“Captain, Leader, Legend”. So reads the iconic banner that has become a familiar sight at Stamford Bridge in recent years draped from the upper tier of the Matthew Harding stand.
It perfectly encapsulates how much John Terry means to Chelsea Football Club and how one man can still embody the spirit of a football team in a Premier League era dominated by foreign imports and multi-million pound transfer deals.
Is Chelsea’s club captain and longest-serving player, the only squad member left who predates Abramovich, the last of a dying breed?
The traditional one club man seems to have become all but extinct and players now very rarely follow the formerly predetermined career route from academy graduate to first-team regular. Indeed Terry is the only Chelsea youth team player to break through and make the grade since the turn of the century and when the legendary skipper finally hangs up his boots, many of the Stamford Bridge faithful worry that a big part of the club’s identity will be lost.
But Terry’s journey as man and boy at the Kings’ Road glamour club has not been without its ups and downs. A stellar playing career blighted however by a series of controversies, that twice saw him stripped of the England captaincy, has made him one of the most hated sportsmen in Britain.
As adored and admired as he is by the club that has stuck by him through thick and thin, he is still relegated to pantomime villain and jeered at most grounds in the country.
To completely understand how polarising a figure Terry is and to fully appreciate the impressive accomplishments of his playing career, we have to go back to the very beginning.
Born on December 7, 1980, in Barking, few could have predicted the subsequent meteoric rise for him to lift every trophy club football had to offer from such humble beginnings. Then again, Terry was born in the same hospital and grew up in the same Essex district as England’s only ever World Cup-winning captain, the late great Bobby Moore.
Still considered one of the greatest centre-backs in football history, Moore was a product of the famed West Ham United academy, which is actually where Terry started out before flirting with Manchester United (a brief sojourn that included dinner with a certain Sir Alex Ferguson) and eventually joining Chelsea as a 14-year-old schoolboy.
Twenty-one years later, he has become the most decorated captain in The Blues’ 111-year history and emulated his fellow Barking boy by captaining the England national team.
The comparisons with Moore go deeper than just a shared birthplace and background though. Rio Ferdinand was initially thought of as the heir apparent to West Ham and England’s most famous number six, but many footballing experts would consider Terry to have come closer to fulfilling that prophecy.
Moore, never blessed with great pace, was famed for his instinctive timing of the tackle and sublime vision passing out from the back. Terry, particularly in the latter years of his career, has cultivated an almost superhuman knack of being in the right place at the right time to make a key tackle or block, thus ensuring his own lack of pace is rarely exposed and is equally capable of pinging a 60-yard cross field pass with either foot.
He has in short become the complete centre-back, which is hardly surprising when you consider the major influences on his career when he first signed on the dotted line and went professional with Chelsea back in 1998.
It was Gianluca Vialli who gave Terry his debut as a late substitute in a League Cup tie with Aston Villa. His first start came a few months later in an FA Cup third round match with Oldham Athletic.
The 17-year-old prospect was breaking into the Chelsea first-team at a time when the club had recently signed World Cup winner, Marcel Desailly, to partner fellow French international, Frank Leboeuf, and the influence of these two renowned ball-playing centre-backs on the youngster is clear to see.
Terry has since lauded the positive impact that Desailly in particular had on his playing career in terms of imparting wisdom about the game and in leading by example. Although Terry was showing a maturity beyond his years on the pitch, breaking through to become a regular under Vialli’s successor, Claudio Ranieri, and starting to captain the side in his French mentor’s absence, this period in his career also represented the beginning of a catalogue of unsavoury incidents.
There was an alleged nightclub bust-up that led to a court case as well as an insensitively timed night out involving several Chelsea team-mates, including Frank Lampard, which a few American tourists, reeling in shock in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, were deeply offended by the players’ drunk and disorderly conduct.
Terry seemed to have put these disciplinary issues behind him however when Jose Mourinho arrived at the club in 2004 as part of the Roman Abramovich-funded Chelsea revolution. With millions of pounds being spent on players in seemingly every position by the Russian oligarch in his quest for instant success, it seemed inevitable that the old guard would be entirely phased out, but the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ instead opted to build his team around Terry and two other survivors from the Ken Bates days, Lampard and Eidur Gudjohnsen.
Terry was the natural choice to take the captain’s armband from Desailly and so began an intriguing relationship with a managerial maestro as polemic as they come. Chelsea romped to their first league title in 50 years, only the second in their history, with a record-breaking Premier League points total and defensive record.
He was named in the World Team of the Year as well as winning the coveted PFA Player of the Year Award. Chelsea fans will never forget his last-gasp Champions League headed winner over Barcelona that same season and the elation in the embrace with his manager that followed. The Blues retained the league title the following season comfortably, but it was the Champions League that had now become an obsession for the owner, the manager and the players themselves.
After being cruelly denied three times at the semi-final stage, Chelsea finally broke the Liverpool curse in 2008 and reached their first-ever Champions League final. By this point, Mourinho’s tumultuous first spell at Chelsea had come to a premature end and it was Avram Grant who was in charge in Moscow as The Blues went head to head with their huge domestic rivals, Manchester United.
With the teams impossible to separate after normal and extra-time, a Petr Cech save from Cristiano Ronaldo meant that the script was written for “Mr. Chelsea” himself to step up and make history in the shoot-out.
What happened next is a nightmare that has haunted Terry and many a Chelsea fan ever since.
The infamous slip that saw the ball brush the post and left the Chelsea skipper with his head in his hands and tears in his eyes has remained an enduring image as United went on to lift the trophy.
Loss of form, injuries and rumours of an unthinkable move to football’s new mega-spenders, Manchester City, followed in a difficult period in Terry’s career. He retained his place in the Chelsea side however and the Stamford Bridge club remained successful, winning their first-ever League and Cup double in 2009-10 under Carlo Ancelotti.
It was around this time however that the story broke that he had had an affair with his team-mate and soon-to-be former close friend, Wayne Bridge’s ex-girlfriend. Vanessa Perroncel, the mother of Bridge’s children, still denies this affair ever took place, but it damaged Terry’s reputation forever and he was stripped of the England captaincy for the first time, although later reinstated by Fabio Capello.
Worse controversy was still to come however in the shape of an incident that would lead to The FA taking away the captain’s armband from Terry for a second time and ultimately led to the end of his international career.
A moment of madness in a heated London derby with Queens Park Rangers saw Terry use a foul piece of racially-directed language at Anton Ferdinand that drew the ire of the entire footballing world.
Terry pleaded in court that he was merely responding sarcastically to accusations of racist abuse and although there was not sufficient evidence to convict him of any criminal wrongdoing, he was still charged by The FA with a £220,000 fine and a four-match ban.
Many of Terry’s team-mates past and present, including his old manager Mourinho and former mentor, Desailly, rushed to his defence rubbishing claims that he was a racist, but the language used was unacceptable, inexcusable and further served to drag Terry’s name through the mud.
He has become an easy target with the media consistently finding new angles of attack to accuse him or members of his family of some kind of wrongdoing and although he has clearly made some massive errors of judgement and is no saint, it is too simplistic to simply pigeonhole him as a villain.
In his playing career, he found redemption. Chelsea finally won the Champions League in 2012, albeit with their captain watching from their sidelines, suspended after an off-the-ball incident with Alexis Sanchez in the semi-final, but UEFA allowed him to lift the trophy that should have been his four years previously.
The legendary triumvirate of Lampard, Terry and Didier Drogba, that achieved so much for the club yet had come close to being phased out at the start of the campaign, had finally etched their names as winners of world football’s elite club competition.
In the years since, Terry has gone from strength to strength, defying the critics that said he was too slow or past it.
His eternal onfield partner, Lampard moved on, but Terry, reunited again with Mourinho, turned back the years in the 2014-15 season to once again lift the Premier League title and was named in the PFA Team of the Year.
Some pundits said it was Terry’s best season yet. Like a fine wine, he has got better with age and off-the-field controversies notwithstanding, it will be a sad day for Chelsea fans when the most decorated captain in their history finally decides to hangs up his boots.