Cristian Stellini kept Antonio Conte's chair warm at Tottenham – now he's in the hotseat
It took Tottenham Hotspur eight days to finally announce the news that everybody inside the club knew was coming as soon as Antonio Conte had criticised his players after the draw with Southampton – but there was one surprise.
Those who were up late enough to see the Tottenham statement drop after 10pm on Sunday night had to read it twice to make sure there had not been a mistake, as Conte’s long-serving assistant Cristian Stellini was confirmed as his interim successor until the end of the season.
In fact, by Monday morning, it became clear that only two people from the coaching team had left the club and they were both called Conte, Antonio and his brother Gianluca, who worked as an analyst for Spurs.
It is a pretty unprecedented move for a club to mutually terminate the contract of the head coach and yet keep his personal backroom staff in place. Mischievous minds immediately wondered whether or not chairman Daniel Levy had simply wanted to avoid paying compensation to Conte and his entire team with only 10 games remaining on their contracts.
Whatever the motivation, it is a risk for Levy to essentially keep everything as it was, bar the Contes, and diminish the possibility of Tottenham receiving the ‘bounce’ a new face with some fresh ideas can bring. Only a few weeks ago Stellini took charge of demoralising back-to-back defeats to Sheffield United in the FA Cup and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League.
Before that, Stellini had enjoyed a perfect winning record of standing in for Conte at Spurs and Inter Milan, but has his honeymoon period already been served? That must be a concern as Tottenham’s players prepare to return from international duty on Tuesday to all the same old faces. Some might even ask, what has actually changed?
Stellini first joined Conte’s coaching staff in 2011 at Juventus, but was suspended for two-and-a-half years over match-fixing allegations and subsequently resigned. They did not pair up again until Conte joined Inter Milan in 2019 and, having won Serie A together, Stellini agreed to become his Spurs assistant.
His one previous spell as a head coach of a senior team came in 2017, but Stellini lasted less than six months in charge of Serie C club Alessandria, who fired him for poor results.
Asked after the victory over Chelsea, which he took charge of while Conte recovered from gallbladder surgery, whether the result gave him belief that he could go on to be a manager, Stellini’s instant response was: “No.”
He went on to explain: “It gives me belief about the team. So that is the most important thing. I feel that the team follows the process Antonio created and they take more responsibility without Antonio. This is what I believe in.”
Conte gave his blessing for his coaching staff to stay on at Spurs and try to help the club finish the season positively, and it appears that Stellini’s main task is to keep morale high with Levy pointedly saying: “We all need to pull together.”
In that respect, there appears to be some sense in handing responsibility to Stellini for the rest of the season. The 48-year-old is described as being “a fantastic guy” by insiders who gets on well with the players and has a warm and open personality.
It was only three weeks before Conte called his players “selfish” that Stellini had spoken about them with what appeared to be genuine affection when asked about how they had coped with the former head coach’s enforced absence.
“It is like a teenager that has to become mature,” said Stellini. “The team reacted in this way and they take a lot of responsibility. Everyone, players that play and players that are sometimes not playing. This is why I am glad to stay here and to keep the chair of Antonio warm.”
Stellini is no longer keeping the chair warm and it will be fascinating to see how he now handles the Tottenham hot seat for the run-in, which starts with a tough looking trip to Everton next Monday night.
Tottenham’s office staff organised a night out a few weeks ago and both Stellini and Ryan Mason, who has been made assistant to the acting head coach, attended. The pair are said to have formed a close bond since they started working together.
The hammering Stellini used to take from Conte before substitutions were made was a subject of some internal amusement, but there was a genuine appreciation of how he would cope with the former Chelsea manager’s character around the training ground.
Stellini will not have to worry about getting an earful on the touchline for the rest of the season, but it may well require more than a light touch and a warm smile for Levy’s unconventional plan to pay off.