The English football authorities heaved a collective sigh of relief yesterday as three players were cleared of committing affray outside a London nightclub.
John Terry, 21, a former England Under-21 captain, his Chelsea colleague Jody Morris, 23, and the Wimbledon player Des Byrne, 21, were found not guilty of a number of charges relating to a fight between the players and three doormen at the Wellington Club in Knightsbridge in January. Byrne was found guilty of a lesser charge of being in possession of an offensive weapon, a bottle, and was fined £2,000.
After the jury of eight women and four men at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court reached its verdict, the players spoke of their relief and the enormous strain they had been under. Mr Terry, in particular, had been tipped as a future England senior squad captain before the case. His international career could have been ended by a guilty verdict.
His lawyer, Stephen Barker, said: "Anyone who saw John give evidence in that witness box will have no doubt about the stress and strain he has been under for the past eight months because of the monstrous allegation that he took a bottle to a bouncer ... He now just wants to get on with what I hope will be a long and brilliant football career."
The charges came after an incident at the Wellington on 4 January. Mr Terry was accused of hitting Trevor Thirlwall, 28, one of the club's doormen, in the face with a bottle. He admitted throwing a punch in self-defence, but denied using a bottle. All three footballers were accused of being involved in a fracas with Mr Thirlwall, his brother Matthew, a professional boxer, and a third doorman, Shaun Brice. Mr Terry pleaded not guilty to affray, to being in possession of an offensive weapon (a bottle) and to wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. Byrne and Mr Morris pleaded not guilty to affray and Byrne to being in possession of an offensive weapon.
Despite the not guilty verdicts, the players' behaviour will cast another shadow over the game which is still trying to live down the trials this year of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate. Mr Terry and Mr Morris had already been fined by Chelsea for being among a group of players who were drunk and insulting to a group of Americans at a hotel near Heathrow airport the day after the 11 September attacks.
Two years ago, Mr Morris pleaded guilty to assault causing actual bodily harm after he and a friend chased and beat a man who had criticised the friend for urinating in public. Mr Morris, who was ordered to perform 150 hours' community service and pay £500 compensation to his victim, chased the man for a mile through Epsom in Surrey before punching him in the face. He was criticised in court for leaving the man without summoning medical help.
Byrne was involved in a nightspot brawl in 2000, after which he was sacked by his club, Stockport County. During the brawl a bouncer was "glassed". The attacker was never identified by police.
Two days after the Wellington Club incident, Mr Terry and Mr Morris were due to play for their club in an FA Cup match. They denied drinking too much, but the jury was shown CCTV footage of their apparently boorish behaviour.
Sentencing Byrne, Judge Fabyan Evans said: "You are a young man who has yet to learn that fame and wealth bring responsibility."
Chelsea Football Club said it looked forward to having Mr Terry and Mr Morris back.