Recently on his Instagram account, John Terry posted a fan made ‘before and after’ graph which charted a list of records for a defender that he now held. They included the highest scoring defender in Premier League history, the most clean-sheets by a defender in English football, the defender with the most number of appearances in the ‘FIFAPRO XI’, the player who has captained a Premier League club in the highest number of matches and the recipient of the most ‘Best Defender in Europe’ awards. It served to highlight his accomplishments, but also reminded everyone that his playing days are drawing near.
Terry’s Chelsea contract expires in a few short months and should he leave the club he’s had an affiliation with for 22 years, there will be many words dedicated retrospectively looking at his career.
His reputation among Chelsea fans is hardly in doubt. Terry has led the club to four league titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, a Europa League and the Champions League. Only Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris and Peter Bonetti have played more games in blue than Terry, who has also made the most appearances in UEFA competition for the club.
Terry will always be remembered as the academy kid who graduated to the first team and will be associated with a side that achieved unprecedented success. He is Mr Chelsea, still attending youth team games and cheering from the sidelines, even though his minutes on the pitch have diminished. He is the last link to the pre-Abramovich impoverished years, where it was a battle just to just challenge for Europe, let alone win.
When reflecting on Terry’s career though, where does he stand in a broader context?
In his prime, Terry was one of the most respected and renowned central defenders in European football. Strong, powerful, domineering and braver than was sensible, he was the lynchpin of Jose Mourinho’s first spell in West London.
During that period, Chelsea were perennial contenders in the latter stages of the Champions League. They squared off against Barcelona in 2005 and 2006, and while the matches were marred by cynicism and Mourinho’s confrontations with UEFA officials, some of Barca’s stars recognised Terry’s influence. Ronaldinho put him alongside Paolo Maldini as the greatest defender he faced, while Xavi was laudatory even though he was less than enamoured by their opponent’s style of play.
“I have not always been complimentary about how Chelsea play, because it is the opposite of what we stand for at Barcelona. But I can’t deny that Terry is one of the most committed English players I’ve played against, and a great leader for club and country.”
Leader is a word that crops up regularly in relation to Terry. Many of his teammates past and present point to his capability of rousing the dressing room and uniting the team for common objectives. Carlo Ancelotti – current Bayern Munich coach and formerly in charge at Chelsea – joked that Terry was born with the captain’s armband strapped to his skin.
In an era when Arsenal were fined for forgetting to field a captain in the second half of their recent meeting with Manchester City, their supporters hark back to figures such as Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira. All of the Premier League’s successful teams have contained an inspirational captain; Manchester United had Roy Keane, Arsenal had Adams and Vieira, City Vincent Kompany. Terry certainly belongs in that bracket.
His partnership with Ricardo Carvalho rivalled Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand as the best in Europe between 2006 and 2009, both helping their respective goalkeepers break clean-sheet records. In those years he was imperious, not only preventing goals at one end, but scoring important ones at the other.
As the years progressed and his body deteriorated, many wrote him off. Interim Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez felt he was finished, but Terry rebounded spectacularly in 2015, leading Chelsea to a third title under Mourinho, playing every game and earning a spot in the PFA Team of the season.
Terry’s international career was more a case of “what ifs”. He was capped for England 78 times, skippering the three lions at the World Cup in 2010. He was also the captain during Steve McClaren’s embarrassing campaign which culminated in England failing to qualify for Euro 2008. Terry abruptly retired after Euro 2012 and up until last year, there was still a feeling in some quarters that he should’ve still been starting in the team.
Of course, Terry has courted his fair share of controversy over the years. His affair with teammate Wayne Bridge’s girlfriend and the allegations of racially abusing QPR’s Anton Ferdinand will be permanent stains on his character, and many won’t ever forgive him for those indiscretions. Others will forever lampoon his full kit celebration when Chelsea won the Champions League in Munich, a game in which he was serving a suspension.
Removing grievances surrounding his personality and evaluating him solely as a player, Terry should be recognised as the elite calibre defender he was. He was commanding in the air, strong in the tackle, his positional awareness was uncanny and he was always willing to subject himself to pain in order to prevent or score a goal. Nowadays, centre-backs tend to assume ball playing skills before defensive responsibilities. Terry was a tenaciously gifted defender who developed into a technically proficient footballer, capable of pinging long distance cross field balls accurately with his weaker left foot.
When he does eventually hang up his boots – and it may be this summer – Terry will continue to divide opinion. His detractors won’t alter their feelings, while tribalism may prevent a true assessment of his worth when he actually laced up a pair of boots. Much like Gary Neville before his punditry debut at Sky, Terry is so wedded to one club and has his colours firmly nailed to the mast, that it is easy for non-Chelsea fans to dislike him.
He should be recalled as one of English football’s finest defenders and one of the best of his generation across the continent. Perhaps one day recognition will arrive.