John Terry: Defender of the faith

He is not without complexity. He is a warrior leader who can seem reticent to the point of shyness

In all the pratfalls and the disillusionment of English international football in the years of Sven Goran Eriksson and his celebrity favourite and captain David Beckham, there was a constant, increasingly dirge-like companion, a song which briefly swelled on the terraces at moments of fleeting optimism. "Football's coming home", it declared. But it was wasn't. Indeed, it had never moved further away from its old heart and meaning as the Beckhams hosted a pre-World Cup party of mind-numbing banality a few days before the disastrous campaign in Germany.

Maybe it was the challenging of that deep, bleak sense of lost values that provoked such a surge of optimism this week when John Terry, the new captain of England, an Essex boy groomed in the Barking manor of the greatest field commander the national game has ever ever known, 1966 World Cup-winner Bobby Moore, scored the opening goal in the team's 4-0 defeat of European champions Greece at Old Trafford.

It wasn't just the scoring of the goal, a typically vital intrusion into his opponents' penalty area by the ultimately combative 25-year-old Chelsea defender that registered so powerfully. It was Terry's reaction. He kissed the captain's armband, not after running, Beckham-style, into a bank of cameras, but there and then, in the moment of execution, in the surge of his blood. It was as though he was making a pact with destiny, and those who saw and believed they understood what it meant it felt a wave of strong emotion.

They were reminded of other English football captains for whom such moments represented the core of their ambitions rather than another photo opportunity: men like Moore and Bryan Robson and Tony Adams.

Inevitably, comparison with the former Arsenal hero Adams was most acute. Adams fought alcoholism, and made a crusade of it, but the enduring tribute to his career is that it lasted for so long and grew steadily in stature. He went to prison for a drink driving offence which spoke of a life in disarray, but soon enough he was a hard-driving warrior player for his club and his country - a testament to the truth of the old Hemingway theory that the world breaks everyone, but that some grow strong at the broken places.

Adams proved himself such a man, someone who could step back and assess where he was going, what he made of his life, and his advantages thus far, and there is growing evidence that Terry is another.

When the new England coach, Steve McClaren, decided he was the man to take over from Beckham there was a flurry of dread in the Soho Square offices of the Football Association. Beckham's captaincy may have become a parody of leadership, but after a brief fusillade of "kiss and tell" stories, he had restored himself as a paragon of "family values" and remained solidly bankable gold with the corporate crowd. Terry, of course, was something else. Terry's appetite for action on the field was no doubt huge, but he had also displayed a worrying enthusiasm for some of the off-field rewards of his success.

Four years ago, the fear was that he might be jailed after being charged with being involved in an early-hours affray in a West End watering hole, an incident which came on a Thursday night - two days before he was due to play a league match for Chelsea. Yesterday, there was an echo, albeit the smallest of ones, of fears that Terry's style of living was perhaps a little too fast for official taste when he was fined £100, plus £200, and given three penalty points for failing to tell police who was behind the wheel of his Bentley when it was clocked above the speed limit.

Of maybe more concern to the public relations department is the fact that there was a small rash of tabloid stories that his nocturnal activities have not always included his long-time partner Toni Poole, who gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, this summer. He is said to have a weakness for gambling. Recently he denied, comprehensively, that his private life was the weak underbelly of a career which has done nothing but soar ever since his ferocious presence on the field was first recognised by Chelsea's former manager, Gianluca Vialli, then celebrated first by Claudio Ranieri and then by his successor Jose Mourinho.

Said Terry, "I'm engaged to my girlfriend Toni, she's been with me since I was a YTS. She's good for me. She's been there from the start. When I was earning £46 a week she was earning £250 - she took me out to restaurants. It's nice she's there for the right reasons - me. Indiscretions? I've never cheated on her or anything like that. I've explained that we (footballers) get opportunities, we get approached, and I've probably been in situations she doesn't approve of. But it certainly wouldn't be the case where I'd taken it any further."

Similarly, he dismisses suggestions that he has dazzled by the lights of West End casinos. Yes, he gambles, but in a recreational way. He is not obsessed, he insists. When he faced the threat of imprisonment, he sat down with his parents and his influential agent, former Chelsea kit man Aaron Lincoln, and saw that he was at a dividing line which had been suddenly and harshly drawn.

He recalls, "I knew it was perceived that I was always out clubbing and getting back in the early hours of the morning, but that certainly wasn't the case. As a young player it was important to go out and enjoy yourself and let your hair down. I was doing the same and obviously I regret the situation that I got myself into with the court case. But my friends, my parents, Aaron, and the Ken Bates (then Chelsea chairman) were talking to me and saying, 'You know what? There's been a change - that's not the way forward any more.' The court case was the last straw. That made me open my eyes to the way people are seeing me."

These are the defensive lines being drawn around the image of a footballer who, for many, has emerged as a classic working-class hero, a boy from Barking who used to watch his father play for a local club with some accomplishment before going off to the pub - and leaving him and his brother Paul, a journeyman pro with Yeovil Town, to while away the rest of the day with a ball at their feet. Among Terry's admirers one of the fiercest is one of the true legends of English football, big Jack Charlton, a hero of 1966.

Charlton, the raw-boned defensive minder of the elegant Moore, has long been thrilled by the vigour and the heart of Terry's game. "He made a beautiful start as captain of England," said Charlton this week, "and yes, I do think he is something of a throwback in the way he approaches football. The first time I saw him, I thought, 'this lad is my kind of centre half.' I loved his fighting instincts but I also admired his understanding of what he had to do. Today we talk about central defenders being in the passing zone, and we look for their creative ability. But that's not my priority. I want to see a rock in the middle of defence, someone who isn't going to get carried away for the moment and then lose it all.

"I don't know anything about his lifestyle, I'm not bothered about that. I look at him on the field and I see that England have one of the best players in the world, a true defender, and also a real leader. He supplies the best form of leadership. He supplies example."

No doubt it is fuelled by an extraordinary passion to succeed. He emerged so strongly at Stamford Bridge, in the presence of World Cup winners such as Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf, and the superb professionals Gianfranco Zola and Mark Hughes, because when Vialli from time to time moved the teenager into the first-team group he noted a consistent and dramatic change in the boy's nature.

Around the training ground, in the canteen, he was a picture of deference. Earlier, while being courted by Sir Alex Ferguson he was invited to have lunch with the great stars of Manchester United. He found himself sitting near Eric Cantona, a particular hero. Later, he confessed he was so awestruck he could scarcely get down a bite. But when the young footballer joined the titans of the Chelsea team, he no longer cowered in the shadows. He became extraordinarily assertive, almost possessed by an instinct to take hold of the practice games.

Said Vialli, "Sometimes you see something really special in a young player. It is is the way he sees the world and his place in it. He believes in himself and he wants to dominate every situation. That was so much the case with young John Terry. You could see how much ambition he had, and how determined he was to go for it."

It was impression swiftly endorsed by Mourinho, who arrived at Chelsea two years ago convinced that his natural captain was Frank Lampard, a strong and adventurous player of impeccable image but for a much publicised lapse while taunting American tourists in a Heathrow hotel in the wake of 9/11. But like Vialli and Ranieri before him, Mourinho saw quickly the unusual force of John Terry. The captaincy was put to a vote and Terry won a landslide victory.

He is not without complexity. He is a warrior leader who sometimes can seem reticent to the point of shyness. He mostly eschews the celebrity life, prefers a leather jacket and a pair of jeans to the sartorial excesses of a Beckham, but does enjoy some of the benefits of his £90,000 a week wages. The Bentley is one statement, an array of expensive watches another. Currently he is keen to see that the arrival of European superstars Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack have not sent him into a mid-table position in the Stamford Bridge pay league.

However, the message he sent to followers of English football this way seemed, for the moment at least, blessedly unequivocal. It was that in his competitive heart the game might indeed have finally come home.

A Life in Brief

BORN John George Terry, 7 December 1980 in Barking, London, to Sue and Ted Terry

EDUCATION Eastbury Comprehensive School

FAMILY Fiancée, Toni Poole; their twins, Georgie John and Summer Rose, born on 18 May 2006

CAREER Chelsea debut in Worthington Cup vs Aston Villa (October 1998) but loaned to West Ham and Nottingham Forest before gaining a regular first team place. Jose Mourinho made him Chelsea captain when Desailly retired in 2004.

AWARDS PFA Player of the Year (2004-05), Fifa World Cup squad of the tournament (2006)

HE SAYS "I'm so focused on the game when I play against mates they go, 'What's fucking wrong with you?!'"

THEY SAY "I'm certain I've got the right man in John Terry. I'm convinced he will prove to be one of the best captains England has ever had." - Steve McClaren, England manager

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