LONDON (Reuters) - Antonio Conte’s mastery of man-management turned a Chelsea side that was in danger of disintegrating into Premier League champions, according to one of the club’s great stalwarts.
“He got hold of the club, got hold of the team,” John Hollins, who made almost 600 appearances for Chelsea from 1963 to 1975 and also had a stint as manager in the 1980s, told Reuters hours before Conte’s side clinched the title on Friday.
“It’s a marvellous achievement, especially to come in and do it in your first season in charge.”
Former Juventus manager Conte arrived last summer after finishing his spell in charge of the Italian national team, tasked with reviving a Chelsea side that finished 10th in the Premier League a few months earlier.
“Once you get a disjointed club it’s hard to join it back together again,” Hollins said.
Key in that healing process was reigniting the spark in key players like Eden Hazard and Diego Costa whose poor form in the previous campaign was a major factor in coach Jose Mourinho parting company with the club seven months after leading them to the title following his return to Stamford Bridge.
Hollins said Conte -- who won multiple Serie A titles and the Champions League with Juve and was part of the Italy side that reached World Cup and European Championship finals -- has an intrinsic understanding of what makes players tick.
”I think a good player always respects a coach or manager who he knows knows exactly what they should be doing,“ Hollins said. ”He speaks to players. He doesn’t just say, ‘You’re in, you’re out’. He shows his enthusiasm. He’s on the pitch with them. You see him hugging all the players after the game.
”That’s why the squad has stuck together. When he’s needed to adjust things he’s spoken to the players. That’s the key. he looks them straight in the eye and says, ‘This is what I want you to do’, and they make sure they do it.
”He was a world class player. So when they go knocking on his door they say, “What I can do for you and the team?” not “What the hell do you want?”
Hollins points to Conte’s clever use of the squad as a key to the harmony at Stamford Bridge, which delivered the title with a 1-0 win at West Browmich Albion on Friday, rather than the rancour in the latter stages of Mourinho’s second stint.
”He’s used three substitutes in every game,“ said Hollins. ”He has kept everybody happy which is hard when you are dealing with so many factors.
“When things went wrong, like against Manchester United (in a 2-0 away defeat) he put up his hands and said ‘My fault’. Then in the FA Cup semi-final (against Tottenham Hotspur) he had Costa and Hazard on the bench and everyone said, ‘What? He’s gone mad!’ He is mad but he knows his football.”
Conte’s firm handling of Spanish international Costa -- who looked poised to return to Spain last season and was linked with a move to China this season -- has been vital.
Costa has scored 20 league goals this season -- the total he managed when Chelsea won the title in 2014-15 and nearly double the tally he netted last year.
“He has probably told Costa, ‘I want you in the penalty box, that is where you will score goals. No antics. If someone bashes you, just walk away’, and it’s worked,” Hollins said.
Despite a looming FA Cup final against Arsenal, Conte says there will be no letting up from Chelsea in their final two league games, such is Conte’s intensity.
“If the players start flopping about hoping not to get injured, he’ll be straight into them.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris