When John Terry first came into the media centre at England's Royal Bafokeng training ground yesterday he began his round of press conferences talking like the archetypal loyal player defending a manager who has come under pressure after a run of bad results.
By the end of an hour he had promised personally to challenge Fabio Capello in last night's team meeting and revealed how he had insisted to the Italian's backroom staff that the players should be allowed to relax with a beer after the draw with Algeria. As Terry's comments filtered back almost immediately to his team-mates just a few hundred yards away in their hotel there was disbelief.
The players were astonished that Terry, never the most popular man in the camp, had revealed private details about the team. That he had positioned himself as the man to rescue England by taking on Capello, when most of the squad feel that Terry is as much to blame for some of the problems, invoked anger and dismay in the players.
By last night the former England captain found himself isolated for what looked like an attempted coup on the authority of the manager who sacked him as England captain just four months ago. Another extraordinary day in the life of England's faltering World Cup campaign ended with Terry being told not to speak out at last night's team meeting.
Ahead of Wednesday's game with Slovenia, yesterday was judged as critical for the Football Association to get back on track after Saturday's desperate draw with Algeria. Capello had emerged from the Wayne Bridge saga and Terry's sacking to great public acclaim at expense of the player himself. Terry, who still denies the alleged affair with Bridge's ex-fiancee Vanessa Perroncel, was not the obvious candidate to be on-message with Capello.
Instead, the circumstances gave Terry his chance to even the score with a man who, having once ruled with an iron fist, was now at his lowest ebb since becoming England manager. It was with the polished diplomacy of a master politician, rather than a Premier League footballer, that Terry stuck the knife in.
He started innocuously enough, claiming he was there "on behalf of the team" and was "not going to question the manager". Terry said: "All I can say is we're all fully behind him. Since the manager's come in he has had his ways and his philosophies and his ideas that he's brought to the side, and it's worked in the campaign. So nothing should change there. We shouldn't be looking at excuses or to criticise the manager."
The performance against Algeria was, he said, "totally unacceptable". He invoked the example of the 1990 World Cup finals when the England team drew their first two games against the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands and still went on to have a successful tournament. If they failed against Slovenia on Wednesday he promised, to be "the first out the dressing room" to take responsibility.
"We really need to go out there [against Slovenia] and just think: 'Sod it, we've got one game where we can make or break our tournament.' It's been five weeks that I've been away from my family and I've come here to win this tournament. I don't want to go home on Wednesday. I'm here to win it."
So far, so good. But then, very subtly, the tone of Terry's words started to change. The promises to challenge Capello's authority became ever bolder and he projected himself as the key figure in the England dressing room rather than Capello.
Asked whether the players could have a discussion with Capello about tactics, Terry struck. He said: "We have done in the past, and will do if we feel it needs to be done. We've got a meeting tonight to watch the game and see where we went wrong. As a group of players, we owe it to ourselves and to everyone in the country that, if we feel there's a problem, there's no point in keeping it in. If we have an argument with the manager and it upsets him – us expressing our opinions – everyone needs to get it off his chest. That's exactly what we'll do."
That was Terry's first shot across the bows of Capello's regime. Asked whether he still felt like the leader of the team he shot back "100 per cent ... No one will take that away from me. I was born to do stuff like that". Again on Capello and the meeting last night he again laid down a challenge to his manager. "Everyone needs to voice their opinion. If it upsets him [Capello] or any other player, so what?"
By the time Terry took his seat with the newspaper reporters he was in full flow. He revealed that a group of players led by him had petitioned Capello's chief aide, the general manager Franco Baldini, to let them drink a beer in the hotel after the game against Algeria. Terry said: "I don't want to say it was me but I went to see Franco after the game and said, 'Look, let everyone have a beer and speak to the manager. Flipping hell, let's just switch off'."
With every little detail, Terry was undermining the framework of Capello's carefully constructed authority. In February when he was sacked as captain, all the power was concentrated on Capello, the man who had led England to the World Cup after their Euro 2008 qualifying failure. Fast-forward four months and it is Terry in the position of power. Capello is on the brink of a humiliating World Cup exit and with three of his four first-choice centre-backs out of Wednesday's game he needs Terry more than ever.
Terry became ever more indiscreet. "You don't see the side of him [Capello] storming around the dressing room kicking and throwing things," Terry said. "He shows that real passion." Was that a compliment or a criticism? Later he said that Capello had been "more relaxed" in recent days, making small-talk with him over the vineyard he had visited on his day off on Saturday.
Then we were back to the meeting again. "The manager has organised it like we normally do. Two days after [the game] we'll go through the video," Terry said. "We are in a meeting with the manager, whether he starts it or finishes it, the players can say how they feel and if it upsets him then I'm on the verge of just saying: 'You know what? So what? I'm here to win it for England'.
"He's feeling the same, the players are feeling the same and if we can't be honest with each other then there's no point in us being here. It's the same at Chelsea. I might say something to Carlo [Ancelotti] in a meeting in front of the players that he doesn't like, but we walk out of the meeting and it's forgotten.
"You can't hold grudges. I'm doing the best for Chelsea, if I say something [in the meeting] – and I probably will and a few others will – then I'm doing the best for England. As I said before, I'm doing it for my country."
By the end, Terry, normally a fairly hesitant performer in press conferences, was speaking fluently and confidently. He had judged that he could take liberties with a wounded Capello but he had not reckoned with the reaction of his team-mates.
Player power: previous tournaments when the England dressing room has intervened
1986: Midfield revolution
Having lost their first match to Portugal, and drawn their second with Morocco, England had to get a result against Poland. Bobby Robson's options were already limited as Bryan Robson was injured and Ray Wilkins suspended but he made further changes after input from players. Trevor Steven, Peter Reid and Steve Hodge came into midfield, and, most significantly, Peter Beardsley replaced Mark Hateley as Gary Lineker's partner. England won 3-0 and went on to the quarter-finals.
1990: Robson listens again
After a leaden draw with Republic of Ireland the players again asked Robson to change the team. This time Beardsley was sacrificed as Robson brought in Mark Wright as sweeper in a five-man defence. England drew again, against the Netherlands, but delivered an improved performance. The sweeper system was discarded as England narrowly beat Egypt to qualify but returned for all three matches as they advanced to the semi-finals.
2004: Eriksson backs down
After losing to France in the opening game of Euro2004, Sven Goran Eriksson decided to switch to a diamond midfield in an attempt to bring the best from Paul Scholes who would be at the apex. The other three midfielders, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Beckham, objected. England retained a flat four, won their next two matches to qualify, but then went out to Portugal on penalties. Scholes promptly retired from international football.
Glenn MooreReuse content