Following the devastating loss to Arsenal last September, I remember feeling that we seemed a very long way away from qualifying for Europe, never mind being in contention for the league.
I also remember reading in one of the broadsheets that this wasn’t just a defeat, but a lesson and that if the team were smart, it wasn’t a lesson that they were going to have to learn twice.
It is well documented that this was the turning point for manager and team, and was when Antonio Conte decided to change our formation. I remember speaking to a well-known journalist who had witnessed Conte’s reaction following the loss to our North London rivals and he said that “devastated” didn’t even come close. He had rarely seen anyone affected so completely by a result — although I would wager it was the performance more than the actual scoreline that caused such soul-searching.
I think only then did the size of the task in front of Conte really hit home. Here he was with a team that if last season was anything to go by was “broken”. Some were in the twilight of their careers, some unfit, many were out of form. He was new to the league and to the country. He had left a job he clearly loved to come to a club where failure wasn’t tolerated nor managers given time to overcome it. He had left his family behind and here he was already seemingly in the middle of a crisis.
Forward eight months and you can barely believe that this man can have achieved so much. A league title secured with two games to go and the potential of a double on the horizon. A club united in its admiration of a man who had the strength of his convictions and made the kind of changes that many would have been reticent to make. A man who has left the headlines to the likes of Mourinho and Guardiola while he concentrated on ensuring it was his players on the back pages — and for all the right reasons. A man whose passion is contagious, a man who gets “it”. These explosions of emotion we see on the touchline are not staged for the cameras or to heighten his profile — they are what makes him what he is. He understands that a club united on every level will always have a head start on one in turmoil.
When he arrived we were a club at war — the players had badly let the manager down, the manager had been complicit in his own undoing, the fans were confused and angry. No Champions League football, no decent signings on the horizon, or so it seemed, and it looked like we could be out in the wilderness for some time.
Into this mess walked Antonio Conte and we all wondered whether this diminutive Italian had the wherewithal to make head or tail of the mess we were in. He knew, as someone who had had good and bad relationships with the supporters that he needed those on the terraces on side. But then it didn’t take much for the fans to take him to our hearts. His honesty, his passion, his hunger to win, the bond he has nurtured with the support, the steely edge which is evident despite the congenial and charming demeanour — we know we have something special and want so very desperately to make this a long-term love affair.
The papers are already full of reports that he is wanted by this club and that — well they can want all they like, I doubt very much that Chelsea would be willing to let him go at any price. I also believe Conte is a man of honour and would not abandon a project at such an early stage despite his unprecedented success so far.
Premier League Champions, most goals scored, possible points record, an FA Cup final to look forward to, and a manager who has united the support. This has truly been a remarkable season and it only remains for me to raise my glass to Antonio Conte, the team, the owner and my fellow fans – champions, every last one of us — cheers!!
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