Abramovich smile remains fixed as nerveless ‘JT’ pulls a fast one
Terry turns the tables on the Chelsea owner by giving an adoring crowd exactly what they want
Roman Abramovich laughed and clapped. But probably not in sympathy. When John Terry stood on the pitch, telling an adoring crowd how much he wanted to stay at Chelsea, the club’s billionaire owner could see himself being outflanked by an employee who looked sure to leave until an apparently token offer came his way.
In a political battle away from Stamford Bridge, you would back Abramovich to make mincemeat of ‘JT’. Abramovich is pally with Vladimir Putin. The Chelsea captain has no clout with world leaders. But hand him the stage when he has an agenda to pursue and there is only going to be one winner in the eyes of the audience.
With astonishing chutzpah, Terry turned an end-of-season lap of honour into a people’s ultimatum to the board. In fairness, the supporters encouraged him, but it still required some nerve to turn this day into the John Terry show.
The key passage is this: after the crowd had sung “We want you to stay”, Terry responded: “We all want the same thing. I want to finish my career here. We have a few days when we’ll be speaking to the club. The club know that.”
An extrapolation is that Terry was telling the owner to improve his offer or risk ridicule. No wonder Abramovich could not conceal his mirth. Terry, of course, was doing what household names tend to do: looking after No 1, while also claiming the high ground as Chelsea’s spiritual leader.
With their super-late offer of a one-year contract extension, Chelsea might have thought they had defused a fan revolt and transferred the pressure back to Terry, who would be forced to choose between a severely reduced role (and salary) and walking away from a team he has served for 20 years. That way, Chelsea could have said, “Well, we tried, but he chose another path”.
The lateness of that approach was the first clear sign that it was made with little real enthusiasm. Had Chelsea wanted to keep Terry, surely they would have moved before now. Instead, they waited until two days before this final fixture to announce that a new deal was being proposed.
Terry said that offer involved “a different role”. He would need a few days to consider it. Translated, this means it was for a lot less money, with reduced playing time.
The original idea was that Terry would be cleared out in time for Antonio Conte’s arrival as manager. The Italian would be spared the burden of being the one to end a famous career and Chelsea would cut away Terry’s political power, especially with the fans. If that was the plan, it fell apart with Chelsea’s unexpected U-turn, which they may have conceived as an offer Terry definitely could refuse and, therefore, a roundabout way of achieving the desired end.
Cut to Chelsea versus Leicester, a 1-1 draw that confirmed Leicester’s 10-point margin of victory in the title race. On a day when Chelsea said hello again to Claudio Ranieri, sacked by Abramovich 12 years ago, the question was whether they would be saying a permanent goodbye to Terry. Contract offer or not, the supporters were having none of it. They had no time for Terry’s possible £20 million move to China; no truck with the internal politics of a side brought low by players who lack his warrior spirit.
On that pitch, Terry started by congratulating Ranieri, his former manager, and goaded Spurs, saying: “I’m just glad Tottenham haven’t won it.”
He praised the fans who stayed behind to cheer him, saying: “You’ve stuck with us through the thick and the thin. We’ve had some great times down the years and you’ve been a big part of that. I can assure you we’ll be back next year and challenging for the title.”
He went on: “Chelsea has been my life, just like it’s been yours.” His voice faltered, his eyes welled with tears, just as at Friday’s endof-season dinner.
Before his address, Terry had thrown shirts into the Matthew Harding Stand as fans unveiled a huge banner of him, inscribed: ‘Proper Chels’. In the 26th minute, in recognition of his squad number, the Stamford Bridge crowd held up placards and again chanted: “We want you to stay.”
This season, Chelsea fans have been increasingly emboldened to stand up to Abramovich’s ownership. The club could say they had bowed to their feelings by offering Terry the new deal. But the fans could sense that the offer lacked conviction. So they picked their side, coming down in favour of a player they see as the answer to the club’s dramatic collapse under Jose Mourinho, even though he is 35.
So, by the end, the onus seemed to be back on Chelsea to look after Terry and to listen to the fans. Terry won this battle but there is no guarantee he will win the war. Abramovich grinned but was he smiling inside? Or did Terry’s extraordinary political manoeuvre vindicate the earlier willingness to let him go?
Terry was looking after No 1, while also claiming the high ground as Chelsea’s spiritual leader