John Terry: one coin with three sides
John Terry’s decision to retire from international football emphasised, to my mind, the two elements of his career that will define him in perpetuity: he has been the most brilliant English defender of his generation; and he has personified a moral decline in English football.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .
His statement on Sunday night, ruling himself out of contention for future England squads, summed up his curious relationship with the tenets of honour and dignity. It also revealed, in microcosm, his ability to divide opinion. To some, he is a born leader; to others, an example of the arrogance that is blighting the game. To me, he is the coin with three sides: great player, flawed human being, public-relations disaster.
Terry denies that he racially abused Anton Ferdinand during Chelsea’s match against Queens Park Rangers in October 2011 but, having been cleared by a court of law, the former England captain now faces a Football Association inquiry into the incident. “I am making this statement in advance of the hearing of the FA disciplinary charge because I feel the FA, in pursuing charges against me where I have already been cleared in a court of law, has made my position with the team untenable.”
Terry’s attempt to portray himself as the victim seems rather eccentric, for the charges against him are, in football terms, serious. Ferdinand has accused Terry of calling him a “stupid black c***”, so the FA has no choice but to pursue an inquiry. Whatever the FA decision, Terry knows he has been hurt by the scandal and he knows that sympathy for him in the game is in short supply. The timing of his statement seems misconceived and rather cynical.
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .
How different it should have been. With better judgement, he could have become a superstar; the Bobby Moore of his era. Respected as a man rather than admired begrudgingly as a football player.
Terry was an excellent junior and by 2000-01, he was performing with the maturity than one does not expect from a teenager. However, from the moment Terry found himself in trouble, alongside Frank Lampard, Jody Morris, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Frank Sinclair, for harassing grieving American tourists just after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC, there were signs of potential problems. Rarely had such frivolity seemed so tasteless.
Terry continued to flirt with trouble and he continued to make progress as a player. I wrote an article in April 2002 suggesting that Sven-Goran Eriksson should include Terry in the England squad for the World Cup, but it was no secret among journalists that the Chelsea player was prone to lapses of judgement.
It was the epoch of Belief, it was the epoch of Incredulity . . .
Part of a Golden Generation of England players (a label that did more harm than good), Terry performed well in Euro 2004 and in WM 2006, even if these were teams that underachieved and did more for popular culture than for football. When people criticised the overpaid, over-pampered, irresponsible football player, some had Terry in mind. But his standards rarely dropped. He was seldom less than inspired for Chelsea, particularly during the Jose Mourinho era, which saw Stamford Bridge emerge as a bastion of impenetrability.
It did not much bother me that Terry struggles to behave appropriately. He who is without sin, cast the first stone! What concerned me was that Terry revealed all the characteristics of a walking PR crisis, which, for an England captain, was incongruous and embarrassing. Even when he was performing with distinction as a player, he made himself an easy target for satire. He never learnt to put himself beyond reproach. He never learnt to grasp how his actions would be interpreted by others. He never learnt that the England captaincy was as much a political role as a football one.
During the final three years of his international career, he was becoming a hassle; a bête noir; a player whose reputation for prudence, never great in the first place, was diminishing by the week. In 2009, Terry was investigated by Chelsea and the FA for allegedly taking money from an undercover reporter for a private tour of the club’s Cobham training ground. Terry denied wrongdoing and Chelsea believed him. Vindication, certainly, but mud sticks.
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .
In January 2010, the High Court imposed a super-injunction preventing the media from reporting allegations that Terry had had a four-month affair in late 2009 with Vanessa Perroncel, a previous girlfriend of Wayne Bridge, his former Chelsea colleague. Bridge ruled himself out of contention for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the FA withdrew the England captaincy from Terry. As car-crashes go, England's preparations for the World Cup made a good photograph but a disaster of a soap opera. It was not all Terry's fault but enough of it was. Officials at the FA winced.
Then there was the Anton Ferdinand race scandal, which affected England’s preparations for Euro 2012 and led indirectly to the resignation as England head coach of Fabio Capello. The FA again removed the captaincy from Terry. Roy Hodgson, Capello’s successor, failed to select Rio Ferdinand, the brother of Anton, for the Euro 2012 squad and the perception remained that one player had been disregarded to accommodate another player. When injuries intervened, and Hodgson required another defender, he selected Martin Kelly, a Liverpool reserve-team right back, rather than Rio Ferdinand. Terry's presence was making it difficult for people around him to make what appeared to be the right decisions.
Although he did well at Euro 2012, Terry became a figure of fun for his emergence, in his role as the club captain, to lift the European Cup after Chelsea’s victory against Bayern Munich, even though he was suspended. Feigned photographs of Terry on the moon with Neil Armstrong, Terry in Buckingham Palace at the Royal Wedding, and Terry lifting the World Cup as England captain in 1966 flashed around the stratosphere. He had become Forrest Gump; forever in the right photograph when it mattered. The consummate gatecrasher.
We had everything before us, we had nothing before us . . .
I have met him a few times, always in the perverse surroundings of a mixed-zone, usually during World Cup tournaments. The first time I questioned him was after the 2002 FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park, after he had scored the winning goal for Chelsea against Fulham. He was disarmingly charming and polite, clearly the rising star, and he exuded confidence and class. But in those days, the microscope was directed elsewhere. Once he became a star - a real star; the most dominant of all the Chelsea players from 2004-05 - he found that turning off the attention was impossible. The microscope became his nemesis.
He will remain a fine player for Chelsea - an icon, quite rightly, for being the club's greatest captain - but as an England international, he will go down in history as somebody who achieved less than his talented warranted, and someone who caused more trouble than he was worth. His attempts on Sunday to portray himself as a victim were pitiful.
We were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . .