Antonio Conte is unlikely to bump into any member of the Chelsea hierarchy on his first return to Stamford Bridge. The Tottenham Hotspur manager will disembark the team coach outside the East Stand and lead his players through to the away dressing room, no doubt with a few fist bumps for some of the more familiar stewards guarding the doors along the way.
The home club’s directors, meanwhile, will be up on the other side of the ground preparing to watch from one of the plush corporate boxes. Possibly even the one in which Conte, in the early summer of 2017, hosted a celebration a few days after claiming the title at the end of his first season in English football. Guests that day had the chance to have their photographs taken with the Premier League trophy and, as they tucked into the buffet and bubbles, listened to the Italian’s talk of new contracts, of a craving to stay long-term and of everyone having “the same point of view for the future”. As well as the need to work, obviously.
That was then. Now, the expectation is there will be no chance meetings in the corridor to prompt awkward conversations. No opportunity for all the tension whipped up in the employment tribunals, sparked by Conte’s sacking three and a half years ago, to be revisited by any of those embroiled in an acrimonious legal battle that dragged on for 18 months. All parties will hope the way it ended will hardly crop up at all.
Not that the width of a pitch will provide a sufficient sense of separation for those up in the box. Reminders of Conte’s wild-eyed energy on the touchline will still be spied, not least if his revitalised Spurs team impose themselves on the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final. Everyone in this corner of south-west London knows the impact Conte can have.
His is an untimely return given the fragility around Chelsea, whether induced by COVID-19 outbreaks and injuries or an inopportune interview from a player whom, it just so happens, the Italian had actually hoped to restore to the ranks all those years ago. It had been the failure to re-sign Romelu Lukaku from Everton in the immediate aftermath of that title success that provoked what the club hierarchy perceived as one of the manager’s first hissy fits.