John Terry bids a chaotic farewell as an era comes to an end

Chelsea captain was the last thread with a time before Roman Abramovich’s billions

John Terry scored in Chelsea’s 4-3 win over Watford on Monday night. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

John Terry scored in Chelsea’s 4-3 win over Watford on Monday night. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

 

“It’s not going to be a fairytale ending,” John Terry had sighed shortly after announcing his own premature Chelsea exit in January last year. And yet here we were all the same 16 months later. With the league title already in the bag this messy, fun 4-3 win against a feisty Watford provided Chelsea’s departing captain with a farewell that had its own elements of dreamily staged celebration.

Before kick-off outside Stamford Bridge they were selling the JT dog roll for £4, the contents of which are probably best left to the imagination, although words like gristly, uncompromising and gruellingly hard to shift spring to mind. Inside JT himself returned to the starting lineup for the title after-party on a muggy, sodden night and a match that felt from the start like a great warm slobbery farewell kiss.

Terry might also feature here on Sunday afternoon, although there is a chance Antonio Conte might use Sunderland’s crash test dummies as a genuine tune-up for the FA Cup final. At the end here Chelsea’s captain hinted that he may even retire after the season is done. Either way, with the league campaign done, thoughts at Chelsea have turned to next things, with Terry the most potent imminent exit.

It is another masterstroke of Conte’s first season in the Premier League that his defining tactical shift, the switch to three at the back, should also have involved in effect dropping Terry from the team for the last time, transforming what had once looked a slightly daunting obstacle into a springboard to success.

This was a riotous game from the start, as Chelsea kicked off to a chorus of Antonio-themed greatest hits. The champions were much changed but in a pleasant kind of way, like a visit from some distant cousin on your birthday. Kenedy was back to add to his 19 Chelsea minutes this season and the talented Nathaniel Chalobah made a start in central midfield.

Terry lined up at the heart of the central defensive three. A little heavier, clanking about like an eager old tin man, he still has an excellent touch although, had he played much deeper in the second half, he might have been best served bringing out a shovel and digging a trench in front of his own goal.

The match sparked into life around two minutes of Terry-based mayhem. First he scored midway through the first half, his 67th goal for the club – more than Andrés Iniesta for Barcelona – assisted by a deflection off his own head after Kurt Zouma had nodded back Willian’s corner. Sprawled on the turf, Terry hooked the ball into the corner and careered away thumping his chest to spark wild celebrations.

Football has a wicked sense of humour, though. Within two minutes the night had turned on its JT-shaped axis. Nathan Ake headed a punted cross up in the air, Terry tried to head it to his goalkeeper but undercooked it, allowing Étienne Capoue to nip in and nod it home. Terry looked crestfallen. But this Chelsea team is too good, running on too much free-wheeling momentum to let that remain a defining moment. By the end, powered by some fine goals and some slack defending, Chelsea had their 29th league win of the season.

Not that any of this matters much, just as nobody around here is pretending Terry has been anything other than simply an agreeable presence, a motivational henchman for the last season or so. At the end of which it is easy to forget quite how good he was and for quite how long. The real ignition, for Terry and Chelsea, came back at the start of all this, with the arrival of José Mourinho MK1, that luminous beaming José back in the days before the toxins began to curdle.

The club captaincy, a first title and a season of defensive impregnability followed. For five years in a row Terry was in the Fifpro World XI. With a final FA Cup still up for grabs, he has so far been a part of 17 major honours at the club or 66% of Chelsea’s total major trophy haul over the last 112 years.

More than this, Terry’s passing will leave a note of lightness, perhaps even a tempus fugit anxiety. This is a jumping off point for Chelsea generally. In the summer a new Champions League-ready team will emerge, with up to £200m to spend on bolt-on parts. Goodbye old, new world. Welcome to the future squared, the new, new Chelsea with the last remaining visible link with the pre-Roman era now severed.

He played in the same team as George Weah, Gianfranco Zola and Bjarne Goldbaek, when the Premier League was still young, shorts were baggy and this sudden uplift, the new money, the cosmopolitanism, all still felt a little ragged and dizzy and transient. In four years’ time even the stadium will be gone.

Eras pass suddenly in football, just as championship-winning teams always look forward. For now, perhaps even for the last time, Stamford Bridge had a night to celebrate not just the league title but two decades of captaining, leading and legending, given a fond, boisterous front-room wake.

(Guardian service)

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