Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the stories making the headlines across the world of sport.
As a football player, being hauled off by your manager after just 26 minutes of play is just about your worst nightmare. What could you have done during that period of time that would warrant being substituted? Scored a pair of own goals, perhaps? Charged round making poorly-timed challenges whilst already on a yellow card, maybe? One thing that is for sure is that being asked to take a seat by your boss before a match has even reached its halfway point is the height of humiliation.
That is, of course, unless your name is John Terry.
Sunday signalled not only the climax of the 2017/18 Premier League season, but the end of the twenty-two year affiliation between John Terry and Chelsea Football Club. And let’s look past his off-field indiscretions for now. Terry has been a fiercely loyal one-club man, one that has always shown commitment to the Chelsea cause and worn his heart on his royal blue sleeves. When fans at the Bridge have hurt he has hurt with them, when they have celebrated he has shared in their delight. He is a local lad who has lived out his dream of playing professional football in the Premier League and at one point he was labelled the most formidable centre-back in the world. John Terry should go down as one of the greats. So why won’t he?
Coincidentally, this season has seen a number of great players chose to retire across Europe. You think of names like Xabi Alonso, Philipp Lahm, Francesco Totti – all stalwarts of the game that we have grown to admire over the course of many years and many great performances. Alonso and Lahm’s farewell match for Bayern Munich was surely one to remember for the two legends. Both were presented with flowers and mementos in the build up to the match, and then enjoyed an emotional farewell in the aftermath of the 4-1 win which appeared to involve copious amounts of lager being thrown about. They too were substituted during the game so that their adoring fans could give each of them one last ovation, but crucially, Alonso and Lahm were taken off on 82 minutes and 87 minutes respectively – once their team’s victory over SC Freiburg was all but secured. During the crux of the game, they handled business. They put all thoughts of hanging up their boots aside and they played to win. They honoured both clubs involved in the match and indeed the Bundesliga too. They did it right.
Then there’s Totti, the king of Rome, a man who quite literally embodies his club that he has represented so whole-heartedly for twenty-four years. He will bow out this coming Sunday in a last hurrah at the Stadio Olimpico against Genoa. But you can be sure he will handle himself how he has done his whole career, with grace and humility. There’s a reason why young football fans have posters of Lahm, Alonso and Totti stuck on their bedroom walls and not John Terry. And I realise that this reason can be perfectly summarised in his final few seconds as a Chelsea player. When it was Terry’s turn to say goodbye, he did so “with all the subtlety and grace of a hippopotamus at the wheel of a forklift truck.”
Journalist John Nicholson is one of my favourites, and I think he describes Terry’s curtain call the best. He says “On one level, this is all about John Terry. On another, it is about how people are in 2017. You don’t have to be a committed iconoclast to find the almost unbelievably narcissistic staging of Terry’s 26th-minute withdrawal, embarrassing. I mean, why would you suggest your team-mates do this for you? It’s so immodest, so self-regarding and I bet some of them felt really awkward having to do it. It feels like a form of bullying. ‘You will appreciate me and you will appreciate me now. I am Your Leader.’”
There are so many aspects to this incident that I find absolutely staggering. I guess I’ll start with the role that Sunderland had to play. Because Terry being able to convince his manager that he’d like this 26th minute guard of honour from his team-mates is bad enough, but Chelsea being able to convince Sunderland to put the ball out of play in order to facilitate this soap opera just boggles my mind. This is a side who have been woefully lacklustre this year. They have looked disinterested, de-motivated, void of passion and commitment. They have let their supporters down in so many of the fixtures they have played. They have thrown in the towel at times when it has mattered the most, and rightly have finished bottom of the table. And yet, when faced with one final match before their imminent relegation, a match against the champions elect, a last chance to show some defiance and fight in order to spoil a Premier League winning party, they negated any competitive edge the game might have had by waving the white flag and putting the ball out for John Terry. The match was poised at 1-1 before the substitution. Sunderland went on to lose 5-1. Before their loss against Chelsea, I could think of perhaps two players out of the entire Black Cats squad who could claim to have come out of this season with any credibility. After their limp final day surrender, every Sunderland player should hang their heads in shame. This was not an exhibition match, nor was it John Terry’s Chelsea testimonial. This was a competitive top-flight contest in which the participants were being paid a healthy sum to leave all of their energy and desire out on the pitch. An insult to the fans who had travelled from Wearside to back their team in spite of all their poor showings this campaign.
The next question to come from this mess is this one: Was there foul play involved? Since the conclusion of the match, the BBC has confirmed that thousands of pounds have been won through betting on the farcical 26th minute of the game. English football had its eyes opened to potential spot fixing when Sutton United reserve goalkeeper Wayne Shaw was caught eating a pie on the substitutes bench in a cup tie against Arsenal earlier this year. The FA has in response to Sunday’s match launched an investigation into potential wrong-doing surrounding the incident. I have no doubt that if there is anything untoward behind Terry’s tribute, then the repercussions will be huge for sport in this country.
We must also consider the part that elite football has had to play in this debacle. Terry, who was picked up by West Ham United as a boy aged just 11, is part of an industry throwing up side-effects that are at times not pretty. Is there more that football academies can be doing to educate young players who come through the same system that Terry did, to teach them how to handle the money and the fame. The 36 year-old is someone who on numerous occasions has shown that he is incapable of behaving as a responsible adult. We are talking about a man who engaged in an affair with the wife of a team-mate, and who, when watching the final stages of his team’s Champions League triumph on the side-lines due to a suspension, ran off in order to change into full Chelsea colours (including shinpads) and make his way onto the pitch to lift the trophy.
John Terry’s Stamford Bridge sign-off leaves a bitter taste in the mouth from the 2017/18 Premier League season. Perhaps we did not all expect it, but at least hoped we would see a dignified goodbye from the club-captain who has been a part of only nine league games this season. Terry has stated that he is hopeful of extending his playing career at a new club for next season. I imagine he put plenty of potential suitors off the prospect of signing him with his antics on Sunday afternoon.