Antonio Conte said he would have thought chairman Daniel Levy was joking had the Tottenham chairman made qualifying for the Champions League a target when he was appointed.
The Italian arrived at Spurs in November and was left to pick up the pieces of Nuno Espirito Santo’s ill-fated short stay which saw them heading towards mid-table mediocrity.
For a long time Conte said reaching the top four was a pipe dream as his side battled with wild inconsistency, before eventually accepting it was possible as form and results improved as the season progressed.
They are now in pole position to book a return to the premier European club competition, needing only a point at already-relegated Norwich on Sunday to book their top-four spot ahead of Arsenal.
Conte said that no targets were placed on him by Levy other than to improve the situation.
“Daniel didn’t ask me anything. He asked me only how we want, with me in charge, how we can improve the situation. Not a target,” he said.
“But I think he knows very well that I’m an ambitious person and that I want to try in every situation to sit at the top, to fight for this. But he didn’t ask me anything… this must be very, very clear because if you put me a target then I know that in this moment it’s very difficult.
“It was for sure a difficult period. For sure, if he (Levy) had asked me, ‘I want to go to the Champions League’, at that moment, to be realistic, I can tell him only one thing…’Are you joking?’
“This is the truth because we are talking about England, a situation in this league that is very, very difficult, because there are four top teams. If one of these top teams doesn’t miss the season, it will be very difficult to go inside.
“At the same time I try to do this because I like to put on myself big, big targets, not minimal targets. I know me, I know myself and I need this challenge to give the best.
“If you remember in the last nine games, before the last nine games, I said now we are ready to fight for a place in the Champions League, we are in this race. I never said this before but I said it was a miracle and I said we must fight for a place in the UEFA.
“But in the last nine games, we understood something had changed in everybody, I put the pressure on myself and I pushed, I put the pressure on my players and we are here to speak about an important target for our club.
“But it’s important that the club don’t forget the past and what we did to reach this moment because, I repeat, we didn’t get a place in the Champions League. We must take the last step and we need to do this.”
Even as late as February a top-four push seemed unlikely, but – with the help of January additions Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur and the sizzling form of Son Heung-min and Harry Kane – Conte has turned things around.
And he thanked the club for their support in the January transfer window, which also saw a number of under-performers shipped out.
“We have to be proud, but I also want to say thanks to the club because in January it’s not simple to listen 100 per cent to your manager and for this reason I want to say thanks,” he added.
“The club believed in what I said, in the situation we have to try to improve – not many things but the right things and I think we did this.
“But I know very well that it’s not simple for the club to make the coach happy – it’s very, very difficult!
“It was the right case and now to repay the trust of the club, the trust of the players, the trust of fans, makes me happy. But there is the last step to be very, very happy.”