players’ lifestyle.

When the Italy squad turned up for their first meeting at the Coverciano training centre they were greeted by a series of notices in the canteen, prescribing exactly which combination of protein, fat and carbs they were to eat and reminding them that “nutrition can make the difference between victory and defeat”.

At Juventus, Conte achieved a reputation for an unrelenting focus on the job — he is said to have called colleagues in the middle of the night to discuss tactics — and a ruthless attitude to discipline.

Two years ago Juventus had already won the title and were on 99 points on the eve of their final match of the season against Cagliari.

It was mid-morning and the players were in relaxed mood in the video room at the Vinovo training centre, the manager brooding in one corner.

In came club captain Gigi Buffon, accompanied by the director of sport Beppe Marotta.

“Mister, excuse me a moment,” said Buffon, using the title with which Italian players usually address the manager, “the director wants to clear up the bonus issue now that the title’s been won…”

According to Alessando Alciato, journalist for Sky Italia, Conte rose from his seat and the discussion proceeded as follows: “I’ve had it, had it, you understand. And now all of you get lost. Out! I don’t want to see you. Out, I said!”

“But Mister…”

“Shut it, Gigi! I don’t want to hear one word more from that mouth of yours. Don’t make me say it again. I would never have expected to hear such a thing from you. Bonuses… Think about it. Gigi, you’re the captain. And you understand nothing about nothing. No, let’s tell it like it is: You understand fuck all.

“You’re a disappointment to me, a defeat as soon as you open your mouth. You, like all these other retards!”

Buffon has since let it be known that he may have been forewarned of the explosion. It wasn’t the first time: Juve defender Giorgio Chiellini tells of a similar scene after a 2-2 draw at Verona earlier in the season. And Alciato is the author of a semi-authorised book, entitled The Conte Method, which no doubt is being prepared for translation at this moment.

However, the record books show Juventus beat Cagliari 3-0 the following day, thus breaking the 100-point barrier for the first time in the history of Serie A.

Conte’s reputation is that his players must always be hungry — or rather ravenous — for victory, never mind the diet sheets, and that winning always matters, even if nothing is at stake.

And the story has added to Conte’s reputation as a man who is inclined to throw bottles of mineral water at half-time, whether his team are winning or losing. Plastic bottles, and no boot-throwing has been reported, but like Alex Ferguson nothing less than 100% will do.

This attitude sits strangely with the accusation of match-fixing — or rather the failure to report a match-fixing agreement between two groups of players — which continues to be levelled at Conte, and for which he served a four-month ban in 2012.

The remaining investigation is due to be completed later this month or in early May and is convoluted even by Italian standards.

It concerns the final match of the 2011 season when Conte was manager of Siena, who had just won promotion. Essentially the accusation is based on a statement from one disgruntled player, already convicted of fixing, plus circumstantial evidence and claims of secret meetings in a hotel before Siena’s match against Albinoleffe.

It would not be the first time that players in Italy have agreed to ‘go easy’ in a game, especially a return match, with one team needing points to achieve promotion or avoid the drop.

The prosecutors now seem certain at least to ‘archive’ the proceedings, which will bring the story to one of those unsatisfactory conclusions for which the Italian legal system is notorious.

For Conte personally, working abroad, and particularly in England, this will no doubt be a relief, at least as far as pressures off the pitch are concerned.

He is said to have called colleagues in the middle of the night to discuss tactics.

Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis.

Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis.

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