CHELSEA’S high-flying manager Antonio Conte is a devout Catholic who douses the pitch with holy water and first showed his leadership qualities as an angelic altar boy.
The Italian has transformed the Blues from disjointed flops into serious title contenders in the space of four months – and has been made Manager of the Month for October.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte when he was an altar boy growing up in Lecce
And SunSport can reveal that Conte’s methods are founded in traditional form of Catholicism.
He is such a devout believer he even carries around a bottle of blessed water with him which he sprinkles on the pitch.
The former Juventus boss was destined to become a leader from the moment he took charge in church up in the southern Italian city of Lecce as a schoolboy desperate to carry the biggest candles into Mass.
Antonio Conte is full of passion on the touchline, but is driven by fierce religious beliefs off the pitch
Conte said: “When I helped at Mass the priest would decide who got to carry the big candles and I always wanted to be picked.
“When I was it made my day and I was so happy! I used to like being in charge and organising all the other altar boys.”
Conte’s Chelsea travel to Middlesbrough on Sunday with top spot in their sights, and with the Premier League manager of the month award for October on his mantelpiece.
While the tactical switch to a back three, and revitalising under-performing duo Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, have been hailed as masterstrokes there is far more behind Conte’s remarkable work at Stamford Bridge.
Antonio Conte has been named Premier League manager of the Month for October
Conte prays before every game… not to ask God for another victory.
He said: “I will then find a quiet spot and dedicate a few minutes to prayer. I don’t ask for help, I just always say thank you, and it’s the same every night before I go to bed.
“Forgiveness is part of a manager’s job, otherwise for every 25 players only 10 would be saved.
“Before forgiving though you have to make them understand the error of their ways, there has to be redemption from someone who is in the wrong.”
Conte, 47, said meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican three years ago with the Juventus team made a lasting impression.
But he said it was before he had married his wife Elisabetta, who he wed later later that year.
Conte said: “It was just before we got married and we all went as a family and he gave us a blessing.
I was all struck because I went as a sinner as I already had a child and we weren’t married.
“It was a very simple meeting and I remember there were not enough chairs and Pope Francis went and got some himself.”
It is these core beliefs that Conte relies on to build his empire at Chelsea, imposing strict discipline, high intensity training and the latest technology to improve the squad.
Whle he treats his players as adults, it is not unheard of for him to call squad members late in the evening to ensure they are relaxing at home.
He listens out for background noise which would betray a player being out in a pub or nightclub, and if caught he will come down on them hard.
Far from rebelling against this no-nonsense regime, Chelsea’s players have responded and enjoy the certainty of knowing exactly where they stand.
Antonio Conte has imposed discipline on his Chelsea players and been rewarded with five successive victories
It helps them accept what Conte asks of them to suit his system of player, with each player given key responsibilities to ensure the unit functions as a whole.
Costa and Hazard, who spent most of last season in a state of unhappiness, are reborn and have already scored the same number of goals between them as they mustered in the whole of the last campaign.
Gone are the egos and in-fighting that marred life at Stamford Bridge last year, replaced by a squad united in their belief of what the manager asks of them.
If ever they question a tactical decision, Conte counters them with video footage and statistical data to prove his point.
And when a point needs to be made, there are no games or snide remarks – the Italian fronts up and speaks face to face, open and honest but always constructive.
Chelsea’s recent reputation has been of a group of players too powerful to control, ravaged by in-fighting and turning on managers.
But this is Conte’s Chelsea now, reversing their image and turning into a force once more.
The Italian may trust in God, but it appears everyone at Stamford Bridge can now trust in Conte.