In March 1988, syndicated cartoonist Berke Breathed took one of his major characters from his wildly-popular American comic strip Bloom County and completely changed his personality. Steve Dallas, an irascible, misogynistic, athiest ladies man and all-around scumbag, was in one strip kidnapped by aliens and had his brain and personality completely inverted.
The process, which Breathed called “Gephardtization,” was a mid-1980s electoral political gag which we won’t get into (the aliens’ original plan was to replace Steve’s brain with that of Elvis Presley until he threatened to sue, it was the ‘80s, you kinda had to be there) but the end result was a Steve Dallas who returned to earth completely changed — progressive, kind, thoughtful, caring, feminist — the complete opposite of the overgrown frat boy he was up to that point. He even got a perm! Dallas stayed with his personality flip-flopped in the strip for more than a year before dramatically reverting to his old self near the end of Bloom County’s run.
I thought about Bloom County and ol’ Steve Dallas tonight after reading the latest quotes from Antonio Conte. Conte had a lot to say in press conference comments that were embargoed until early Saturday morning in the UK press. He talked about player development both at Spurs and elsewhere, and how a manager can build an outstanding club.
Conte was asked about how difficult it is to win things with a young and unproven team, with the reporter referencing the success of Tottenham’s opponent this weekend, Arsenal. Conte’s answers are good! Impressive, insightful, thought-provoking. But they sure don’t sound like Antonio Conte.
“It’s not difficult if you have time and patience. This process at Arsenal started three and a half years ago with Arteta. It’s normal when you work with the same young players and after four years they develop and become stronger,
“You have two paths you can follow. I heard what [Erik] Ten Hag said about Manchester United. He said it was really important to sign players with experience like Casemiro and Varane because they brought a winning mentality. If you want to accelerate the process it is important to bring experienced players, winners, who know how to win.
“But you have another way, which is you need to have time and patience to develop young players. In our squad we have eight or nine young players, who for sure have a brilliant future, but we have to continue to work, with Gil, Pape Sarr, Skippy, Sessegnon, Spence, Tanganga, Emerson is 23-years-old. We are talking about many young players.
“Arsenal is doing a good job but, don’t forget, I remember the problems they had at the start of last season. They had a lot of criticism. When I talk about time and patience it’s not an alibi, it’s a situation I know. One way is to wait to develop these young players to become stronger players.”
Wait, did he... did he just... I mean, when he was at.. but...
This does not sound like the Antonio Conte we thought we signed after he left Inter Milan in a fit of brimstone and pique. THAT Antonio Conte was an exacting lunatic who demanded experience players on high wages who could transform a club instantly into one who could play the way he wanted and also compete for honors. Developing young players? Preaching time and patience? Who IS this guy and what did they do to Antonio Conte?
It certainly feels like a new leaf, right? Not that the old Conte has been completely expunged — he still hasn’t signed an extension to his initial contract which expires this summer, something that hangs over the head of every potential transfer deal this month, as well as the future of Harry Kane.
But this is a very different Antonio Conte to the one we thought we had. It even makes him sound like he wants to stay around... past this season? Maybe even longer?
“My expectation is to try to improve and have a second part of the season and do our best. Until now, we did well because to stay in this position and go to next round of the Champions League and fight for the FA Cup, we are doing a good job.
“We have to continue and have the ambition to improve our level. When I speak to my players I always say if you want to try to improve everyone needs to have the target to improve and reach another level. If we can do it we will see a team that is going to grow. For sure, we have only one way to do it, to work.
“The only thing I ask is to keep fingers crossed and don’t have injuries because we don’t have a squad so deep to face many injuries. This is the only situation I am a bit worried bout. Otherwise, if I stay with the squad, all the players available, I think we can take the right satisfaction for us.”
Maybe it took a real challenge — and Spurs are certainly proving to be a challenge — this season for this side of Conte’s personality to come out. Maybe he’s figured out that with this team, this season, this project, he can’t do things the way he usually does and get away with it. Maybe Daniel Levy and Tottenham have found a way to unlock the kinder, gentler side of Conte, and Spurs now have the long-term project manager they’ve been searching for since Mauricio Pochettino left the club.
Or maybe he got kidnapped by aliens and had his brain scrambled. Who knows. All I know is... I kinda like it!