Thursday, November 03, 2011
Captain, Leader, Liability?
In just over a month from now John Terry will turn 31, by which time it's possible that the "JT - CAPTAIN, LEADER, LEGEND" banner draped over the Matthew Harding Stand upper tier balcony at Stamford Bridge may have become both tarnished and redundant.
Without prejudging the two official investigations - the FA's and, now, the Metropolitan Police - into Terry's allegedly racist remark to Anton Ferdinand on October 23, the skies have certainly become darker over the Chelsea and England captain.
What is clear is that if either enquiry finds Terry guilty of abusing Ferdinand at Loftus Road - even in the heat of the moment - the Chelsea captain's career will be over.
Before getting into what JT did or didn't say to the QPR defender (who has "very strong feelings on the matter"), the broader issue is that the spotlight has once again fallen awkwardly on a footballer whose ability to attract negative publicity has been historically as accomplished as Uncle Albert Trotter's skill at sinking his own ships.
At this point I must declare my proprietary interest, which should be perfectly obvious but still requires me to hold up a palm and reaffirm my lifelong allegiance to Chelsea. I recognise that what follows here breaches several constitutional laws of fandom, including heresy and the one which states, quite categorically, that you never, ever question your chosen team or its players, no matter how far they transgress the law. However...
John Terry's status as a Chelsea Football Club legend has been built and maintained over 13 years by a number of factors. He is, first and foremost, a formidable central defender, hewn from the same lump of English resilience that attached the 'typifies the bulldog spirit' contractually-obliged qualifier to any mention of Terry Butcher. Terry (John) is a defender not afraid to put his forehead between a striker's boot and the ball on or near the goalmouth, the footballing equivalent of an RAF Spitfire pilot defending Britain in the summer of 1940.
His elevation to first team regularity at Chelsea - and, indeed, the club captaincy - was, by turns, inspired and an almighty risk. By the age of 22 he'd already accumulated an impressive record of off-field misdemeanors which, were it not for his club's relative benevolence would have created a reputation so toxic that he would have been playing non-league football or driving a white delivery van around Basildon by now.
Terry was amongst a group of Chelsea players (Jody Morris, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Frank Lampard) accused of abusing American tourists at a Heathrow Airport hotel shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001; having been duly fined by the club for that incident, he was later caught in a late-night hue-and-cry at a London nightclub, in which a bouncer was injured. Terry - arrested and jailed for the night - was later cleared of all charges at a subsequent trial.
With Marcel Desailly out injured during the 2003-4 season, Terry - already identified as understudy to the French World Cup winner - was promoted to the starting line-up. The following season, Jose Mourinho took over, Desailly retired, and the boy King John was crowned, with Frank Lampard installed as his Lord Lieutenant.
Despite being born closer to Upton Park than Stamford Bridge, Terry has always been regarded (and has positioned himself) unquestionably as Chelsea "through and through", a one-club man. We'll ignore, then, all that nonsense about a lucrative new gig at Manchester City.
Since becoming Chelsea’s captain, he has led the team through the most successful period of its 106-year history, including winning back-to-back Premier League titles in the first two seasons under Mourinho, with Terry commanding the leanest defence in the league. Some might say, though, that Mourinho's partnering of Terry with Ricardo Carvalho, along with Claude Makelele in the holding position, was the real key to that robust defence, masking Terry's only playing weakness - his lack of pace.
But with Chelsea battling criticism that it was a team of foreign mercenaries buying the league title with Abramovich's plundered oil roubles, JT remained the club's pillar, the base of an English spine with Frank Lampard ahead of him in midfield, and the fans behind a team which, was at least English-led. When Mourinho was fired in September 2007, Terry emerged as a more influential figure at the club than simply it's on-the-pitch captain. Increasingly seen as a crown prince, and handsomely rewarded with the Premier League's then highest-ever weekly wage of £135,000 a week, Terry appeared bullet-proof.
No-one is bullet-proof, though, and in the British public eye, wearing body armour is an invitation to take potshots at the famous in all their finest hubris. So when Terry's penalty miss in the 2008 Champions League Final in Moscow condemned Chelsea to more frustration in its pursuit of the one prize it still covets, the world was given notice that he might be impervious after all.
Terry’s armour had been tested earlier in 2008 by the arrest and cautioning of his mother and his then fiancée’s mother on suspicion of shoplifting from a branch of Tesco (embarrassingly one of the official sponsors of the England team). The same month Terry himself caused more embarrassment to club and country by having his car photographed in a disabled motorists' parking bay.
His parents became a source of pride again in November 2009 when his father, Ted, was caught by a Sunday newspaper apparently trying to sell cocaine. Even with that hanging above him, Terry Jr. was dragged back into the spotlight the same month when another newspaper broke the story that the Chelsea captain was offering guided tours of the club's Cobham training ground for cash. Though later explained as a charity initiative, it cast another shadow on his integrity as leader of both his club and his country.
That integrity was stretched to breaking point early in 2010 when the 'super injunction' was lifted that had previously prevented reporting of an affair between the married Terry and Veronica Perroncel, then the girlfriend of his former club teammate Wayne Bridge. Whether this was the straw or not, England coach Fabio Cappello - who would potentially be including Terry and Bridge in the same squad - decided that the camel's back had been snapped, and Terry was stripped of the England captaincy.
Despite this Teflon Terry retained the Chelsea captain's armband amid stoic PR mumblings about "fine servant" this and "inspirational leader" that.
Stamping out racism is a point of principal to football's governing bodies, although the evidence of crowd behaviour in Russia, Spain, Serbia, Germany and Denmark would suggest that there is a long way to go. John Terry appears to have stumbled upon a land mine with a particularly sensitive pressure plate.
I'm going to tread gossamer-thin ice here: before I do, let me state for the record that I do not condone racism in any form: as a regular visitor at Chelsea in 1982 I remember Paul Canoville making his home debut as the club's first ever black player, where his arrival was greeted by obscene monkey chants and bananas being disgracefully lobbed onto the pitch. Today whether a player is black, white, yellow or pink is not an issue.
In football's topsy-turvy sense of morality it seems you can get away with almost anything of dubious personal conduct, but lose your cool in the heat of battle and make reference to another player's skin colour, and all bets are clearly off.
Terry hasn't helped himself, however, with any of his mitigation. If he called Ferdinand "blind" (as one initial explanation is said to have stated), it was still used as an adjective to the sexual epithet that followed, which in itself is offensive enough. If, though, he used the word "black" then clearly a line of stupidity was crossed.
Does it make Terry a racist? No, but then the FA and Metropolitan Police investigations won't be looking to find a KKK hood hanging in Terry's wardrobe - just evidence that proves conclusively that, even if just sledging a fellow player, he was guilty of using a phrase which drew attention to Anton Ferdinand's race, which is just the sort of behaviour football clubs and football authorities do not want to see any player - let alone the captain of a leading club and the national side - engaged in.
I don't believe John Terry is a bigot - but then I don't know him personally. Equally I can't say whether whatever he said to Ferdinand at Loftus Road last month was meant to be racist. It was unbelievably crass, especially in the modern game where high definition television scrutiny strips away any veil of doubt. And the sad fact is that one thing said in the heat of the moment could bring down the curtain of a career which may not have been glittering, but has certainly been full-on.