Eight short months ago, wearing a black tracksuit and a grimace, Antonio Conte arrived at Chelsea’s training facility at Cobham for the first time and surveyed the wreckage of a club that was, until recently, an imperial palace. It had taken just a single crisis to dismantle it but boy what a crisis it had been and ahead of him now, going through their routine stretches in the summer sunshine, were a group of players still shell-shocked by the experience if resolved to put it behind them.
The startling series of implosions and fall-outs that resulted in the 2014/15 champions enduring a thoroughly miserable defence of their crown was well-documented at the time, writ large across the media and centred on a famously combustible boss in meltdown and a star player essentially on strike. It dragged on and on, finding new lows as it went, first becoming a soap opera then a sitcom as rival fans chuckled at the sight of the Blues’ stumbling and stuttering their way clear of a humiliating relegation scrap.
What wasn’t well documented was the calm after the storm: the new gaffer seeking out foundations in the debris, rebuilding a collective spirit with very little time to spare. The media had long grown bored of the schadenfreude angle and had shifted their attention entirely to Manchester for Pep vs Jose as the new campaign approached.
This allowed Conte some breathing space even if it was only a gasp. Just days after he had shaken introductory hands and had his greetings translated to a distrustful squad (and that is no reflection on the players or coach – the opening gambits between both is always accompanied by selfish concerns) the club flew to Austria, then Germany, before heading to America for a four-way tournament. Less than a fortnight after that saw the demented, demanding Premier League circus reopening for business with every triumph or failure magnified under the world’s glare.
Chelsea’s transformation into formidable and stylish champions-elect was not immediate but in the great scheme of things could be considered so. And given the circumstances – a 47-year-old man completely immersed in Italian culture reviving a mutinous, multifaceted beast in barely the time it takes a second class letter to arrive – it can also be considered little short of astonishing. Retrospectively the Arsenal defeat six games in is viewed as Chelsea and Conte’s turning point, the nadir that led to a change in formation that meant every component clicked in perfect strength and unity. This is undeniably true but it should similarly be noted that the team was reborn from the off: they simply needed the right vehicle. It should also be acknowledged that this side that has equalled the Premier League record for consecutive wins and pretty much locked down the title by March has only three different faces to the one bested by Bournemouth, Stoke and Crystal Palace last term. Four if we include Kante twice, which we probably should.
It would be erroneous to suggest that this has all been ignored by the media. In fact it would be spectacularly weird if that could even be put forward as a legitimate case. But can anyone seriously claim that this incredible renaissance and consistent execution of brilliance has received anything like the attention and respect it deserves from our newspapers, websites, and television? Barring the postponement of a life it’s impossible to accurately gauge the coverage Chelsea has enjoyed this season in comparison to their lesser-achieving rivals but regular consuming of the press in its every form makes it very clear their fascinations lie elsewhere. United in freefall. United get their act together. Liverpool barn-storming their way to a possible title. Liverpool in crisis. Ranieri disrobed and Bravo fumbling. Wenger out. Wenger out part two. Compare and contrast to the avalanche of platitudes lavished onto previous clubs who have dominated the top flight and you have your answer.
Granted there have been broadsheet think-pieces: lots of them too and usually concentrating on the compulsive Conte, the staggering reinvention of Moses, or Kante’s omnipresence. But where are the garlands that were thrown at the feet of Leicester, or Liverpool in 2014, or United during a period of high excellence that lasted a generation? Where is the love accompanying the respect?
This detachment extends to the public too who’s reaction to this fabulous side pushing at the parameters amounts to resentment that it simply isn’t fair; that they are depriving the rest of us an interesting run-in to May. This is a team showing all the dazzling superiority of a Ronnie O’Sullivan given the begrudging appreciation of a Stephen Hendry.
Like it or not – and it seems the majority lean towards the latter – Chelsea are the central story of this season and the narrative, unlike last year, is a wholly positive one. The turn-around has been incredible. The application has been exceptional. Isn’t it about time the media and general public began to reflect this, respect this, and stand in applause?