When the ball hit the net, a deafening roar pierced the air. Chelsea’s players huddled in an embrace and Antonio Conte swung from the dugout. Behind the goal, pandemonium ensued. Lads in blue shirts piled on top of each other, arms aloft as the stewards in luminous yellow jackets tried to keep them sealed back from the pitch.
Lost amongst them was Gary Cahill, who jumped the advertising hoardings to celebrate with the jubilant away supporters. The skipper’s 87th minute winner moved Chelsea ever nearer to the Premier League title, a victory secured in true champion fashion.
In previous seasons, the man wearing the armband and in all likelihood scoring the goal would have been John Terry. The club captain has had a watching brief for the vast majority of Chelsea’s inextricable ascent to the league summit.
Terry started the first four games of the Conte era, as Chelsea won three and drew the other. The veteran centre-half then picked up an injury, which coincided with back-to-back defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal.
“I genuinely mean when I say it, but for me I am honestly hoping I don't play this season which means they keep winning. I’m training unbelievably, you have to, you do things the right way because the love of the club and how much you respect the club and how good the club has been to you over the years.” John Terry
This obviously prompted Conte to reconfigure his system, changing to a 3-4-3 formation. David Luiz’s return from Paris Saint-Germain also increased competition and the Brazilian slotted in alongside Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta. Chelsea haven’t looked back, striding onwards and winning 19 of their last 23 matches.
Without the demands of European football, Conte has benefitted from team continuity. Changes to his first eleven have been minimal, especially in the defensive sector. Terry has been restricted to a single substitute league appearance and minutes in the FA Cup, but he’s handled a reduced role with good grace. Frequently posting messages of support on his Instagram, Terry even refuted a Neil Ashton story in the Sun suggesting that there was uproar from fringe players not included against Manchester United in the cup.
In an interview conducted with Steven Gerrard a couple of months ago, Terry indicated that he hoped he didn’t play in the remaining games, because that would result in Chelsea winning the title.
“I genuinely mean when I say it, but for me I am honestly hoping I don’t play this season which means they keep winning. I’m training unbelievably, you have to, you do things the right way because the love of the club and how much you respect the club and how good the club has been to you over the years.”
Terry is out of contract in the summer and patently aware that his 22 year stint at the club is probably nearing its conclusion. According to most reliable sources, the Stamford Bridge hierarchy won’t offer him an extension. The reality is, Chelsea are a stronger team in his absence, the first time that’s been the case in well over a decade.
Conte faced a parallel situation with Alessandro Del Piero in his spell managing Juventus. Realising that Del Piero represented the link between the old Juve and the new, Conte and the president Andrea Agnelli decided to retain the club captain for their first year in the Juventus Arena. Without playing as much he liked, Del Piero still contributed, grabbing a late winner at Lazio on route to the Scudetto and an unbeaten campaign.
Time waits for no one though, and the 36 year-old left the club after a fitting finale, scoring in his final home game in front of tearful Juve supporters. The club had decided not to renew his deal months beforehand, yet despite pleas from fans, Del Piero was allowed to depart and finish his playing days in Australia.
Whereas Del Piero was keen to continue playing – claiming he had all his life to be a director – Terry appears set on segueing towards coaching. By the looks of it, he is using the opportunity to observe Conte’s work at close hand, soaking up knowledge while completing his badges. Having already worked under Jose Mourinho, Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti, there is the basis of a great education there, but that doesn’t automatically translate into a prodigious coaching career.
There will be options for Terry if he plans to keep playing. Potential suitors in MLS and the Chinese Super League who have previously tried to sign him would be interested again, and clubs lower down the English football chain may also be an option. But if coaching is Terry’s ambition, it’s difficult to see what he would gain from continuing apart from a pretty pay packet.
It will be emotional for Chelsea’s supporters and Terry himself when he does leave, but as Juventus found after Del Piero flew off into the sunset, the club marches on. Presuming Chelsea go on to win the championship, Terry will get the perfect send-off. What he does next should be intriguing.