The Interview: John Terry

He is a defensive rock for Chelsea and is rapidly becoming one for England. Steve Tongue meets a natural leader whose mantra is togetherness
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The Independent Football

Take him back 10 years to a windswept field somewhere in London and a match for Chelsea juniors, at a critical stage of his development. Already he has taken the monumental step of turning down his favourite club, Manchester United, having famously travelled north for a trial in the same car as David Beckham, met Sir Alex Ferguson and had his photograph taken with Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs, holding the Premiership trophy. Now, after a smooth ride as captain of his school, district and county teams, plus the noted East London boys' club Senrab, self-doubt is setting in for the first time.

"At 14, I signed a two-year schoolboy form for Chelsea, and then it was a case of would I make it?" he recalled last week. "I was playing in midfield and was really small, - I was small and fat, basically. I think Chelsea were umming and aahing about my size, until all of a sudden, with perfect timing, I started shooting up. Then one day in the youth team we were struggling for centre-halves. So I played there and we won 3-0 and I've never looked back since."

Terry might have become England's Claude Makelele, a gritty little midfield holding man; or might just as easily have been ditched by his first professional club, like his older brother Paul, who is now at Yeovil Town but only after a part-time career with Dagenham and Red-bridge. But moving him into the back line proved an inspired decision by Ted Dale, the sort of unknown youth coach who makes - or breaks - so many careers. Filling out physically, and blossoming in the position nature intended, Terry has, indeed, never looked back. Always anxious to learn, he paid particular attention to Tony Adams whenever Arsenal or England were on TV, and would pester Chelsea's World Cup winning central defenders Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf after training sessions; the latter might have been less generous with his time and advice if he had known quite how soon Terry's development would make him superfluous.

Given a Worthington Cup game against Aston Villa by the then Chelsea manager, Gianluca Vialli, before his 18th birthday, and a League appearance at Southampton shortly after it, he became a regular from Christmas 2000; at the end of that season Leboeuf took his leave, and after that it would be William Gallas (and now Ricardo Carvalho) who found their appearances limited by Terry's consistency.

For both Claudio Ranieri, who first handed him the captain's armband, and Jose Mourinho he has been a key figure, a natural leader on and off the pitch, who now takes particular responsibility for the impressive team spirit that Carvalho recently threatened to disrupt. As a link between manager and team-mates, he is even sufficiently diplomatic to give the impression of backing both the dissident players annoyed at not being in the side and the manager leaving them out: "If players aren't playing you need to go about it the right way. We sat down and talked about it, and it's out in the open. If you're not playing well at Chelsea or Manchester United or anywhere else you're not going to be picked. If I was dropped, it would be down to me to improve and work even harder to get back in.

"We've got a great team spirit, the players get on so well together and that's a key thing. I'm a big part of that, as well as Lamps [vice-captain Frank Lampard] and the manager. We have got a backbone of English players in the side who like the banter, and the manager likes a laugh in the dressing room as much as anyone.

"One thing that's been going on is everybody has to get up and sing, which is quite hard in front of everyone. We've had some bad ones - Shaun Wright-Phillips got up there and literally just spoke it. He tried "Ordinary People". I did mine a few years back, me and Jon Harley did "My Old Man's A Dustman" and even did a little dance. Back in those days we had people like Michael Duberry and Frank Sinclair, and if it wasn't good, you were in for some tough punishment. Last year we went go-karting and paintballing as a team and everybody turned up, whereas usually half the side turn up, so it was very refreshing to see that."

The essential Terry, a beguiling combination of banter and seriousness, is evident in most interviews and can also be found each home game in his programme column. For the visit of West Bromwich Albion last Wednesday, this included best wishes to Jiri Jarosik on his departure for Birmingham ("a great guy, all the boys loved him"); an anecdote about recognising an old reserve-team player in the crowd while celebrating the winning goal against Arsenal; and reference to a story that can never be told in public about Terry, Albion's former Chelsea defender Neil Clement and Jody Morris on a golf course.

Mention of Morris was a reminder that in the past, the Essex-boy laddishness occasionally degenerated into something more tasteless, especially when the demon alcohol was involved. The pair of them, along with a younger Lampard and Eidur Gudjohnsen (why is it no surprise that three of the four were English?) were shamefully caught up four years ago in a drinking spree at a Heathrow hotel while American guests were mourning the events of 9/11. Terry holds his hands up to that one, but is still annoyed at having been punished with exclusion from the England Under-21 team at the European Championship finals in 2002 when he was arrested following an incident at a night-club, but found not guilty on all charges.

"Things have changed in my life, and I realise football's my life and I have got one chance at it," he now says. "I had a couple of drinks after we won the championship, but I have calmed down since many years ago. After we win competitions I think it's important to go out and celebrate as a team, and that's what we did."

For a frustratingly long time, that excuse for celebration did not exist. Missing out in the FA Cup final of 2000, when Desailly and Leboeuf held sway, Terry had to wait until last season's Carling Cup final, which he describes in his new book* as: "My best feeling in football. My first medal. Our first trophy as a group."

He is not alone in thinking that the previous year's European Cup should have been the first, even though a manager called Mourinho would have been barring the way with Porto. That knowledge made the bitterness of defeat by Liverpool's controversial goal at Anfield in last season's semi-final all the harder to take, and will forever cloud the memory of the season: "After the game I was crying, to have that disappointment for the second year running was very frustrating for me. The [goalless] first leg wasn't a bad result, we didn't concede an away goal, which was key. But with the goal up there that should never have been, we just couldn't manage to score over the two legs, which was disappointing. So we have come back even hungrier this year, not only to win the Premiership but to go that step further and get to the final and win the Champions' League."

And what of the Special One, with whom he has clearly developed a special relationship? How is he different from the popular, if flawed, Ranieri? "Tactically, going into games I feel more prepared. His training's first-class. And in the 88th or 90th minute of a game the manager can say something and we'll know straightaway what formation to go to or what to do next.

"We're prepared for anything that's going to happen. If players aren't playing well he'll bring them off and bring someone on to break the other team down. His door is always open to everybody and we've got so much love for him we go out there wanting to fight and work really hard for the manager and Chelsea."

Like most international footballers of his generation, Terry never need work again once his playing career is over, but a genuine love of the sport may lure him to the training ground rather than the commentary box or the golf course. "I've got a long way to go yet, but learning from the likes of Luca Vialli, Ranieri and Jose - if I can't learn off people like that there's got to be something wrong. So hopefully I can take all the information they're feeding me and keep it stored somewhere safe and that's something I'll definitely look into. It's a follow-on from being captain. I want to stay at Chelsea for the rest of my career, and at the end of that if an opportunity comes up, then being in football for so long I never want to be out of it."

Still only 24, he is not yet at his peak and is demonstrably improving one fallible area, his distribution. There should be plenty more winning seasons to come.

Biography

John George Terry

Born: 7 December 1980 in Barking.

Height: 6ft 1in. Weight: 13st 12lb.

Club career: Chelsea youth product. Loaned to Nottingham Forest in 2000 and played six matches. Chelsea debut: 28 October 1998 as sub v Aston Villa. In total, 209 appearances plus 18 subs.

International career: England Under-21 captain (nine caps). Senior international debut v Serbia and Montenegro June 2003. Total of 18 caps.

Player honours: Carling Cup and Premiership champions 2004-05. PFA Player of the Year 2004-05, Chelsea Young Player of the Year 1999-2000.

Also: the 1,127th player to represent England at senior level.

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