October 27, 2012
The New York Times
John Terry: Chelsea’s Dark Knight
By SARAH LYALL
LONDON — John Terry has played soccer for Chelsea for 14 years, eight of them as captain, at a time when the team has never been more successful. He hates to miss a match. He plays injured. He plays hard. He plays as if every moment mattered more than every other moment. He plays with a fierceness and a focus that do not waver even when he is being baited and taunted by opposing fans, which is often the case. When he plays, even in away matches, Chelsea fans proudly unfurl a banner: “JT: Captain, Leader, Legend.”
One of the canniest, toughest and best defenders in English soccer, Terry is also perhaps the country’s most reviled player. Even in the combustible, fiercely tribal Premier League, where the fans’ unconditional love of their teams is matched only by their implacable hatred of everyone else, Terry inspires a special degree of loathing. He is the only player in the history of England’s national team to be removed as captain twice. (He retired from that team, under a cloud, last month.) Even many Chelsea fans are finding it harder and harder to reconcile John Terry, the fantastic soccer player, with John Terry, seemingly major league brat.
“J. T. is an amazing leader on the football pitch,” said Neil Harvey, 51, a lighting consultant who has a £900-a-year season ticket (about $1,450) to Chelsea. “But, like most people — would you want him to be your friend? No. But he’s not there to be my friend.”
Nothing in his roller coaster of a career has matched what happened a year ago, when, in an on-field confrontation with a black player, Terry used a racial slur during an exchange of ugly insults. The scandal ended up engulfing all of English soccer, dividing players, exposing unsavory truths about on-field behavior and disgracing Terry, his team and the Premier League. Terry was acquitted in a criminal trial, but in a scathing judgment last month, an independent tribunal called his defense “improbable, implausible and contrived,” fined him £220,000 (about $354,000) and handed him a four-match ban.
The incident was merely the latest in a wearying series of unfortunate episodes.
There was the time Terry and some teammates went on a drunken binge in an airport hotel bar while passengers stranded by the 9/11 attacks watched the Twin Towers burn on television. There was the time he was charged with assault after a melee in a nightclub in which a bouncer was slashed with a broken bottle. (He was acquitted.)
There was the time he was fined £60 (about $97) after leaving his Bentley in a parking spot for the disabled while he went to a pizza restaurant; the time he was thrown out of a bar in Essex after urinating in a beer glass and dropping it on the floor; the time he was investigated, and cleared, by Chelsea after he was accused of charging an undercover reporter money to show him around Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s stadium; the time he brutally kneed a Barcelona player in the back in the Champions League semifinal last April and denied it until confronted with a videotape that proved he was lying; and the time when he violated the players’ unwritten code of loyalty by, it seemed, cheating on his wife not with a groupie in a bar, but with the estranged girlfriend of one of his teammates.
“He’s a walking disaster,” said Mark Perryman, a research fellow in sport and leisure culture at the University of Brighton and the author of “Ingerland: Travels With a Football Nation.” Using English slang for hooligan, he said: “He’s been caught out serially, and that makes him a yob — but that doesn’t make him a bad footballer. It makes him a bad role model.”
The Chelsea club did not make Terry available for an interview for this article.
Britain’s newspapers mostly fell out of love with Terry a long time ago (in headlines, The Daily Mail flatly calls him things like “the serial brawler, drinker and womanizer John Terry”), and the Football Association ruling was seen as a disgrace too far. “John Terry and Ashley Cole have shamed Chelsea and embarrassed English football,” The Observer of London said in an editorial, referring to a Chelsea teammate whose defense of Terry, the tribunal said, was a lie.
‘A One-Club Man’
He had promise from the beginning. Anyone who knows Terry says that he lives and breathes soccer and that it has always been that way, since he was a boy kicking a ball around the rough streets of Barking in East London. His father was a forklift operator in a wood yard who was never good enough to play soccer professionally, but played for a local amateur team and encouraged John and his older brother, Paul, to aim higher (Paul Terry now plays for Thurrock, a lower-division team). Money was tight. Terry’s father started work at 6 a.m., got home at 6 p.m., drove the boys to soccer and got home to dinner at 10. Soccer was a lifeline and a ticket out for an aggressively unacademic child like Terry.
When he was 10, he joined Senrab, a youth soccer club in Wanstead Flats, East London, with a reputation for training future Premier League players (the name is a backward spelling of Barnes, a local street). With Terry playing alongside teammates like Ledley King and Jermain Defoe, who would grow up to play for Tottenham Hotspur, and Jlloyd Samuel, who later played for Aston Villa, the team dominated the league and attracted talent scouts’ attention.
Terry had not yet grown into himself. He was short. He was pudgy. He played midfield.
The coaches knew he had something. “In football, you have leaders and followers, and he was always a leader on the pitch and off the pitch,” said Tony Carroll, Senrab’s secretary. “He was always combative and competitive, and he inspired people by his performance.”
Terry spent four years at Senrab before Premier League clubs began wooing him for their junior programs. He picked Chelsea, and at 16 left school for good and enrolled in Chelsea’s Youth Training Scheme, a kind of soccer farm team; he was paid £46 a week (about $75). He will be 32 in December, which means he has spent half his life wearing Chelsea blue. He has played more than 550 games for the team (in 2000, he briefly played on loan with Nottingham Forest).
At a time when players flit from team to team, pledging allegiance to whoever pays the most, Terry’s commitment to Chelsea is one of the reasons his fans revere him (not that the team does not pay him a lot; various reports have him earning as much as £220,000 a week, about $354,000). To Chelsea fans, Terry is Chelsea.
“John Terry is quite a rare thing in football, because he’s a one-club man,” said Trizia Fiorellino, chairwoman of the Chelsea Supporters’ Group. “That used to be common 20, 30 years ago, but these days it’s incredibly rare. He’s been passionate, incredibly loyal and very demonstrative — lots of beating of the chest, touching his heart and looking up at the fans. We feel he’s one of us. We’ve always cherished him as one of our own.”
Graham Stewart, who played as a midfielder for Chelsea when Terry was in the youth program, said, “He would run through a brick wall to play for Chelsea.”
In a way, Terry’s image problem is compounded by his symbiotic relationship with the team. To many English soccer fans, Chelsea is like the Yankees, only worse: obnoxious and arrogant, too rich for its own good, full of preening egomaniacs, with fans who are as entitled and pleased with themselves as the players. It does not help that in 2003, Chelsea was bought by Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch who, in true oligarch style, tends to throw money at problems.
Terry had a growth spurt in his midteens, shooting up to his current height, 6 feet 1. His puppy fat turned to muscle. He moved from midfield to his current position, center back, the linchpin of a team’s defense. By the time he was 17, he was regularly substituting for first-team players, playing alongside the gifted French defenders Frank Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly, whom he would eventually succeed as captain.
“He was like a sponge, the way he took in all the information you were giving him,” said Ray Wilkins, a longtime coach at Chelsea, who left the club in 2010 and is now an assistant coach for Paris Saint-Germain in France.
By phone from his native Ghana, Desailly recalled how he regarded Terry as an apprentice, but a precocious and cheeky one who barraged him with questions about tactics and positioning, and who once went to him with a detailed suggestion about how the physios, doctors and fitness coaches should fit into the team. “He was sharing his opinion, and to hear this from an 18- or 20-year-old guy was something a bit special for me,” Desailly said, laughing.
In a 2006 interview, Terry said he became “a different character” on the field. “Normally I would be too scared to say hello to the first-team players,” he said, “but when I was playing with them, I was shouting and bossing them about a little bit.”
At 20, Terry was named Chelsea’s player of the year.
When Desailly sat out with injuries, Terry sometimes filled in as captain; he was given the job for good in 2004. “John is naturally somebody who attracts people to follow him,” Desailly said. “You know how you can dress any way you want, but if you don’t have natural style, it doesn’t matter? John has that leadership naturally.”
Terry was already captain when Avram Grant took over as manager in 2007. The club was full of outsized, alpha-male personalities, but Terry helped wrangle them into a cohesive playing unit. “There were many international players: the captain of England, the captain of Germany, the captain of the Ivory Coast, many captains of national teams,” Grant said by phone from Israel. “There were a lot of egos. It was not easy to be a leader of so many leaders, but Terry did a very good job.”
Other players say that Terry leads by force of personality and by his consistently high level of play, season after season. And in an age of histrionics and exaggerated dives, of players clutching body parts and rolling around in fake pain that evaporates when they realize no one is buying it, Terry plays through his injuries — he has been plagued by back and ankle problems — and sometimes even courts them.
A classic Terry situation came in 2007, during the League Cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal. As he rushed straight into a thick pack of players in an attempt to score with a diving header, Terry’s head made contact with the ball at the exact moment his face made contact with the foot of Abou Diaby, the Arsenal midfielder. Knocked out cold, his airway temporarily blocked by his tongue, Terry was carried off the field on a stretcher and taken to a hospital, but later discharged himself and returned to help his team celebrate its 2-1 victory. “That’s the kind of dedication that Chelsea supporters see week in, week out from John Terry,” said Fiorellino, the fans’ club chairwoman.
Terry was first picked for the England team in 2003, under Sven-Goran Eriksson, and immediately began to dominate that team, too. He embodied a kind of Platonic ideal of what an England defender should be: brave, stalwart, never-say-die, an English bulldog in the tradition of Terry Butcher, the star defender. In a 1989 match against Sweden, Butcher split his head open but insisted on continuing, his wound reopening every time he headed the ball, so that by the end of the match he, his head and his clothes were soaked in blood.
“Terry is the kind of player that England fans idolize — he has that ‘get stuck in’ attitude that tells us something about Englishness,” Perryman, the Brighton sports researcher, said. “He put himself on the line for England. He’s someone you want to sit beside in the trenches.”
In 2006, Terry was named England’s captain. Though England has been an underperforming team — the only time it won the World Cup was in 1966 — Terry has been regarded as a charismatic, effective captain. Meanwhile, his record at Chelsea has been stellar. Now the longest-serving player on the team, he has led it through three Premier League titles, four F.A. cups, two League cups and, last year, its first Champions League title. Managers have come and gone, but Terry has remained (some people say that at times, he has been the team’s de facto manager).
On the field, he has always lacked speed, especially now that he is older, but compensates for it with intelligence, cunning, aggression and commitment that earn him his teammates’ respect. “His strength is in his courage, the way he will go for everything that comes through, whether it’s on his head, on his knee, on his foot,” said John Hollins, a former player who in a long career managed a number of Premier League teams, including Chelsea in the 1980s. “He will go for everything, and put his body on the line.”
Terry is particularly gifted at reading the field, anticipating where the ball is heading, what his opponents are planning, where his own players should be going; he directs them, in a style has been compared to that of a conductor with an orchestra. He is a ferocious defender, moving with dangerous purpose and power and menacing his opponents with a formidable combination of threatening arms, body and attitude. It would not be fun to try to score if Terry were in your way.
“The man he’s marking — that idea is that he doesn’t let him get a touch, he doesn’t let him get a kick, he doesn’t let him get a header, he doesn’t let him get a goal,” Hollins said. “Mentally he destroys them that way. He is so powerful and strong that people literally are a bit frightened of him.”
Terry is one of the top scorers among defenders in the Premier League. Last season, he scored seven goals.
But it is the other side of Terry that people who are not Chelsea fans tend to emphasize. Along with talent, trouble has dogged him at every step: trouble with drinking, troubles with women, trouble, reportedly, with gambling. English soccer is full of young players with extreme talent, indifferent educations, big egos, rough upbringings, astronomical salaries and little understanding of how to manage all these things at once, and their teams have done little to help them. Terry is hardly the only one who gets in trouble. But Terry seems to do worse things, or to do bad things more often, or to get caught more frequently, than other players do.
After the post-9/11 incident, in which the (exaggeration-prone) News of the World reported that Terry and two teammates had sneered at and verbally abused distraught American tourists, the three players were fined two weeks wages each. They admitted they had behaved boorishly, but insisted they had not insulted any tourists. “We are sorry if we upset anyone,” Terry said.
More alarming was the incident several months later, in January 2002, when Terry and several other players showed up, drunk and obstreperous at 1:30 a.m. at a swanky Knightsbridge club. The bouncers ejected them, but they tried to force their way back in, a fight broke out, glass went everywhere, and Terry spent the night in a police cell. Accused of slashing a bouncer’s face with the jagged edge of a broken bottle, he faced charges that carried a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Tears streaming down his face, Terry testified that he had used his fists, not a bottle. He was acquitted, and he vowed to mend his ways. “I had a good think about what I was doing, and I’ve changed my lifestyle around now,” he said.
But then came the women he was linked with, nine of them who were not Toni Poole, Terry’s childhood sweetheart and long-suffering girlfriend (now his long-suffering wife). The tabloids kept finding people willing to discuss, for money, vivid accounts of their romantic interludes with Terry (The Daily Star: “Terry told Jenny he loved her skimpy thong.”). He never admitted anything, but the rumors stuck.
Nor did he ever confirm widespread reports of an affair with Vanessa Perroncel, the former partner of Wayne Bridge, an England teammate, although the rumors about it were sufficiently damaging that he took out a super-injunction — a court order forbidding the news media to report on a story, or even reporting on the existence of the injunction itself. When it was overturned, the papers’ moral distress at Terry’s supposed transgression was exponentially compounded by their anger at his efforts to gag them.
Vilified in the papers, Terry now looked shabby to other players, too. Bridge refused to play for England while Terry remained on the team; Terry remained but was stripped of the England captaincy (he was reinstated as captain a year later, but not for long).
Nothing Terry has been involved in before, however, has proved as serious or had so many negative repercussions as what happened on Oct. 23, 2011, in the last few minutes of a match between Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers at the Loftus Road stadium.
Chelsea was behind, tempers were frayed, and the anti-Terry chants from the Q.P.R. fans were especially harsh (typical anti-Terry chants include references to the Perroncel affair, references to his mother’s sex life and an incident when she was caught shoplifting, and references to an occasion in his father may or may not have offered to sell cocaine to an undercover reporter).
The Q.P.R. defender Anton Ferdinand was feeling especially aggrieved.
Most of the dialogue was so eye-wateringly profane and so staggeringly immature as to be almost comical. The players exchanged aggressive gestures — Ferdinand’s had to do with sex; Terry’s had to do with accusing Ferdinand of having bad breath — and then engaged in long and abusive soliloquies in which they compared one another to unprintable body parts.
Terry has never disputed that he inserted the word “black” between a rude adjective and an even ruder noun that both players had already been using freely. But, he told the police, it was a rhetorical device. “My use of these words was intended to make it plain that I had not called him a black” — here Terry used the rude noun — “and that in reality, Anton was a” — here he used a different rude noun — “for even suggesting that I had.”
Charged with committing a “racially aggravated public order offense,” and stripped, once again, of his England captaincy (the England manager, Fabio Capello, resigned in protest), Terry was acquitted in July. But many black players were furious. While the black Chelsea defender Ashley Cole testified on Terry’s behalf, a number of Terry’s black teammates refused to sign a petition supporting him. The Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand, who is Anton’s brother, called Cole a “choc ice” — an ice cream bar that is dark on the outside, white on the inside — on Twitter, and was reprimanded by the Football Association. Cameron Jerome, a black striker at Stoke City, tweeted, “May as well go rob a bank and when I get caught say it was only banter.”
When Chelsea played Q.P.R. in September, Anton Ferdinand refused to shake hands with either Cole or Terry.
The mood got even more poisonous on Sept. 24, when a Football Association independent regulatory commission held a disciplinary hearing into Terry’s behavior. The day before he was called to answer questions, Terry announced his retirement from the England team.
The panel ruled that Terry’s convoluted rationalization of his remark to Ferdinand was, essentially, ridiculous. It also said that Cole had altered his original statements and changed his account as he went along to benefit Terry.
While saying that Terry was not a racist, but had merely used racist language, the panel fined him and banned him from four matches. For its part, Chelsea imposed a further fine, said in some reports to be as high as £440,000 (about $709,000), but allowed him to remain as captain.
None of this was enough, many black players complained, particularly since a Liverpool striker, Luis Suárez, had received an eight-match ban for repeatedly calling Manchester United’s Patrice Evra “negro” during a game the previous season. (According to one account, When Suárez attempted to pat Evra on the head during the game, Evra said: “Don’t touch me, you South American,” to which Suárez, who is from Uruguay, reportedly replied: “Por que” — why — “negro?”)
Whatever his punishment, Terry’s reputation had suffered its worst blow yet. “Chelsea’s captain used to be nicknamed Teflon Terry because of the way nothing ever stuck,” Daniel Taylor wrote in The Guardian. “No more. The stigma of racism is attached to Terry like a tick on the side of a dog.”
Awkwardly, all this happened right before the Premier League’s annual two-week commemoration of its commitment to eradicating racism. Last weekend, players were supposed to demonstrate their support by wearing anti-racist Kick it Out T-shirts. But more than 30 players, including the Ferdinand brothers, refused.
“This is proving very divisive,” Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, told reporters. “The frustration is boiling over now, and if we’re not careful, we’re in danger of self-imploding.”
‘Unspeakable Human Being’
On Sept. 29, two days after the F.A. panel found Terry guilty of racial abuse, Chelsea was playing at Arsenal, one of its hated rivals. The anti-Terry chants began even before the Arsenal fans got off the subway. “John Terry — you know what you are,” the Arsenal supporters sang, meaning that John Terry knows he is a racist.
Inside the stadium, the Chelsea fans were confined to one little corner of the stands and watched over by security guards, so as to prevent them from attacking or being attacked by the Arsenal fans. (Fans from opposing teams are not good at mingling with each other in English soccer.) They proudly displayed their “JT: Captain, Leader, Legend” banner.
Every time Terry came near the ball, he was greeted by a loud chorus of boos.
“What do I hate about John Terry?” said Ollie Cantwell, 16, an Arsenal fan. “I think he’s an unspeakable human being. It would be easier to tell you what I like about him — nothing.”
But Terry played just as hard as ever, directing his teammates, never letting up on the Arsenal strikers — oblivious, it seemed, to everything else.
“What’s impressive about John, and why everyone at Chelsea Football Club loves him, is that whether he’s been right or wrong in any controversy, when it comes to playing football he’s never lost his focus,” Graham Stewart, the former Chelsea player, said later by telephone. “You need concentration as a defender, but when you’ve got all the surrounding things going on, the booing and hissing — that requires a real strong person. That could break some people.”
It would be several more weeks before Terry decided not to appeal the F.A. verdict, and several more weeks before he apologized for what he said to Anton Ferdinand, nearly a year after he said it.
“With the benefit of hindsight, my language was clearly not an appropriate reaction to the situation for someone in my position,” he said in a statement. “My response was below the level expected by Chelsea Football Club, and by me, and it will not happen again.”