‘The New Year stands before us, like a chapter in a new book, waiting to be written. We can help write that story by setting goals’ – Melody Beattie
American author Melody Beattie went through enough personal battles in her early life to warrant a lifetime of best-selling novels – thankfully she overcame her demons to publish over 20 best-selling self-help books including Codependent No More and Turning What You Want into What You Have.
It is the passage at the top, which is most striking, and if I may, relate this to football and in particular, Chelsea Football Club.
2017 has been a year of redemption and salvation for everyone connected with Chelsea; Redemption in the sense of what went before in 2015/16, the club was it’s lowest ebb in recent memory following the catastrophic defence of the title and the second departure of the clubs greatest ever manager, Jose Mourinho. The Eva Carneiro affair had dragged the club into places it didn’t wish to be, coupled with star players not performing and growing unrest which translated onto the pitch, it was the worst year since Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea Football Club from Ken Bates in 2003.
Chelsea needed a new input, a complete overhaul and a saviour to install fresh belief, and boy did Chelsea get one.
The salvation came, like Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli before him, from Italy. After leading the Italians to within a penalty kick of the Euros in the summer of 2016, Antonio Conte swept into Stamford Bridge ensuring that the players needed to fight, work, work and work to earn the shirt, and that the fans needed to find a team ready to fight until the end.
After an opening day victory at home to West Ham, it was clear for everyone to see, as it had been at the Euros, just how driven and passionate the new manager was, from the first whistle to the last, Conte never stopped driving his players on, constantly dishing out instructions, and celebrating goals like any fan in the Matthew Harding Stand would.
It wasn’t an easy start with defeats against title rivals Liverpool and Arsenal, and it was the humbling at the Emirates where the overhaul came; Conte switched to a 3-4-3 and made some difficult and brave decisions very early in his Chelsea career; marginalising club legend John Terry made both Andre Villas Boas and Rafa Benitez very, very unpopular men in SW6, dropping John Terry to the bench however proved to be a masterstroke, and in the midst of that 13 game winning run, no one raised an eyebrow at John Terry not being at the heart of the defence, and to JT’s credit and professionalism, he understood and became a calming influence in the dressing room and around the training ground.
Another Conte masterstroke was giving David Luiz the responsibility to defend at the heart of a back three, in his first spell at the club, it was common knowledge that for all his talents, defending wasn’t his greatest strength, maybe it’s the Brazilian in him, but on occasions an stroll out of defence to help an attack often led to the opposition winning back possession and Chelsea being left vulnerable to a counter attack, the switch to a back three, the responsibility this entailed, coupled with the defensive cover of N’Golo Kante proved to bring out the best in Luiz, who ended the season as one of Chelsea’s best players of the season.
But perhaps Conte’s biggest masterstroke was the promotion to right wing back of Victor Moses, since Moses arrived at Stamford Bridge, it has been a tale of frustration and loan spells – Liverpool, Stoke City and West Ham United were clubs where Moses went to in search of first-team football, and despite impressing whenever played, a succession of Chelsea managers never quite trusted the Nigerian, until Antonio Conte came to town.
These inspired decisions and change proved to be the catalyst for one of the most successful seasons in the clubs history; not only did they rack up the biggest winning streak the club has ever known, Chelsea also broke their own top-flight record of 29 wins, 30 in total, and a points total of 93, the second highest in history.
In just under 12 months of arriving at Stamford Bridge, Antonio Conte had become the saviour the club were looking for.
It seemed that as soon as the final whistle blew, and the last piece of confetti hit the floor, rumours and stories of unrest seemed to become louder and louder as Chelsea’s in house politics came to fruition once again, with Conte urging the board to get new recruits and transfer targets in early – Conte foresaw that the Manchester clubs would go out and grow stronger looking to bridge the gap – one thing the board could not have foreseen was the way in which the Diego Costa saga was handled, with hindsight it could have been handled with a little more care, but from the first spat in January, it was clear of the strikers intentions.
And so it proved, with both Manchester United and Manchester City acquiring a host of new players, and looking at the league table, it is hard not to argue that the summer of discontent has come back around to haunt Conte and Chelsea, and this is just after SEVENTEEN games. Manchester City look to be running away with the title, and from finishing sixth last season, Manchester United have improved to second in the table, quite where they finish in May isn’t set in stone, but with summer recruitment, it is clear there is improvement coming from Old Trafford.
While Chelsea did recruit players in the summer, it was at the cost of losing a number of key individuals, and with reports emerging that the uncertainty of Conte’s position cost two key transfer targets, the pre-season failings look all the worse.
So, as the New Year stands before us, what should 2018 hold in terms for Chelsea?
Well, for a start, it should include a new improved contract for the manager, Antonio Conte has proved from his debut season, and even in this campaign that he has all the capabilities to become arguably the greatest Chelsea manager of all time; this is of course down to the board to give Conte the tools required to do exactly this, no-one can argue that how the board have operated over the last number of years hasn’t been successful – one look at the trophy cabinet tells you this – but wouldn’t it be refreshing if the club had a sustained period of stability for once.
Another resolution should be the continuing emphasis on youth, for all that is labelled at Chelsea, Conte since coming to Stamford Bridge has slowly begun to bridge the gap between the youth team and the senior side; Andreas Christensen has been a revelation since replacing David Luiz in late October, and with the emerging talent of Ethan Ampadu receiving some game time in the League Cup and a number of substitute appearances in the Premier League, it seems that the future could be a lot rosier for young lads looking to build a future at Chelsea.
But most of all we hope for a successful campaign which ultimately ends in some silverware, but whatever happens, the club, players and management will have among the loyalist supporters behind them.
So as we stand before 2018, like a new chapter waiting to be written, we can only hope that the next chapter is as good as a read as the one before – without so much of the drama.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Keep The Blue Flag Flying High.