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Chelsea tell their side of the Conte conflict, which turned personal and petty

Not much professionalism on display as the Conte era comes to a messy end.

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Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

The “frosty headshake”, to borrow Dom Fifield’s phrase, between Antonio Conte and Marina Granovskaia and the subsequent celebrations at Wembley should’ve been the last act of one of the best Chelsea head coaches of all time. He had been a “dead man walking”, to borrow Duncan Castles’s phrase, for many months, and rightly or wrongly, he was headed to where all those who had come before him ended up: the discard pile. Chelsea may have won the FA Cup, but failed to finish in the top four, the minimum requirement for any season in the Abramovich Era. Sacking Conte at that point would’ve been understandable.

As it turns out, neither the handshake, nor the celebrations, nor the post-match press conference, nor the brief trip back home were the final act. Not even close. We’re now on Day 56 of the post-Conte era, with Conte still officially not sacked and the drama threatening to move from the back pages to the court room.

Following yesterday’s non-sacking sacking, continuing the summer’s dominant theme of inertia, the first of what is sure to be many post-mortems of Conte’s second season appear in the premium section of the Telegraph (or just read it the next day at the Irish Independent). Penned by Chelsea beat writer Matt Law, it tells the club’s side of the conflict that turned from professional to personal to petty in the last twelve months and ultimately resulted in the Sarri/sorry situation we find ourselves now.

Briefly — you should read the whole thing so you know what the story is that Chelsea are trying to get out into the public consciousness — here are the major points:

  • For 10 days last summer (2017), Chelsea “could not get in touch” with Conte. This sent Chelsea into a “state of panic”, thinking that Conte wanted out (Inter Milan rumors were a thing). “Peace talks” and the new contract followed, but the relationship was already “impossible” and what’s followed this summer has a “sense of revenge” about it.
  • A central anecdote is Conte calling a pre-season meeting to introduce new coaches Vanoli and Mazzotta, but no new signings. Somehow, other people at the club and the players were under the impression that the meeting was to “welcome new signings” even though no new signings had been made. This petty show of dissent was just part of a larger power struggle, and was just the first instance of the club “feeling that Conte’s judgement became clouded [...] by an obsession to prove he was right”.
  • The old Costa text and its supposed financial impact is rehashed, a favorite talking point.
  • “Difficulties with members of his squad”, including David Luiz (for questioning tactics), Kenedy (for yawning), Antonio Rudiger (for his interview), Eden Hazard (because of a perceived lack of commitment), and of course Willian (no reason given).

In short, a professional conflict (transfers, decision-making power) turned personal (both with the club’s hierarchy, and then with the players) and then turned petty, even to the point where Chelsea have now reportedly denied the compensation due to Conte and his staff.

Of course, that’s just one side of the story. Law does mention a few of the counterpoints, with the (perceived) lack of support from the club in terms of transfers a big one that any telling of this story in the future shouldn’t just gloss over. Lukaku, Alexis, Sandro, and Van Dijk comprised (at least part of) Conte’s wishlist apparently and Chelsea not only failed to sign any of them, we hardly lifted a finger, even by rumor mill standards. A token late bid for Lukaku aside, the Alex Sandro saga didn’t make it beyond the pages of the calcio mercato, and the Alexis and VvD rumors didn’t even get that far. That both of the last two then completed transfers in January surely only grated further, as did the fact that almost every player Chelsea did sign last summer was either injured, coming off of an injury, injury prone, or not ready to play until after international duty.

But those concerns and conflicts were professional in nature. Chelsea putting their foot down on whatever transfer targets Conte may have had in mind (passing on Bonucci, Llorente come to mind as possible good decisions) is a professional concern.

Even the Costa text was a professional move, one that in the end only spelled out what had been on the cards for several transfer windows. Blaming Conte for closing the door on a wantaway player, for whom Chelsea did eventually collect a club record £57m, is ignoring all circumstance and changing the nature of the conflict from professional to personal. That’s true especially now, as back in the wake of the text, Conte was made the highest paid coach in Chelsea history.

While the conflict was just professional, there was always hope that the grown men involved in it would find a way to coexist and continue bringing success to the club. But Michael Emenalo, peace-maker, facilitator, all-around calming influence left, and for all intents and purposes, all communication between Conte and the powers that be went out the window with him as well. Any relationship depends on good communication; without it, we end up talking through public insinuations, background moods, and petty acts of revenge ... which leads us to the here an now.

However these final hours and days of Antonio Conte shake out, we can safely put this sacking at the very top of Abramovich’s egregious sackings list. No one involved looks good in this. While Chelsea’s coaching carousel was never likely to deter qualified candidates from wanting the job, Chelsea looking for ways to break contractual obligations most certainly will.

Additionally, the Sarri era is off to a shaky start already, with hardly any time for the new head coach to start implementing his tactics and, at best, only one major reinforcement available to him.

And so, the pattern repeats. What has happened before, will happened again.

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