He’s back centre-stage again. As the most controversial English footballer of his generation, perhaps it was unrealistic to think that John Terry, a man who divides opinion so sharply, would simply fade from the scene.
A season that has been blighted by injury, and a new Chelsea manager who withdrew Terry’s status as the first name on the team-sheet, have drastically reduced his visibility. His retirement from the England squad after the World Cup qualifier against Moldova in September placed Terry outside the intensely scrutinised life of the national team.
The latter was his own decision, taken on the eve of his independent regulatory commission hearing, into charges of racial abuse against him, when Terry described his position with England as “untenable” and bailed out.
That was 23 September. Now, with England stumbling on the road to Brazil next summer, and Terry a more peripheral figure at Chelsea under Rafael Benitez, he wants back into the England squad. Suddenly everyone is talking about John Terry again.
For the Football Association it represents, on one level, a whole heap of trouble. Terry refused to shake the hand of chairman David Bernstein at a Uefa event last Friday, a slight that the organisation will take very badly, whatever Bernstein’s professed indifference in public. On the other side of the coin, Roy Hodgson has always wanted Terry, whom he picked ahead of Rio Ferdinand for Euro 2012, in his side.
As for Terry himself, he has been watching from afar the last seven games – five of them World Cup qualifiers – and has missed playing for the national team, especially when there was a shortage of centre-halves against Montenegro last month. There is little doubt that his reduced role at Chelsea, where he has just one season left on his contract, has made him hungrier to be part of the England set-up. He arguably has a better chance of playing for his country than his club.
With Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere both likely to miss end-of-season friendlies against the Republic of Ireland and Brazil in order to have operations, and the pressure to qualify intensifying at the top of Group H, Hodgson may well believe he needs all the experience he can get.
How Terry’s proposed return goes down with the supporters is another matter. To many Chelsea fans, he will always be the misunderstood hero, a one-club man who has been victimised. To many outside Stamford Bridge, he will be the player who walked out on England, who has chosen this moment to return because it suits him.
Neither should it be forgotten that when the commission ruled that Terry had racially abused Anton Ferdinand they also delivered a damning verdict on his defence as “improbable, implausible and contrived”. He was banned for four games and fined £220,000. At that point a return to the England team looked impossible.
Now there is an overwhelming feeling that Terry’s career, with Chelsea as well as England, is coming to a head this summer. After Thursday’s 2-1 win over Basel in the Europa League semi-final first leg on Thursday, Terry admitted that there could be no guarantees he would get an extension on his contract although he would “definitely” see out his final year next season.
“I don’t want to talk out of turn, but I’d love to stay at Chelsea,” he said. “If that’s not the case, I have got another year left which I will honour and respect, regardless if it’s a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ [to a new contract]. Naturally it would be disappointing [not to stay], but at the same time you understand that you can’t be around forever.
“Where I would go after that… it certainly wouldn’t be in England. I couldn’t do that to Chelsea or the fans. That’s just not me.”
As for the potential to earn a new deal, it was telling how much Terry, once a man who had the ear of Roman Abramovich, is reliant upon the decisions of others. “It might be another year, or another two, I don’t know. It depends on my fitness and me staying in a good enough condition to impress the guys who make those decisions.” He added: “I’m happy to leave things until they come to me. I know it sounds a little like a cliché, but we have got a lot of games and we don’t know who the manager is going to be next year as well. I suppose that’s going to have a lot to do with it. Until that happens I can’t really go knocking. And being honest, I’m probably not in the strongest position to go knocking, not playing.
“That’s not my style anyway; I’ll wait for the club. We’ve always had mutual respect. I’ve had a great relationship with the board and the guys who make those decisions. It would be nice to get some silverware, get the season out of the way and maybe talk contracts in the summer.”
Certainly in public, Terry has been accepting of his much reduced role with Benitez’s Chelsea and on Thursday he was no different. “I have to accept it. Whether I’m Rafa’s first, second, third or fourth choice, I’ve still got a role to play and this has been my competition.
“For me it’s been a sort of lifeline since the injury from the Liverpool game [in November]. It was disappointing not to be fresh when Rafa first came in to show him what I was about. But at the same time I’m fully behind the lads and the team.”
He is trying to say the right things. When he was asked whether, as a 17-year-old at Chelsea, he had played any part in the club’s 1998 European Cup-winners’ Cup final triumph, he even managed a joke about his role in the presentation of the Champions League trophy in May. “No” he said about 1998, “but I was on the pitch in my kit.”
Terry believes he can convince the next Chelsea manager that he remains a key player. “I understand I’m not getting any younger. The guys below me are playing well and they’ve got youth on their side. Physically, I feel really good.”
It all means that playing for England does not look like such a bad option. All Terry has done so far is indicate his willingness to offer his services. Whether he will be picked or not depends on Hodgson who, not for the first time in his 11 months in charge, has been given what many will consider is another hospital pass.