By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - The question after Antonio Conte's departure from Chelsea on Friday was not 'where did it all go wrong?' but rather 'why did it take so long?'.
The Italian manager's relations with the west London club's hierarchy have appeared strained, to put it mildly, since last year while his departure from Stamford Bridge has been flagged for months.
Conte had been expected to go at the end of last season after Chelsea, who won the 2016-17 Premier League title in his stellar first campaign in charge, finished fifth and failed to qualify for the Champions League.
Winning the FA Cup against former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho's Manchester United in May was scant consolation to finishing 30 points behind champions Manchester City in the league.
Reports that Conte was on his way out had begun gathering traction long before then, with a stinging defeat at Watford in February coming after Conte had urged the board to end the uncertainty by confirming their trust in him.
The Italian had already publicly criticised the club's transfer policy and warned, from as far back as August last year, that his squad was not strong enough.
Media reports also portrayed a man at odds with director Marina Granovskaia, one of Russian owner Roman Abramovich's most trusted employees, following November's surprise departure of transfer chief Michael Emenalo.
Conte's volcanic intensity also alienated some insiders, including leading players whose discontent filtered out.
"I don't think Antonio helped himself, if I'm being honest, in the way that he came across at times," former Chelsea midfielder Dennis Wise told Sky Sports television.
"You look at his persona and his disappointment when the transfer window occurred. It wasn't the enthusiastic Antonio that we saw in the first season."
The fact that he was still in position this week, overseeing pre-season preparations at the Cobham training ground, was surprising.
Even then, after reports swirled in the Italian media that he had been sacked, it took another day for the club to confirm what everyone already knew.
British media pointed at the 48-year-old's likely severance package, a reported 9 million pounds ($11.81 million) if he sits out the year remaining on his contract, had been one of the sticking points.
Chelsea, who have also been in protracted negotiations with former Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri whose appointment is imminent, may have been hoping Conte would find another job before they had to act.
Sarri would be the 12th managerial appointment by Chelsea, permanent or otherwise, since Abramovich acquired the club in 2003 and they have not come or gone cheaply.
Media reports said Conte's departure would take to 85 million pounds the amount Chelsea has spent on paying off sacked managers -- almost the record fee Manchester United paid in 2016 for France midfielder Paul Pogba.
Friday's Chelsea statement announcing that they had 'parted company' with Conte was brief, and without a thank you, but it did highlight what the club had achieved before relations soured.
"We won our sixth league title and eighth FA Cup. In the title winning season, the club set a then-record 30 wins in a 38-game Premier League season, as well as a club-record 13 consecutive league victories," it said.
The statistics will also show that Conte's Premier League win rate as manager (67 percent) is second only to Manchester City's Pep Guardiola (72 percent) of those in charge for at least 20 games.
Conte's average of 2.14 points per game in the Premier League is bettered only by Alex Ferguson (2.16) and Guardiola (2.34).
($1 = 0.7620 pounds)
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge)