What a difference a year makes for John Terry and Chelsea. When the FA Cup fourth round arrived 12 months ago, the London club was in disarray. A temporary manager was at the helm and the team were heading for a 10th-place finish in the Premier League.
Terry’s contract was set to expire at the end of the season. Speculation about the club captain’s future was rife. After Chelsea eased into the fifth round with a 5-1 victory over Milton Keynes Dons, the centre-back dropped a bombshell: He announced that the club had told him his deal would not be extended. He would leave Stamford Bridge at the end of the campaign, even though he wanted to stay.
“It’s not going to be a fairy-tale ending,” he said. “I’m not going to retire at Chelsea.”
The fans were in uproar. Outflanked by Terry’s public-relations power play, the club responded by giving him an extra 12-month contract.
Almost a year on, Terry will likely lead the West London side against Brentford in this season’s fourth round. Once again his deal is running down. Do not expect any dramatic announcements after this cup tie, though. Things have changed dramatically for the 36-year-old and the club he has represented since he was 14.
Terry will leave Chelsea soon. There are a number of willing suitors. After Chelsea manager Antonio Conte recalled Nathan Ake from his loan spell at Bournemouth, Eddie Howe reportedly tried to tempt the former England captain to the south coast until the end of the season. At least two other Premier League clubs are attracted by the idea of adding Terry’s experience on a temporary basis to help in their relegation battle. Despite Conte’s protestations that the defender will remain at Stamford Bridge after January, it would be no surprise if Terry heads elsewhere in search of playing time.
He will see little action on the pitch for Chelsea. Terry has not started a Premier League game since September, and his last league runout was as a late substitute in November. He was back in the team for the third round of the FA Cup against Peterborough United but was sent off after 66 minutes for bringing down Lee Angol.
The telling moment for Terry came before the Premier League match against Hull City. Although the Bridge’s talisman was fit, the recalled Ake and Kurt Zouma took the defensive places on the bench ahead of Terry. Zouma ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament 11 months ago, but the 22-year-old has the pace and potential to be a long-term contributor at centre-back for Conte’s side. Terry is so far down the pecking order, it is hard to see a way back.
A year ago Chelsea needed the captain’s leadership abilities. In the aftermath of Jose Mourinho’s dismissal, the club lacked direction. Those qualities are not necessary now. Conte has restored a sense of purpose to Stamford Bridge and has created an aura of authority that makes Terry’s dressing-room influence less important.
All this makes it likely that he will look elsewhere. Terry’s desire to play is still extremely strong. Previous Chelsea managers, especially the temporary incumbents, found him difficult to deal with, especially when he was not in the team. The determination that makes him such an effective competitor on the pitch can manifest itself differently when he is out of the side. In the past, managers could expect an unhappy Terry to be constantly knocking their office doors when the defender was sidelined. Even when returning from injury, the Londoner would be keen to rush back into action, earlier than some of his managers thought wise. He will not be enjoying his lack of participation under Conte.
With Chelsea eight points clear in the title race, it is a tempting prospect to think that Terry might stay around in anticipation of bowing out with another Premier League medal. However, his craving to be part of the action was illustrated when he joined the Champions League-winning celebrations in Munich in 2012 in full playing kit despite being suspended for the victory on penalties over Bayern Munich. That act heaped much derision on the defender, but it was a reflection of his driving need to be involved where the spotlight is at its most intense and the duelling most frantic: on the pitch.
Watching Chelsea from the sidelines will be difficult for Terry, even if the team are brushing aside opponents and romping toward another title.
If Conte is right and Terry remains at the club, the captain will spend the next few months largely as a spectator. There is little chance of another contract, so if he stays for now, he will very likely leave the Bridge in the summer.
Chelsea needed Terry a year ago. They are in a stronger position now. He will always be one of the club’s greats, but his time as a player — at least at the level Conte needs — is coming to an end.
There will be no bombshells after the match with Brentford and no talk of fairy tales. Terry’s exit is likely to come sooner rather than later.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.