It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon at Foxboro Stadium, Massachusetts, when Antonio Conte first came across Michael Emenalo.
Italy were taking on Nigeria in the last 16 of the 1994 World Cup and a flash of light green went flying into Daniele Massaro right next to the touchline where Conte was sitting with his fellow Italian substitutes, with the left-back earning himself a second-minute booking.
The current Chelsea boss learned an important lesson that day – that Emenalo never holds back. This past summer, 23 years later on, the Italian truly found out what it’s like to coexist with this headstrong Nigerian, who literally snuck out of his home country as a teenager to travel to the US, to study international relations with political sciences at Boston University and to pursue a career in football.
From Alex Sandro, to Ross Barkley to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chelsea struggled to land many of Conte’s summer transfer targets and the blame for this was largely attributed to Emenalo, who until his resignation last week was the club’s technical director. Along with director Marina Granovskaia, the 52-year-old was one of the most influential voices in the Blues’ transfer market decision-making and he did not always agree with Conte or deliver exactly what the former Juventus coach wanted, leading to more than one disagreement.
On the surface, then, the Nigerian’s decision to resign from his role would appear to benefit Conte in the Stamford Bridge power struggle, but it might not be as simple as it looks. For all their quarrelling, Conte and Emenalo’s relationship was said to be a generally positive one, with the pair speaking almost every day, given that their offices at the Cobham training complex were directly opposite one another. They often watched training together too, with Emenalo’s presence on the training pitch never as controversial as the rare appearances by Roman Abramovich.
Emenalo, then, was something of an ally to Conte, probably his closest one in the Chelsea hierarchy, and the Nigerian could communicate the coach’s wishes to those higher up, even if they might not always have been taken on board.
Going forward, Granovskaia is to take over Emenalo’s duties, at least for the time being, and this could weaken Conte’s hand, rather than strengthen it. Given that Chelsea saw the clock tick past midnight on deadline day with some unfinished business, this January’s transfer window could be one of the club’s most important winter windows for years – and Conte’s chief messenger has just walked out the door.
For fans who trust in Conte and who want to see him get all of his Christmas wishes this year, Emenalo’s exit could turn out to be a blow, even if some will initially have been happy to see him go. While generally respected within the corridors of power at Stamford Bridge, Emenalo often had Trump-esque approval rating with the fans, not least because he bumped Ray Wilkins from his job as assistant coach in 2010, just three years after being brought to the club as a scout by Avram Grant and with limited coaching qualifications to his name. He then, as technical director, angered the fanbase further by throwing club legend Jose Mourinho under the bus in a 2015 TV interview when referring to the “palpable discord” he had sensed between the players and the Portuguese manager.
From the point of view of the directors he leaves behind, Emenalo’s departure now means that there is one fewer potential scapegoat if further transfer market troubles emerge. One fairly public face has now been removed from the line of fire and any shrapnel of anger coming from the owner of from the fans could now end up striking other Chelsea bigwigs.
The other area of the club where the technical director’s goodbye could be tough to take is at the academy, a branch which Emenalo took very seriously during his time in London. The Blues won trophy after trophy at youth level and had five of their youth teamers form part of England’s recent Under-17s World Cup-winning team. While academy director Neil Bath obviously deserves most of the credit, Emenalo can be proud of this world-renowned youth set-up and of the controversial-but-profitable loan farm he has spent so much of his time on.
In the end, Emenalo’s Chelsea legacy is a difficult one to judge, but he will surely end up being missed far more than it first seems. Either way, he has more than earned a break after a decade of hard work. He’s never had it easy during his career and he even had to care for his first daughter on his own after his first wife tragically died during a second pregnancy. So if he now wants to take a break to spend time with his three young sons, as he explained last week that he does, then he fully deserves it.