Chelsea coach Antonio Conte will be hoping that the curse of the English champions does not strike him down this season.In the past two years, the managers of the Premier League title-holders – Jose Mourinho, also at Chelsea, and Leicester City’s Claudio Ranieri – have been fired after their previously all-conquering teams suddenly slumped down the table.Conte seems aware of the risk.”We know it will be difficult next season and we will try and avoid what happened to Mourinho’s side at the start of 2015,” he said during a pre-season tour of Asia.”Two years ago Chelsea finished 10th and that cannot happen again,” he said.The former Juventus and Italy coach led Chelsea to the 2016/17 title in his first season in charge in England. But the challenge will be greater this year with the London club back in the Champions League after a season out of Europe.Mindful of the demands of competing at home and abroad, Conte has sought to stiffen his team’s spine, bringing in a new centre forward, central midfielder and central defender.A lot of responsibility will fall on striker Alvaro Morata, signed for 58 million pounds from Real Madrid. He will fill the void left by Diego Costa who was told by Conte that he no longer had a place at Chelsea after a row at the start of 2017.While Costa’s lack of discipline on and off the pitch was frustrating for both Conte and Mourinho, he was central to Chelsea’s title victories in 2015 and 2017 and scored 52 goals in 89 league appearances in his three years in London.advertisementConte had targeted former Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku as the ideal replacement for Costa with his proven record as a powerful Premier League goalscorer during his years at Everton.But Lukaku was snatched away to Manchester United by Mourinho, forcing Chelsea to gamble on Morata who has shone for Madrid and for Juventus but who has yet to be tested in the hurly-burly of the English league.Conte will also be hoping that another of his big summer signings – French midfielder Tiemoue Bayakoko, bought for a reported 40 million pounds from Monaco – will find his feet quickly in England.Bayakoko is expected to take the place of Nemanja Matic whose strength helped Chelsea to give a free rein to their attack-minded midfielders such as Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian. Matic has signed for Manchester United.The third of Chelsea’s big summer signings – defender Antonio Rudiger – will also be discovering the physical demands of English football for the first time as he arrives from Roma.In a sign that Conte is aware of the risk that his new recruits might not settle quickly in England, newspapers have said he is still hoping to sign three or four British-based players before the season kicks off on August 12.
But the alarm bells did ring for Barton as he left the club. “When I got sold for £300,000, which was a considerable amount of money at the time, one of the owners immediately bought himself a brand new Jag. I thought it was a little odd that the first thing they did with the money went into a nice car.”In truth, the problems had started a few years before. The club sold their London Road ground in 1988 to furniture chain MFI and moved into a groundshare with Dartford 20 miles away. Crowds dropped dramatically. The average gate went from 2,400 to 1,400 even though they were riding high in the Conference. In the club’s first season playing at Dartford, they somehow won the league. Manager John Still had taken the club to the Football League for the first time in their 92-year history.Although, just like Bury’s promotion to League One last season proved to be a false dawn, this step up for Maidstone signalled the start of bigger problems. The club’s owners spent £400,000 on land to build a new 10,000-seat stadium, but the local council refused them planning permission and the debt started to weigh heavily on the club’s finances. And, after gaining promotion, Still decided that he did not want the full-time role as manager and left the club.As the finances took a nosedive, the exodus gathered pace. By the start of the 1991-92 season, there were just two players left on the books: Gary Stebbing and Glen Donegal. Just as the fanfare of the newly launched Premier League was reverberating across the media, Maidstone resigned from the Football League unable to fulfil their fixtures. So much for a “whole new ball game”. The polarity in wealth in football was shown in the harshest of lights as the lowest tier of English football was reduced to 22 clubs while those at the top of the game luxuriated in their new television deal with Sky.Maidstone’s rebirth was almost immediate. In a matter of weeks they effectively took over a junior club Maidstone Invicta, who were 10 tiers below in the Kent County League Fourth Division. The club started the long climb back up the divisions, winning successive titles and renaming themselves as Maidstone United in 1997. Most importantly, after many years of nomadic existence they moved back to Maidstone when they opened a new community-owned ground, the Gallagher Stadium, in 2012. As a result of returning home, attendances recovered from a few hundred to more than 2,000. Within two decades they had clawed their way back into the top tier of non-league football, gaining promotion to the National League in 2016. When they were threatened by relegation last season, they turned to Still, who returned as manager in January some 30 years after leaving the club. He could not save them from relegation – they finished bottom of the National League in May – and are now in the sixth tier, but Still has remained at the club as head of football and hopes to see the club recover their Football League status once more.There is a belief that Still will turn things around. “John hasn’t changed,” Barton says. “He gets there at six o’clock in the morning and won’t leave until 10 o’clock at night. Whatever club he has worked with, whether it’s Luton or Dagenham & Redbridge, he always has an affinity with that club.” Barton moved to California 11 years ago and now works for Los Angeles Blues and as a pundit, but Still remains his mentor. Share on Facebook Football politics Share on Twitter Topics League Two Share on WhatsApp Reuse this content Maidstone United worked their way up the fifth tier in 2016. Photograph: Tgsphoto/Rex/Shutterstock Share on Pinterest Guardian Sport Network Read more Facebook Pinterest Share on Messenger Share on LinkedIn Share via Email features Football League “He will always be the first person I chat to about the game, how you look after players and the finer points of coaching. I remember when I was doing my Pro Licence, there was a young player who kept irritating me by getting in late and not training hard enough. John pulled me to one side and said: ‘What are you worrying about him for? Worry about the other 24 players in the group.’ Little things like that show he understands how to deal with players.”Barton is adamant that lower league clubs need to be preserved. “Football needs to get its house in order as, without Bury and without Maidstone, you wouldn’t have a Premier League. Chris Smalling [who also played for Maidstone] and myself have come out of that club, which shows you that these clubs are important, as you get international players that go on from there. Hopefully it’s a reality check for everyone as it could easily happen to your club.” Supporters of Bury, Bolton and many others can testify to that sentiment.Richard Foster’s book From An Acute Angle is out now and you can follow him on Twitter Twitter Bands FC: a bright idea that is raising thousands for vulnerable children Soccer Read more North Ferriby in four seasons: promoted, relegated, liquidated, resurrected On 13 May 1990, Mark Gall scored a 90th-minute equaliser for Maidstone United in the first leg of their Division Four play-off semi-final at Cambridge United. Going into the second leg at their own ground, Maidstone looked favourites to reach the very first play-off final to be played at Wembley. They seemed to be a club on the up.With the second leg goalless and approaching injury time, Gall was put through on goal and given the chance to score that would win the tie for Maidstone. He put his shot agonisingly wide. In the end, Cambridge won 2-0 in extra-time thanks to two goals from Dion Dublin. He was again on the scoresheet at Wembley as Cambridge beat Chesterfield in the play-off final and won a place in Division Three. Two years later, Cambridge reached the Division Two play-offs, where they battled with Leicester City for a place in the first season of the Premier League.While Cambridge were dreaming of Premier League football in May 1992, Maidstone were playing what turned out to be their last match as a league club. On 2 May 1992, they were beaten 3-0 by Doncaster Rovers at Belle Vue in the final game of the Division Four season. By the time the new season came around, the club had been liquidated and removed from the league. They were the last Football League club face expulsion until Bury suffered the same fate this summer. Whereas Bury had been members of the Football League for 125 years before they were expelled, Maidstone had only been a league club for three seasons – and they did not spend any of them playing in their home town.Warren Barton was in the Maidstone team that played in the Football League and he was also a part of the exodus that began when they lost out on promotion in 1990. Barton was sold to Wimbledon that summer and went on to play 277 times in the Premier League – for the Dons, Newcastle and Derby – as well as earning three England caps under Graham Taylor.Barton learned a lot from his time at Maidstone. “It felt like a really well run professional football club,” he says. “I was working with great coaches such as the ex-West Ham player Tommy Taylor and Keith Peacock, who later worked at Charlton with Alan Curbishley. It was a wonderful time. The training ground was excellent; the equipment and facilities were good; and we were travelling by train to games in first class and were always dressed in blazers. I didn’t notice anything amiss as I was young and just focused on playing.”