By, Barnabas Gwaza (Twitter: @BarnabasTGS)
When Antonio Conte was announced relatively late last summer; although nervous, Chelsea fans understood the position their team was in. We had just finished 10th in the league and held the record for worst title defence (thanks btw Leicester), key players like Branislav Ivanovic, Mikel John Obi and John Terry were in the twilight of their Chelsea careers and others such as Matic, Hazard and Costa had struggled for form and left many uncertainties hanging. And so expectations were managed. We managed to sign Kanté, arguable the league’s best player at the time, and in addition to a few players who were called back from loan, we secured the signatures of Marcos Alonso and David Luiz in the final day of the transfer window. That was just about enough transfer business to match our caged expectations as most Chelsea fans would have been content to see us genuinely contend for the title, plus, the arrival of fan favourite David Luiz injected so much positivity that no matter what happened we knew we were in for an exciting season at the very least. Next thing you know, 3-4-3 happened, and then 13 games on the bounce happened, customarily, Tottenham applied pressure, and then our 5th premier league title happened. It turned out to be an excellent season, much more positive than most of us were prepared to gamble on and it could have been more so were it not for the loss at Wembley in the cup finals against F.A cup merchants Arsenal.
And so an air of negativity re-ignited, perhaps one that never quite disappeared after the calamity that was the 2015/2016 season. Even with Mourinho, the captain of that Titanic season, gone, the implosion was so enormous and toxic that part of it’s spill-over remains today. Whether directed at the board, Gary Cahill, Emenalo, Moses or Willian, there are sections of Chelsea fans that are not-so-easily satisfied and express unforgiving vitriol against the going-ons at our football club. For them, and for us all, continuity is the real goal. In the light of this expectation and the palpable nervousness from Antonio Conte, the familiar air of agitation settled on Chelsea again when the transfer window opened this summer. At the edge of our seats we sat and watched as Manchester City wasted no time on big money buys. “Not to worry” we comforted ourselves, the new sponsorship deal which would inject huge sums into the club was yet to become official and that was the only thing holding up the big announcements – or so we thought. Soon the new jerseys were announced with Nike on them and Chelsea fans were hungry, nae, starving for their new heroes.
Chelsea announced Rüdiger, but perhaps due to the other names being floated around in more needy positions such as Alex Sandro, Romelo Lukaku, Virgil Van Dijk and Bonucci, Rüdiger’s signing didn’t make that big a splash and our appetites were still very wet. Then Hazard got injured and it was reported that he would not be back for up to 6 weeks into the new season. In a time when Chelsea fans would have loved to celebrate anything positive, Bakayoko began a world tour of medicals and though he eventually signed, the lingering nature of this transfer speculation caused had caused so much anxiousness that when he was finally announced, Chelsea fans sighed in relief rather than screaming in delight. By the way, Bakayoko was still injured, we still needed players to come in and make and immediate impact in the roles that needed the most improvement such as the wing-backs. The louder Alex Sandro’s name boomed in the echo-chamber of transfer news, the more our frustration grew when we did not sign him, and to add to our frustration, and our depleting squad; Matic, Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Zouma and Ola Aina were all sold or loaned out to for the season. For a team seeking depth, we sure didn’t look like it.
Morata signed, much to our collective delight and to the delight of many who preferred him over Lukaku, however given the all so sudden and absurdly over-the-top nature of his arrival at Manchester United (as things tend to be over there), there was only muted excitement for our new talented but unproven striker. To make matters worse, the drama that won’t stop, Diego Costa, took a new turn in a series of attention seeking tactics that began with a text message and has continued with a law suit. That drama continues to unfold, and as such Diego Costa continues to be a pebble in shoe of all things Chelsea fc. The pre-season friendlies didn’t help quell our fears either as we were demolished by Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. If there was any consolation, it was the the sight of fan favourite Andreas Christensen, whose inclusion in Chelsea’s season plans mirrored the kind of positive reaction from when we signed David Luiz a year ago. Even still, fans continued to be worried as the club seemed to be running on a hamster wheel in the transfer market, and soon easy parallels were being drawn between the season to come and what Conte dubbed “the Mourinho season” and on the first day of the season, against Burnley, at home, these parallels began to seem like harsh reality.
That “Mourinho season” began with a red card and a draw to Swansea, this season began with two red cards and a loss to Burnley. Add Costa’s drama easily filling in for the Eva Carniero chronicles of that fateful season, and it really seemed that Chelsea were en route to another remarkable implosion – perhaps even more so than the last. The groans on twitter and within the fan base grew louder and the scorn from rival fans was endless, but those who paid attention knew that there was something about this team that would never buckle under pressure the way that the 2015/2016 did. To those listening, the mental fortitude and character that nearly saw 9-man Chelsea earn a comeback against Burnley told the story of a well knit group, devoid of palpable discord, full of resolve and ready to give their very best whatever the circumstance. The manager himself was relaxed but realistic, admitting the inadequacy of our first half performance, praising the strength of our second half exploits and even joking after that perhaps he ought to wear his lucky suit next time. Looking well suited up, Chelsea prevailed against the odds at Wembley versus Tottenham and again at home against Everton.
Chelsea fans approached the final day of the transfer window with less anxiety than if the ghosts of that opening day was never exorcised, but deadline day is deadline day and there was still enough tension to go around. For all the ramblings, Llorente and Mahrez never materialized, while Ross Barkley and Oxlade-Chamberlain took their poor decision making off the pitch; the former into Chelsea’s dressing room and the latter into Liverpool red. All that spectacle made for an entertaining day on social media and while we indulged, Chelsea snapped up Zappacosta and Danny Drinkwater.
Yes, I too like many laughed cynically at first, but then I remembered how an under-the-radar wing-back from the Italian league became our 3-4-3 hero and how a mid-fielder from Leicester’s miracle team led us to our 5th league title. My laugh turned into a smile, and I saw clearly. There are parallels alright, but not to the “Mourinho season” rather, to the first “Conte season”. A season that saw us win the league with two games to spare and a second all-time record for points. Not bad, not bad at all. This is the new Chelsea way, the way of efficiency, and we have just the right coach for the job. Although the race will be tougher, I am confident that with this team on the field and with this manager on the touchline, anything is possible. Forza Chelsea! #KTBFFH
“The league is not a sprint, but a marathon” – King Didier.
Thumbnail image courtesy of: Evening Standard
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