How one man found eternal joy in hating John Terry.
On the day Aston Villa announced it had signed John Terry, I was on a hospital gurney, being wheeled into surgery. As the anesthesiologist introduced himself and told me that in seconds I’d be out cold, courtesy of the big-ass needle in his left hand, I heard the John Terry alert go off on my phone, now inside a plastic bag nearby with the rest of my belongings.
“Not so fast, Doc,” I said. The doctor looked none too happy as I asked the nurse to please bring me the phone.
“What could be so important that it requires delaying the procedure?” he asked.
But the cell was already in my hand and as soon as I saw the screen, any pre-op dread I might have had suddenly vanished. Terry, the forever Chelsea and occasionally England captain, was now … a Villan. It was official. If I hadn’t been hooked up to an EKG, I would have punched the air in giddy relief.
Contrary to early reports, Terry wouldn’t be disappearing into the megabucks void that is Chinese soccer. He wouldn’t be retiring, either. No, he’d be playing where I could keep him in my crosshairs and continue to hate him with a passion that makes life worth living.
“You can put me under now, Doc,” I said. “I just needed to know if there was any point in coming back up.”
Look, I do not claim to be a rational person. I have, after all, been an Arsenal fan for most of my sentient life, and that does worse things to your outlook than a daily emetic. For this I thank my father, who passed on to me his own unconditional love of the Gunners when I was still learning to juggle with both feet in my crib.
His unshakable allegiance to Arsenal had a flip side: an equally intense hatred of our most deplorable rival. Here my father parted ways with most Gooners, who are hardwired to loathe their North London neighbors, Spurs. My father, a German-born Jew who escaped the Nazis in 1939, always had a soft spot for Tottenham (a character flaw I don’t share) because they were the so-called Jewish club and their fans were known as the Yid Army.
Chelsea, on the other hand, radiated an air of entitled superiority that grated on him to no end. His antipathy toward Chelsea never slackened, not even when they were crap in the ’80s and were twice relegated to the second division.
Q: How many Chelsea fans does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: One—he holds the bulb and expects the world to revolve around him.
My father never tired of telling that joke.
And who personified the preening arrogance of Chelsea better than John George Terry? After every victory, you’d see him parading around the field, stripped to the waist save for that precious piece of elastic welded to his right biceps, just in case you might have forgotten he was captain of the most egregiously self-regarding team in all the land.
But what cemented Terry’s place on my father’s all-time piss-on-their-graves list occured on the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Did you hear what those Chelsea schmucks did?”
My father sounded scarily breathless as if all the available oxygen had been consumed by his rage. He had just seen a BBC TV report detailing the very public behavior of five Chelsea players on Sept. 12, 2001. At a hotel bar near Heathrow, a number of traumatized U.S. citizens, their flights grounded because of 9/11, had come together for mutual solace as they watched the nonstop TV coverage of the attack. Enter the Chelsea Five—Terry, Frank Lampard, Jody Morris, Eiður Guðjohnsen, and former teammate Frank Sinclair. Hammered out of their heads and apparently the only humans on the planet oblivious to the events of the previous day, they proceeded to act out their very own version of Animal House, replete with food-throwing, F-bomb-hurling, pants-dropping, and of course, barf-spewing. Stay classy, you Blues.
My father, a veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart for his combat injuries, viewed this vile display as an unforgivable personal affront. For Terry, voted Chelsea’s Player of the Year and already an English international at 20, it proved to be ground zero in a long and distinguished career in clueless vulgarity.
Terry’s serial transgressions—the racial slurs, the affair with the mother of a teammate’s child, the parking in handicapped spaces—have been forensically documented in such odious detail that much as I’d enjoy the exercise, there’s no need to reprise them here. (See “The Making of a ‘Legend’ .”) I doubt there’s anyone outside West London who can’t recite the Terry rap sheet with the same familiarity they do their children’s names. Suffice it to say that Terry is the most widely despised player of the Premier League era—no mean achievement, considering the long list of potential contenders on his team alone.
To be fair to Terry (something I’ve never been), it’s not as if he’s the first professional footballer guilty of infidelity, getting drunk in public, gambling large sums of money, taunting an opponent with unsavory language, committing costly fouls in important matches, selling out teammates and managers, and various other boneheaded crimes against civility. After all, if intelligence and moral rectitude were prerequisites for playing in the Premier League, Arsenal would have no one to compete against.
But what sets Terry apart from other noted football humanitarians (such as Joey Barton, Craig Bellamy, and Ashley Cole) is that while they were also repeat offenders, they at least managed to feign sheepish apologies when they got caught, an act that made them more pitied and mocked than hated. (Arsenal fans might argue that Cashley straddled that line.) The thing about Terry is that he may have shed a river of hot, salty tears over his tawdry behavior, but there was never any sense of genuine remorse. He refused to own his shitbaggery even in the face of undeniable evidence. And save for a fine here, a suspension there, he basically got away with it all except when it came to the England captaincy. The fact that he was stripped of the armband not once but twice gave me some hope for mankind. But not a lot. To me, it’s a toss-up as to what would destroy the planet first—climate change denial or John Terry.
To hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever. That’s the title of my friend Will Blythe’s classic book about his awe-inspiring loathing of Duke basketball. Football tribalism is no less fiercely ingrained. It’s not simply about your team winning; it’s also about the unimaginable joy you derive from your enemies’ suffering. And in that regard, what can be more viscerally satisfying than seeing John Terry hit the self-destruct button again and again and again and then blubber, like Carrie did in Homeland when she saw Brody swinging from the gallows. Terry, for his part, endured several public lynchings and lived to cry about them.
Holding a grudge, as my father taught me, can be existentially nourishing, an essential salve for the soul. It’s especially soothing when the person you love to hate is brought low: Your spirit soars, your heart lightens, your mood brightens, you even whistle while you work. I call this phenomenon Terryfreude.
Surely you remember that rainy night in Moscow when Terry, skidding on the penalty spot, let the 2008 Champions League title slip off his right foot and straight into Manchester United’s grateful mitts. I snicker at that image of Terry’s hilarious pratfall every time I open my laptop. It’s been my screen saver for nine blissful years. John Terry is the GIF that keeps on giving.
So bless you, Antonio Conte, for allowing Terry to hang around Stamford Bridge last season, albeit mostly on the bench. To tune into a Chelsea match and observe that puffed-up peacock sitting in a fugue state of self-pity among the flock of substitutes kept the embers of hate aglow, warming my heart. Once the Blues won the title, however, Conte could no longer justify carrying a center back with the pace of a three-toed sloth and so he severed the umbilical cord to the last remaining player of the pre-
Roman Abramovich era.
Terry being Terry, he was not about to go gentle, never mind gracefully, into that good night. So Mr. Chelsea got his grand send-off from the club for which he’d strapped on his shin pads for 17 major Blues titles, including one he hadn’t even suited up for. (You never know who may slide studs-up into you on the podium while you’re hoisting the Champions League trophy.)
What ensued that afternoon at Stamford Bridge was a hubris-drenched farce that made Trump campaign rallies look like exercises in self-effacement. By the way, if there’s a more nauseating tagline than “Make America Great Again,” it’s “Captain. Leader. Legend.”
Was anyone really surprised that Terry turned his final home game into a personal wankathon? Everything—from Sunderland keeper Jordan Pickford’s agreeing to boot the ball out of bounds at precisely the 26-minute mark, to Chelsea’s talismanic No. 26 being subbed off to a ceremonial honor guard of his teammates, to the video montage of his bravest and most heroic moments—was carefully choreographed by the man himself.
What a missed opportunity. Imagine how much more fun it would have been if Terry had poleaxed a Sunderland player from behind in the 25th minute and then some referee, whom he had serially bullied for the past decade, showed him a red card in the 26th? But Terry was looking to celebrate himself, not provide a true-to-life tableau of his career. This was about his co-dependent relationship with the Blues faithful, and his craving for them to show him one last time how they love him almost as much as he loves himself.
Rising in unison, the fans lifted their voices to celestial heights in praise of their C.L.L. “His name is John Terry and he’s the leader of our team/ The greatest team in England that the world has ever seen.” Terry, choking up on cue, saluted the crowd for “picking me up when I was down, singing my name when I’ve had bad days and disappointed you as well.” All that was missing were the Ferdinand brothers bear-hugging Terry, Wayne Bridge thanking him for pointers in pleasuring the fairer sex, and the mayor of Cobham presenting him a lifetime reserved parking place for the handicapped.
Consider that on the very day Terry engaged in his ego-basking spectacle, another one-club legend, Philipp Lahm, bade farewell to the club for which he was making his 517th appearance. Lahm, who wore No. 21, played 87 minutes before going off to a warm—and unscripted—ovation. This, by the way, is why Germans win World Cups and Brits fall on their asses taking key penalties.
For years, I’ve had this recurring nightmare in which Terry is dressed in a French maid’s outfit and dusting my derriere, but one day, just before his move to Villa, I came across something even more disturbing. I was idly scrolling through the football news when a headline in the Daily Express caught my eye. Suddenly I felt an ice pick penetrate my rib cage. I couldn’t breathe. My skin grew clammy. Nausea gripped me. And one thought formed in my brain: Thank God my father isn’t alive, because this would surely kill him.
The headline screamed, “Chelsea Defender John Terry Could Be Heading to Arsenal This Summer.” I must have had an aneurysm or something. All I know is that when the medic—OK, my daughter—arrived, I was slumped over my desk, head on keyboard, imagining the huge bonfire that would slowly burn 40 years of Arsenal gear. I was jolted awake by a tap on my shoulder.
“Dad,” Emily said, in a tone of weary bemusement, “please tell me you’re not having one of your John Terry episodes.”
So that’s what it was. Good to know.
The Arsenal rumor mercifully turned out to be fake news, and shortly thereafter Terry declared that he wouldn’t join another Premier League team because it would mean going up against his beloved Blues. As for the possibility that he might fall into the Great Hole of China, never to emerge, his family’s wish to remain in England rendered that idea moot too.
In the end, Terry had to descend to the second tier of English football in order to squeeze out one more season of yelling, “Come on, lads,” along with suggesting that any referee who dared penalize his team go perform a variety of anatomically improbable acts.
And with Villa he found the perfect fit. Birmingham, a city already bitterly divided by its two Championship clubs, could now claim the most polarizing figure in English football. Of course, that is not how Steve Bruce saw it. To the Villa manager, the acquisition of the Chelsea captain was a “coup” for a club that the previous season had been relegated for the first time in three decades. With his winner’s mentality and 19 years of experience in the top flight, Terry could be just the galvanizing force Villa needed to reclaim their Prem status.
A fellow jarhead center back, Bruce had been captain of Manchester United during Sir Alex’s early, red-faced days. As a manager across several Premier League teams, he was not averse to pursuing players with, shall we say, less than squeaky clean reputations—a fact best demonstrated by his attempt to sign the former Leeds and Newcastle thug Lee Bowyer, famously described by the Daily Mail as “boozing, pot smoking, violent, racist, odious, unapologetic.” Lose the pot-smoking and you’ve got John Terry.
Given how loudly Villa had been thumping their communal chests over their marquee signing, I half expected to see the team listed in the table as John Terry and 10 Other Guys. The tabloids, at least, played their part.
“Hull Denies Terry a Winning Start.”
“Terry Suffers a Torrid Afternoon as Cardiff Run Rings Around Villa.”
“Terryble! JT & Co Are Torn Apart by City.”
I was disappointed when the papers ceased headlining every Villa match report with a mocking reference to Terry. Still, it didn’t diminish my delight in watching his 36-year-old body creak and wheeze as once-in-a-generation talents like Kenneth Zohore and Junior Hoilett left him flailing in their slipstreams. Of his first seven league games, Villa won only one. Journalistic integrity compels me to point out that they then went on a four-game run that vaulted them into seventh place, only five points off the top, by mid-October.
Although it excites me to no end, following Terry’s decline into Championship irrelevance isn’t as easy as you might think. When he played for Chelsea I could wallow in his repugnance every weekend at my local New York City pub while ostentatiously jeering his every touch in the midst of a foul-mouthed scrum of beer-swilling Blues. Now that I’m living in Los Angeles, I wondered what would become of the Terry hatred I had nursed all these years. Would it shrivel up and die now that he was playing in a league whose games weren’t televised at a nearby bar or on my cable channel at home? Then a friend gave me the link to live-stream Villa games on my laptop. Eureka! I was back to shouting, “Fuck off, you tosser!” with such venomous glee that my daughter’s dog would cower under the couch until the game was over.
If you subscribe to the school of thought that a football player’s personal life should be divorced from his professional one, then admittedly you come away with a slightly different picture of JT. He was still a dick on the field, but a fearless and talented one. At his most imperious, from 2005 to 2010, he could have walked into any side in the world. He was the best defender in the Prem, a combative, fearsome presence at the center of the Chelsea rear guard. Dominant in the air, uncompromising in his tackles, positionally excellent, an underrated passer and a clever reader of the game, Terry still found time to score 67 goals, a remarkable number for a defender and more than Barcelona’s peerless attacking midfielder Andrés Iniesta has managed in his 15-year-career.
But it was Terry’s willingness to take one for the team that in the eyes of Chelsea fans enshrined him in the pantheon of lionhearted warriors somewhere between Admiral Horatio Nelson and Terry Butcher. We’ve all marveled at the iconic photo of the latter, his head swathed in a blood-soaked bandage, his white England jersey turned crimson after having had his noggin split open in a 1989 game against Sweden. Butcher was the living embodiment of the brave, stoic, never-say-die English spirit of getting stuck in.
Like Butcher, Terry put his body on the line with blithe disregard for his well-being. I have a photo on the wall of my office showing Arsenal’s Abou Diaby kicking Terry in the face during the 2007 Carling Cup final vs. Chelsea. Diaby may never have achieved his potential during an injury-decimated career at Arsenal, but I will always cherish him for this one moment, even if it was entirely accidental. How could Diaby have foreseen that Terry would lay himself flat out to try to head away a knee-high ball in the goal mouth?
Such was the concussive impact of Diaby’s boot on Terry’s head that it caused the Chelsea center back to swallow his tongue and briefly stop breathing. Carried off the field on a gurney and rushed to the nearest hospital, Terry discharged himself just in time to return to Wembley so he could join his teammates in celebrating the Blues 2-1 victory. I’ll admit to a slight smirk when I saw him holding aloft the league cup and pogoing on the podium. As we’d learn five years later when he went to even greater lengths to hoist the CL trophy—after sitting out the final because of suspension—nothing in life means more to John Terry than making everything all about John Terry.
That his emergence as a defensive colossus would coincide with the arrival of his two chief enablers—the inscrutable Russian oligarch Abramovich and the paranoid Portuguese prick José Mourinho—only fueled my enmity. Since arriving at Stamford Bridge in 2003, Abramovich, in his crusade for world domination, has burned through 10 managers, two wives, and more than a billion dollars’ worth of players (including $40 million for Andriy Shevchenko!). Until 2015, Terry was the indestructible axis on which Chelsea’s quest turned, and so both Abramovich and Mourinho were willfully blind to their captain’s malfeasances as long as the Blues kept piling up silverware. If in the course of this ruthless procession, they found it necessary to abuse referees, ball boys, and female physios, or play (in the immortal words of former Real Madrid general manager Jorge Valdano) like “shit on a stick”—well, that was simply the price of success. And with Terry captaining, leading, and legending, Chelsea won three Premier League titles, one Champions League, one Europa League, four FA Cups, and two League Cups.
“There is only one player I have managed I would call world class: John George Terry,” Mourinho said before Terry’s final home game. “I watched as he bled for me, for Chelsea, week in, week out, that peerless fusion of English bravery and continental technique that still wakes me up at night when I think on it. My captain. My friend.”
My friend? Ugh, I just threw up a little in my mouth. First off, I wasn’t aware that either Mourinho or Terry had friends—but it does explain an awful lot about their symbiotic relationship. Terry was Mourinho’s eyes and ears in the often divisive Chelsea locker room of outsize egos. In exchange, Mourinho vehemently defended his “friend” in the court of public opinion, where Terry’s popularity rating outside West London was Trumpian at best.
Together, they helped create a Premier League juggernaut in their toxic image. Early on, I used to detest them equally, but Mourinho became so tediously predictable that eventually hate fatigue set in, permitting me to channel all my animus toward Chelsea’s snarling, hachet-faced captain.
It was May 26, 2008 (the date is seared into my brain), and the air of nerve-shredding tension in my father’s den was palpable. We were watching Terry prepare to take the penalty kick that would give the Blues their first Champions League title. It takes a giant set of stones to step up to the spot under those sphincter-tightening conditions, but no one has ever questioned the size of Terry’s balls. His intelligence, maybe, his moral depravity, surely, but not his cojones.
The whistle blew, and Terry began his short run-up to the ball. It’s here I have to admit that both my father and I, neither of us religious men, prayed to the Football Gods of Karma for divine intervention. And sure enough, as Terry cocked his right leg, they bitch-slapped him just hard enough for his plant foot to go out from under him and for the ball to fly agonizingly wide of the right post. The rest is meme history.
I looked at my 87-year-old father, ailing from the lung disease that would prove fatal the next year, and saw that he was bent over. I was alarmed, but it turned out that he wasn’t in any pain, just laughing so hard it hurt to sit up. “It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” he said with a chortle.
“Yep,” I replied, high-fiving him. “Captain. Leader. Schmuck.”
This article originally appeared in issue 12 of Eight by Eight. Learn more about the current issue here, and follow Eight by Eight on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Follow David Hirshey on twitter (@HirsheyMustache).