Chelsea are closing in on the signing of Romelu Lukaku after agreeing a fee with Inter Milan. But while fans will undoubtedly be happy with the imminent arrival of the Belgium international, Antonio Conte can be forgiven for feeling aggrieved. After all, his blazing row with the Blues hierarchy left deep wounds that both parties were unable to heal.
Back in the summer transfer window of 2017, Conte decided to gamble.
He ostracised Diego Costa, deeming the Spain international surplus to requirements despite his heroics the previous year.
And Conte wanted Lukaku signed as his replacement, rating the striker for his fine displays at Everton and instructing the Blues board to get a deal done.
The Italian insisted the forward was a priority. Vital, if they were to retain the Premier League title they’d won ahead of Manchester City and Tottenham.
But Chelsea’s board didn’t want to meet Conte’s demand.
Roman Abramovich and other members of the club’s hierarchy flatly refused to pay the player’s asking price, with Everton demanding £78.6million at the time.
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And that angered Conte, who then became embroiled in an ugly spat that sometimes played out in public – with the former Juventus and Inter manager failing to hide his feelings.
The Italian felt Chelsea should be more urgent in the way they conduct their business and, in the end, they missed out.
Lukaku moved to Manchester United for a fee of £75m, becoming the second most-expensive signing in the club’s history at the time.
And Chelsea were forced to settle for the arrival of Alvaro Morata, who failed to meet expectations during his time at Stamford Bridge.
Morata had actually been hoping to join United but, after they landed Lukaku, Jose Mourinho abandoned his pursuit of the former Real Madrid striker.
He’d even dyed his hair red in preparation but, with Chelsea needing a new hitman, they decided to bring him to west London instead.
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Conte later confirmed to the Telegraph that he’d wanted Lukaku at Chelsea, as well as Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk.
“I asked for two players and we were very, very close after we won the league,” Conte said.
“One player was Romelu Lukaku, the second player was Virgil van Dijk, and these two players were very, very close.
“We were in contact every day and I always said that with these two players we would improve my team by 30 per cent.
“I think maybe we lost the momentum to bring Chelsea at the very top and then to stay for many years.
“It was a pity that it didn’t happen and Romelu is showing with Inter that my idea was right and also Van Dijk has shown with Liverpool that my idea was right for the club.”
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And he then added: “For sure, it would have been a different story if I was the coach of Romelu.
“Romelu is an incredible player and he has a lot of space for improvement.
“In one year at Inter, he had a lot of improvement because he wants to learn and I think I am a teacher. But he can continue to improve to become one of the best strikers in the world.”
Conte was eventually awarded a big pay-out for unfair dismissal after his sacking in July 2018.
He and Chelsea ended things on a low note but the Italian admitted he felt grateful for the opportunity of managing the Blues.
“It’s always very difficult when there is a stop between the club and the coach,” he added.
“I think never, never the club try to explain the decision. But in our job we must accept this type of situation.
“To be the coach of Chelsea is not simple. You must live with great pressure, especially from the outside, but it was a pity to stop my coaching after only two seasons because I created a real link with the fans and with the players.
“Sometimes, you can agree because the results are negative and sometimes, you don’t understand why.
“But I think you must accept and I keep good memories with Chelsea, the club, with Mr Abramovich, who is a very passionate man for his football.
“It was incredible, especially in my first season, because he was very, very close to me, asking about my football and my ideas.
“Many times he came to the training ground to meet me and I remember he wanted to watch the video about our game and about our preparation – the way we wanted to face the opponent.
“I think in my career, he was one of the most passionate men about football and I keep good memories about him and about the club, an important club in the world.”