In football, like most sports, so much depends on timing. John Terry's, with one hideous exception, has usually been immaculate and he was in the right place at the right moment last Wednesday when Chelsea's continuing injury problems meant they needed a new captain for the home game against Charlton Athletic: "About 45 minutes before kick-off, Claudio [Ranieri] told me I'd be taking the lads for the warm-up and I'd be captain for the night. There was just a big smile on my face."
It was a grin of vindication as much as pride. Having apparently seen off the challenge of Frank Leboeuf, one of two World Cup winners playing in his position, Terry, 21 last Friday, had been given new cause for apprehension in the summer when yet another French defender, William Gallas, was imported from Marseille for £6m – presumably, not with the intention of playing in the FA Premier Reserve League.
He would have been less concerned if he had heard Ranieri addressing a pre-season media lunch at a Heathrow hotel in his vigorous, rudimentary English: "John Terry! I believe in John Terry!" Two days earlier, the manager had seen his young centre-half play a leading role, in every sense, as captain of the England Under-21 team that overran Holland at Reading. Terry and Marcel Desailly duly started the Premiership campaign as Chelsea's first-choice pairing, with Gallas initially at right-back, then joining them in a three-man system as Ranieri tinkered with his tactics.
There was one more nasty moment, coincidentally at that same hotel, where on 11 September grieving American tourists were treated to the sight and sounds of four Chelsea footballers making drunken fools of themselves. Terry, Frank Lampard, Jody Morris and Eidur Gudjohnsen (depressingly, it came as no surprise that three of the quartet should be English) were fined heavily by the club and forced into a public apology but not dropped from the team; indeed Terry, three months older and considerably wiser, will be the only member of the side playing at Sunderland today to have started every first-team game this season.
"What went in the newspapers wasn't the whole truth, but we couldn't get our point over," he now says of that infamous drinking spree. "I'm not saying what we did was right, but half the country's probably done what we did. We've learnt from it that we have to be careful. It's something I'll keep with me and keep reminding myself of over the years."
Lampard paid with his omission from the next full England squad as well as his cheque-book. Terry's international prospects appear to be unharmed, and the word leaking out of Soho Square, where Sol Campbell's star is said to be on the wane, is that a place will be found for the new Chelsea captain in the full squad early next year, just a few months before the World Cup finals; timing again. He clearly has friends in high places, not least the England Under-21 manager David Platt, who studied his qualities at close quarters in a two-month loan period at Nottingham Forest two years ago.
Having expected to be involved in the Uefa Under-21 tournament in May, Terry is suitably bashful about the possibility of promotion: "Obviously my biggest ambition would be a full England cap, it would be unbelievable, but we'll see. I'm just concentrating on the Under-21s and Chelsea." Concentration lapsed in the home team's defence at a critical moment on Wednesday, though it did not appear to be Terry's responsibility to pick up Kevin Lisbie, the little Charlton forward allowed to head the only goal of a game supposed to establish Chelsea in third position in the table, their highest for 21 months. He was as bewildered as anyone else that such a poor show should follow the excellent wins at Leeds and then Manchester United, when he had been outstanding against the club he supported as an Essex boy, once travelling north in the same car as David Beckham for a trial, yet deciding to join Chelsea "because of the atmosphere and the way they looked after my family and me".
Football seems to have been all-consuming in that family for many years; older brother Paul still plays for Dagenham & Redbridge and John was part of the outstanding Senrab junior team in east London that also contained Ledley King (Tottenham), Bobby Zamora (Brighton), J Lloyd Samuel (Aston Villa) and Charlton's Paul Konchesky, who sent over the free-kick for Lisbie to head in. Terry's father and brother are the first people he mentions as having influenced his development, though Tony Adams was the player he would watch most closely, "trying not to watch the game, just paying attention to him". The hole left by Adams' retirement from international football a year ago has not been filled. Could the time, and timing, be right again?Reuse content