It was one of those highly unusual and therefore irresistible narratives — the ‘loser takes all’ football match.
Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United. Whoever won would get to retain their dead-man-walking manager, and whoever lost would get Antonio Conte.
As it happened, Nuno Espirito Santo walked the plank and Conte walked into a £15m-a-year gig, to the obvious delight of the Tottenham fans. A sliding doors moment, we were told.
Turn a different corner — or just take a better corner, in Tottenham players’ case — and it would have been the Italian, not Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, looking pained in the United dugout on Saturday.
One of the ‘quality’ papers even informed us that the Red Devils had ‘played poker with Conte — and lost’.
Great stuff. And completely untrue.
Conte is not the United manager today because the club didn’t want him. They made no effort to contact him, even after he made it clear he’d be open to discussions, ‘should a vacancy arise’.
Solskjaer may not have survived another humiliation following on from that 5-0 tanking by Liverpool at OT — and after the subsequent humbling by City he’s as close to the sack now as he’ll ever be — but he wasn’t keeping the seat warm for Antonio Conte.
Not that the 52-year-old Lecce native is a bad manager; if anything, he’s one of the best in the world. He was certainly the best one available, should a change have been required.
But the club had no intention of jumping into another marriage of convenience with a hot-heated, disruptive, Latin-blooded ‘serial winner’, so soon after Jose Mourinho stank the place out.
Conte would have been the wrong man at the right time, or the right man at the wrong time. Either way, it wasn’t happening.
It’s intriguing, though, to see him now installed at Spurs, so soon after the departure of the No Longer Special One.
It’s almost as if the north Londoners have landed the guy they thought they were getting when Mourinho arrived in 2019.
But the Portuguese braggart’s glory days are long behind him, whereas Conte last managed a title winning team… oh, a couple of months ago.
Another crucial difference is that, whereas Mourinho was obsessed with winning trophies at all costs, Conte’s tunnel vision is simply in making teams better, with silverware the by-product.
Spurs chairman Daniel Levy was excoriated by the London media for sacking Mourinho just days before the 2021 Carabao Cup final and thus “depriving the club of their best chance of a trophy in 13 years”.
Point missed, guys: Levy didn’t want Mourinho to be in the dugout for that final against Man City because, if by some miracle they happened to win, it would be even harder to rid the club of his toxic presence.
I’ve heard it argued that Conte is only good at running teams that are already successful — a la Pep Guardiola at Barca, Bayern Munich and City — but that’s utter nonsense.
When he took over Juventus in 2011, they hadn’t won an Italian title (except for the 2006 ‘Calciopoli’ match-fixing scandal season) since 2003, yet bagged three in a row under him, finishing with the highest points total (102, 33 wins) in Serie A history.
He joined Chelsea just after the Blues’ worst season in two decades, yet won the Premier League at his first attempt (and the FA Cup the following year).
And earlier this year he took debt-ridden Inter Milan to their first scudetto since 2010 — finally ending an era of Juve domestic dominance that HE had started.
It has also been pointed out, with some justification, that Conte’s track record in Europe isn’t great but his priority has always been domestic improvement — and at breakneck speed. In that regard, the cv is quite staggering.
Oh, and he can counter accusations of being a chequebook manager by pointing to his promotions of Bari and Siena to a Serie A neither has returned to after he left the latter in 2011.
He wouldn’t have tolerated a star centre-forward agitating to leave either — just ask Chelsea icon Diego Costa, sacked via text message.
Conte himself has been fired just once — by Roman Abramovich; does that even count?
And yet United still didn’t want him.
A cynic might suggest that it’s because Conte has spent the last decade embarrassing the Red Devils, both on and off the pitch.
For instance, it was him who took a young Paul Pogba away from Old Trafford for peanuts in 2012; the club would later buy him back for a world record fee.
He took Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku — both expensive Mourinho signings United couldn’t get a tune out of — and turned that disillusioned pair (along with another United reject, Ashley Young) into Serie A champions.
Both Juve (with Pogba) and Inter (with Lukaku to Chelsea) made club record profits from selling ex-United players.
On the pitch, meanwhile, Conte’s Chelsea humiliated ex-Blues boss Mourinho’s United 4-0 at Stamford Bridge in October 2016, en route to the Premier League title.
None of this history, however, would have prevented United employing Conte had he been ‘the right fit’ for the club — and, ironically, they’d have gone for ‘our boy’ Brendan Rodgers first.
It’s well known at Old Trafford that they like the cut of the Leicester boss’s jib — that’s why he’s the bookies’ favourite to take over if and when Solskjaer gets the chop — and they’re well aware that he’s a much improved manager to the wet-behind-the-ears 39-year-old ‘Brent-an’ who took charge of Liverpool in 2012.
But surely United wouldn’t hire an ex-Anfield man?
Well, they hired a former Liverpool — and Man City — stalwart, Matt Busby, as manager, and that turned out all right.
And who’d have put money on Kop icon Rafa Benitez one day overseeing that “small club” across Stanley Park?
Ask yourself this: why did Rodgers turn down the chance of managing nouveau riche Newcastle United last month? Does he know something that we don’t?