‘Last season was tough for me but I decided to stay to finish the job’
Antonio Conte admits to John Percy in Beijing that title-winning campaign was difficult for his family
It was during his family holiday in Liguria, the coastal retreat located in the north-west of Italy, when serious doubts over Antonio Conte’s Chelsea future first began to emerge. Conte was a Premier League champion, revered for delivering his remit of a return to European football, but it was a period of introspection as he spent his break snorkelling, swimming and considering his next move.
He signed a new two-year contract last week, to avert any fears of a surprise departure, yet it has been far from a relaxing summer for Chelsea’s head coach.
There has been the escalating row with wantaway striker Diego Costa, the frustration of missing out on Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United, while there were even suggestions that Conte was seeking greater power over the club’s transfer policy.
He has demanded more signings during Chelsea’s stay in Beijing and outlined how he endured a “very tough” first season in English football, away from wife Elisabetta and Vittoria, his daughter.
And when asked if he had ever contemplated walking away, Conte said: “My decision was always to stay with Chelsea and continue this work. But you know very well that our job is not simple and anything can happen during our path and our career.
“It was a difficult season, a hard season, a very tough season for me and my staff. Now I have decided with the club to continue our path. I spoke with the club and we find the right view about the future of this club.
“I’m happy with this new contract. The club recognised me and the job I did with the players last season. I thought this [twoyear contract] is the right way, to continue to give me motivation, to give the club motivation.
“I don’t see any problem about this – and we have all the time eventually to extend this contract.”
In another clear sign of his commitment, Conte’s family will move to London this summer while Chelsea are confident of making further signings before the season starts in three weeks. The champions have already spent around £130million on record signing Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Antonio Rudiger, but Conte is determined to build on his memorable first season. This campaign will also see the return of Champions League football to Stamford Bridge.
“We arrived from last season, when our place was 10th, but Chelsea is a great team and must try every season to fight until the end to win the competition,” he said.
“This season the target is the same but it won’t be easy because you can see Man City, Man United, the other teams as well are trying to reinforce themselves and we are changing a lot.
“We are buying top players because we need to improve our squad, last season we played regularly with only 13 players. We are working to build something important for the future and the present.
“Now it’s right to start to work together and it’s very important to know that there is a lot of work to do.”
Conte has confirmed that Gary Cahill will remain as captain while he has also revealed that Andreas Christensen is being given a chance to stake a claim this season.
Christensen, the Denmark international, has spent the last two seasons on loan at Borussia Mönchengladbach but has travelled to the Far East with the first-team squad.
His hopes of an opportunity will have been enhanced by the departure of former captain John Terry, who made the emotional decision to leave Chelsea after more than two decades to sign for Aston Villa.
On and off the field, he will be missed by Conte. “John is a big loss. There was a possibility for him to stay with us because I was very happy to have another season with John but he told me that he wanted to play regularly.
“He loves football, to enjoy training sessions, to push. I told him ‘when you have this desire in your heart and your head, continue to play. When you decide to stop to play, you finish’.
“For this reason I have great respect for him. I think he decided to go to Aston Villa to avoid playing Chelsea and we have to hope that we don’t meet in the FA Cup or League Cup.”
Chelsea continued their preparations for the new season with a convincing 3-0 win against Arsenal at Beijing’s Birds Nest Stadium yesterday. Willian struck first after 40 minutes before Michy Batshuayi scored twice either side of half-time.
Blue summer: Antonio Conte has been frustrated with Chelsea’s dealings in the transfer market