Tag Archives: Champions League

The end of John Terry

Earlier this week, I went to Stamford Bridge for the last time this season. It was also the last time I will ever see John Terry play there for Chelsea.

As I watched him play and score, I realised I was sitting exactly where I was when I saw Terry make his debut almost two decades before.

He came on as sub for Dan Petrescu in a League Cup tie. Terry’s debut was overshadowed by the fact Petrescu went off in a huff, Luca Vialli scored a hat-trick and Dennis Wise got sent off for one of the worst and most pointless tackles I’ve ever seen. In the years that followed, I’ve moved house, crossed the river, changed jobs, had children, got married, lost my hair, written books… but whenever I’ve gone to the Bridge (less frequently in the past decade), I’ve always had the same seat and Terry has nearly always been on the pitch.

I didn’t know much about Terry when he made his first appearance, but quickly came to admire him as a player. He appeared to have inherited Frank Leboeuf’s gift for hitting raking inch-perfect passes but also loved a sliding tackle, making him the sort of UK-EU hybrid that can excel in the Premier League. It swiftly became apparent he was an exceptional defender. Commanding in the air and strong in the tackle, but also with an outstanding ability at reading the game and comfortable with both feet. I always felt this part of this game didn’t get anywhere near the credit it deserved. Terry was a fantastic footballer, as good on the ball as any defender I’ve seen – including Carvalho and Rio Ferdinand, his partners in defence for Chelsea and England, and to whom he was often compared unfavourably. True, they both looked more elegant in command, but Terry’s first touch was better than both. He couldn’t carry the ball, but he could pass it like a dream. And his reading of the game was immense; it was the reason he rarely got beaten for pace despite so clearly lacking it himself. I saw him once in Harley Street; he was tall but not as solid as I expected. Terry was strong but he was no carthorse.

At some point, however, Terry got typecast as a throwback, a sort of Terry Butcher upgrade, cannon fodder, a lion from the trenches. The Guardian’s execrable but influential Fiver began mocking him as EBJT, while the tabloids lauded him for his bravery above all else. As a result, his game did change slightly – read here what Charlie Cooke once told me about how the press can influence a footballer’s natural style – as he threw himself eagerly into blocks where previously he might have looked to get a nick. He soon adjusted his style again, and until age caught up with him had an astonishingly clean record. In the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona in 2009, when Chelsea spent almost the entire 180 minutes defending, he committed I think only a single foul.

As Chelsea captain, Terry had a role with far more importance at Stamford Bridge than almost anywhere else thanks to the stability and leadership he provided against a constant churn of incoming and outgoing managers. Terry often had to hold the dressing room together, most notably after Mourinho’s first departure when the team pulled together to reach the Champions League final despite the presence of out-of-his-depth coach Avram Grant.

Terry was often pinpointed as the troublemaker responsible for all this disruption but it always seemed to me that the continental-raised players – Ballack, Cech, Drogba – were usually at the centre of any shenanigans, raised as they were in a climate where it was more acceptable to confront coaches for poor decisions.

Still, the reputation stuck, along with much else. I’ve always tried to avoid judging players for things reported by the press, mainly because knowing how football journalists operate I don’t trust a word they write. I try to judge players only by how they good they are at football, so have no lacerating hatred of players like Suarez and Ronaldo or managers like Allardyce and Pulis – I think all four are brilliant. With Terry, that’s challenging. While some of the accusations made about him are hysterical – anything written by Matthew Syed, for instance – the volume of his indiscretions makes them hard to ignore. I cannot pretend I’ve ever warmed to the guy as a personality. Put it this way, he’s no Pat Nevin. But he is the greatest defender I’ve ever seen in my life and for much of the past 20 years it’s been a privilege to watch him do his job.

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Why I hate the Champions League

Who came third the year Arsenal won the league at Anfield in 1989? Does anybody remember? Does anybody care? Indeed, who came fourth in 2007? Third when Manchester United won the treble in 1999?

Unless you’re a fan of Nottingham Forest (1989), Liverpool (2007) or Chelsea (1999), it’s doubtful you’ll be able to answer any of those questions. And rightly so. Because finishing third or fourth is, in the greater scheme of the history of football, nothing to get excited about, it’s not interesting, important or impressive. But thanks to European football’s ridiculous obsession with the Champions League, Arsenal fans are celebrating limping home a distant third as if it is their club’s greatest achievement since the Invincibles, just one that doesn’t come with a trophy or will be remembered by anybody in a year’s time. It’s been a successful season insist fans of the biggest club in London, now seven years now without a cup, because it means they have earned the right to play in the Champions League again (until March, usually).  And they seem to believe it.

Ah, the Champions League, the bloated, vile, venal parasite of European football, with its hideous anthem and putrid stench of self-importance. How I hate this wretched competition. Yet qualifying for it is now deemed to be the greatest achievement of any club, more desired than mere trophies and finals. Clubs with trophy cabinets that used to gleam with silverware are now more interested in securing next year’s income stream, terrified about what might happen to the bank balance if they fail. Henry Norris and Arsene Wenger have more in common than we could have ever imagined when Wenger brought swashbuckling trophy-winning teary-eyed romantic football to the Emirates in 1998. Fuck success, fuck beauty, fuck romance, fuck football: give me the cash.

I don’t get it. I never have. I understand why money is important in football, but that doesn’t mean I want to have my nose rubbed in it. In 2003, Chelsea played Liverpool; the winner would finish third and qualify for the Champions League. This was, in financial terms, the biggest game in the club’s history, I was told by friends. It was more important than a cup final, they said. Well, I’ve been to a few cup finals, and that sir was no cup final. It was a squalid mudfight for cold hard cash, a stripping down of modern football to its ugliest essentials. And yet it was presented as if it was a thing to admire, and people bought into it. Why?

I hated it then and I hated it now, especially as the Champions League’s weight and wealth has expanded, rewarding failure in the rich leagues to the point where it has pretty much destroyed all European domestic football outside of England, Spain, Italy and Germany, and turning the FA Cup and League Cup into heavily sponsored footnotes. 

It’s even turned the Europa League into a joke, in England at least.  Patrice Evra said it was ’embarrassing’ that Manchester United were playing in the Europa this season, something you’d hope would make Uefa take a long, hard look at what they have done, although of course they didn’t. The Europa has its fans, but in reality it’s a sad and unlovable replacement for the splendid streamlined charms of the old Uefa and Cup Winners’ cups.

But nothing can be allowed to compete with the CL’s budget, which throws millions of pounds at so-so teams, encouraging billionaires to buy into the game in a bid to join the bunfight – something Uefa are now trying to ban without acknowledging the root cause, the disproportionate rewards offered by their beloved keynote trophy. Meanwhile, leagues, cups and the dignity and priorities of supporters all disappear beneath the whirling blades of Uefa’s deranged zombie lawnmower.

And now we have come to the extreme logic of the position, where we’re told that the main reason Chelsea should want to win the Champions League final on Saturday is so they can qualify for next year’s Champions League, as if the trophy itself is just something that comes free in a packet of corn flakes, and nobody bats an eyelid. How can this be right? What have Uefa been allowed to do to 57 years of history? And why does nobody appear to care?