Tomorrow afternoon will likely pit Fulham against, depending on your view, one of English football’s finest defenders or someone who typifies everything that is wrong with the modern game. It is often said that the rivalry between London’s oldest professional football club and the team formed because Fulham refused to leave Craven Cottage and take up residence at the newly-constructed Stamford Bridge is purely one-sided, largely because the blue half of SW6 have far more pressing things to worry about than local bragging rights. That may be true – especially as Fulham have famously never won so much as a major honour – but John Terry, who so nearly signed for Fulham as a teenager, neatly typifies the gulf in class.
He is lauded as the ‘captain, leader, legend’ down the King’s Road, someone who will go down in their history, having made 717 appearances and captained his side to five Premier League titles and become the club’s highest-scoring defender. His roll of honour on the football pitch is so well known it isn’t worth listing in full again, but even his biggest supporters might stop short of describing him as a role model. Terry’s career is littered with extra-curricular activities that make you wince. If Fulham can count Bobby Moore and Johnny Haynes among their cult heroes, two past England captains of undoubted class who took their responsibilities very seriously, then Roman Abrahomovic’s ill-gotten gains are more than welcome to sit alongside Chelsea’s lauded leader.
Everyone can make mistakes and a learning process is almost take as read for the modern breed of footballer. But Terry got it wrong so regularly that he quickly used up his nine lives. Just after his breakthrough season in the Chelsea first team, Terry went on a five-hour bender with Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard, Jody Morris and former team-mate Frank Sinclair after the senior side’s European tie with CSKA Sofia had been postponed in the light of the 9/11 terror attacks. The five footballers ended up at a Heathrow hotel verbally abusing, stripping, vomiting and swearing at other guests, who included Americans who had been stranded by flight cancellations and were visibly affected by the scenes from their homeland. A paltry fine of two weeks wages hardly seemed enough in the circumstances.
A month later, Terry was caught up in an altercation with a doorman at an exclusive London nightspot whilst he was celebrating the birth of Morris’ first child. He was acquitted of charges of assault and affray in court, and reportedly wept after hearing the verdict, but didn’t dramatically change his ways. He was captured on CCTV urinating into a pint glass during a visit to another nightclub in February 2002 and returning to the dance floor as if this was sort of behaviour was both commonplace and socially acceptable. In the same month, Terry received the first of several fines for parking his Bentley in a disabled bay. He did it again in March 2008, when he could have used the public car park yards away for 50p an hour, but someone of Terry’s fame and wealth was far too important for that. Many people from all walks of life seem to think they are entitled to use facilities set aside for the disabled, few do it as brazenly as the former England captain.
The rest of Terry’s tawdry deals paint an unfavourable picture of football in the 21st century after it had long since ceased to be the people’s game and become awash with big money. There’s no law against gambling, and the national sport seems to have endorsed it these days as a reputable pass time, but spending more than the median annual wage on horses, as Terry and Wayne Bridge were reported to have done in January 2004, takes the biscuit. In 2009, as if to symbolise that it was all about the money, Terry allegedly accepted a folder of £10,000 in £50 notes from an undercover News of the World journalist in exchange for arranging a behind-the-scenes tour of Chelsea’s Cobham training ground.
Terry’s womanising has been excused by many within the game as being part and parcel of modern football. He openly admitted to cheating on his then-girlfriend, Toni, with nine other women before they got married but was so perturbed by the prospect of his affair with team-mate Bridge’s girlfriend becoming public that it became the subject of a super-injunction. The fact that Vanessa Perroncel was the mother of Bridge’s child appeared to matter little to Terry and also gave the lie to his post-wedding claim, in 2007, that he wouldn’t cheat on Toni ‘ever again’.
Perhaps his most shameful episode came during a tempestuous London derby at Loftus Road where, after repeated clashes with Anton Ferdinand, he allegedly called the QPR defender ‘f***ing black c**t’. The then-England captain didn’t deny using the words, for which he was banned for four games, but insisted he was refuting Ferdinand’s claim, saying: ‘You don’t think I called you a f***ing black c**t’. When the police investigated prior to a high-profile court case, Terry told them that he couldn’t possibly be a racist because he had done charity work on behalf of African children. Whilst the high court found him not guilty of using racist language, an independent Regulatory Commission convened by the FA described Terry’s defence as ‘improbable, implausible and contrived’. He has never apologised to Ferdinand.
Terry is far from the first footballer to find himself in trouble, but the magnitude of some of his offences defies belief. He gets away without flak because of his achievements within the game, a game which has decided to largely turn a blind eye to some abhorrent behaviour. There was a delicious irony in the fact that it was he who slipped on a rainy night in Moscow, having adjusted his captain’s armband to be in the perfect position for when he slotted the winning Champions’ League penalty past former Fulham goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. That he missed, slumped to his knees, and burst into floods of tears after Manchester United claimed the trophy once the shootout went to sudden death, proved highly fitting. Even when Chelsea did finally win the European title that Abrahomovic had spent so much of the money he had seized from Siberia chasing, Terry was suspended being after sent off against Barcelona, and emerged to take part in the celebrations in his full kit, having played no part in an absorbing Munich final.
The man whose final contract negotiations with his beloved Chelsea stalled over whether the club would consent to offering him a clause that would guarantee him an opportunity to manage the club despite having never undertaken a coaching badge now finds himself at the heart of the Aston Villa defence. Steve Bruce’s side seem to have overcome their stumbling start to the season, which saw Terry ship nine goals in August before keeping his first clean sheet, and we’ll wait to see whether his personal exemption to the handball rule remains in place in the Championship. He’ll probably score his first Villa goal against Fulham – he usually delights in finding the net against the Whites. Many describe him as one of English football’s finest leaders and consider his brand of defending an example worth following, but forgive me if I won’t be holding John Terry up as a role model to the next generation. The kids can do far better than idolising this fraud.