In a piece I wrote on the Premier League for the Catholic Herald last year, I stuck my neck out about the 2016-17 season, now drawing to its conclusion: “The manager who wins the title is going to be a Catholic,” I wrote, “and probably a devout one.”
As it turns out, I was dead right. Antonio Conte, manager of Chelsea (who will pick up the trophy on Sunday when they play Sunderland) is on the record about the strength of his faith, telling newspapers about his prayer life and about meeting the Pope with the Juventus players when he was manager there. (There were not enough chairs and Francis himself went to get some more.)
Why was I so certain with my prediction? Well, readers can get the full story here (which also shows that I wasn’t, in fact, sticking my neck very far out at all). The long and the short of it is that, when it comes to its winning managers, the Premier League is developing into a procession of devout Catholics: Mourhino, Ancelloti, Pellegrini, Ranieri. Indeed, it is also a procession of former altar boys: Wenger, Mancini, and now Conte, who served in his hometown of Lecce. (“When I helped at Mass, the priest would decide who got to carry the big candles and I always wanted to be picked,” he told The Sun. “When I was it made my day! I used to like being in charge and organising all the other boys.”)
What does this remarkable run mean? Last year’s article provoked a minor backlash online with some commenting that drawing attention to the sequence had sectarian implications. I hope that isn’t true. In the original piece, I did muse about an under-rated Catholic work ethic (I heard on Five Live the other day that, in his first press conference as Chelsea manager, Conte used the word “work” thirty-six times); and about whether the experience of being part of a universal, ecumenically minded Church perhaps made it easier for these managers to nurture a sense of togetherness among the strikingly multi-ethnic squads of the Premier League. But these theories were offered in a spirit of gentle speculation, no more.
In speaking about the connection between sport and religion, Conte himself has said that forgiveness is an important part of a manager’s job. Of course, it could all be just an eye-catching coincidence.
Still, it’s another reason for Spurs to make sure they hold on to Mauricio Pochettino this summer…