As I arrived at the final game of Chelsea’s successful league campaign something felt different.
Entering the stadium unusually early, having enjoyed the party atmosphere, complimentary special-edition programme and free beer, I stopped for a moment, drew breath and looked around.
The obvious difference was the “Thank You – Grazie” banner emblazoned across the rear of the Chelsea hotel in a font large enough to be legible from the planes approaching Heathrow.
This feeling was something more.
A feeling of immense joy and celebration uncharacteristically partnered with a sense of sadness.
Sunday was not only a celebration of Chelsea’s sixth league title but to show gratitude to John Terry, the Premier League’s most successful ever captain, leaving the club he’d represented since fourteen.
John is the only modern day Chelsea youth product to have firmly established himself in the first team rising to captain from 2004 onwards. In 2006 he became England captain.
It is doubtful that the club will ever have a more successful player:
Chelsea Appearances: 717*
Chelsea Goals: 67*
Premier League Titles: 5
FA Cups: 5*
League Cups: 3
Community Shields: 2
UEFA Champions Leagues: 1
UEFA Europa League: 1
Among other honours John was also selected for the FIFPro World XI for five consecutive seasons, UEFA Team of the Year four times, UEFA Club Defender of the Year three times as well as the PFA’s Team of the Year on four separate occasions.
In a recent interview John defined his biggest moments for Chelsea as initially signing for the club against his father’s wishes, making his debut vs Aston Villa in a League Cup game (a game I witnessed), being made captain in 2004 (upon the recommendation of Desailly, Wise and Le Saux), dominating the Premiership in 04-05 with the leanest defence in football league history and, of course, winning the Champions League.
There are countless performances, incidents and trophies I could point to as my defining memory of John’s time as a player. One, however, lingers with me more than any other.
In the 2007 League Cup Final John was stretchered off and rushed to hospital following a brutal kick to the head by Arsenal’s Abou Diaby. Against medical advice, John immediately discharged himself, returned to the stadium and joined the celebrations with his teammates. He later revealed that he had swallowed his tongue during the life-threatening incident and credits Arsenal physio, Gary Lewin, with saving his life.
Of course, John has never been far from the spotlight off the field. Several incidents have tarnished his reputation but two specific high profile cases severely tainted the feelings of opposition fans.
Despite both the Daily Mail and the News Of The World subsequently printing a statement admitting the story was untrue, an alleged extramarital affair printed in the newspapers resulted in Terry being stripped of the England captaincy in 2010.
In 2012 he was acquitted of using racially abusive language against Anton Ferdinand. The FA, despite assurances that they would adhere to the court findings, handed John a four game ban for using ‘abusive and / or insulting words and / or behaviour’. Having made his international position untenable (he had been reinstated as England captain) he – and then England manager Fabio Capello – resigned in the build up to the 2012 World Cup.
John also became synonymous for his in-kit celebrations with teammates following Chelsea’s European successes despite not playing in either winning final. UEFA rules, introduced in 2012, stipulated that all players of the clubs’ squad had to appear in full club kit when lifting the trophy. This rule change and John’s celebrations became a tiresome internet meme and comedy skit.
However, within the club John’s off-field commitments were always admired. Numerous players and managers have stated publically that he helped them immensely off the pitch to settle in and he regularly attended youth, reserve and ladies team games to witness and assist development.
As the 26th minute passed on Sunday our number 26 left the Stamford Bridge turf for the last time to a guard of honour. After lifting his fifth league title, John gave a heartfelt thank you to the Chelsea faithful. Welling up with emotion he thanked players, managers, owners and his family before approaching the Matthew Harding stand in tears.
Looking around Stamford Bridge, Chelsea fans – grown men – were unable to hide their reciprocal sadness; sunglasses disguising their emotions.
It wasn’t that they’d seen another great player leave. It was more than that. Ultimately they’d witnessed a rarity in modern football. A young, homegrown player who’d gone on to captain and lead his team to win all before them.
Personally, as I held back the tears, I realised I’d witnessed John’s first appearance, his development into the best defender of his generation, his lows and his many successes.
And now he was leaving me, creating a hole not just in Chelsea’s defence but in fans’ hearts.
As I look around the ground next season and beyond there will again be an uncharacteristic feeling. Something from deep inside Chelsea will be missing:
John Terry- “Thank You – Grazie”, from the bottom of all our hearts.
* 2017 FA Cup Final to be played at time of publication.
Contribution from Steve Greenwood.