This is a good end. The timing may be strange, less than 24 hours after a defeat that may turn Chelsea’s season on its head, but it has been clear for some time that there is no future for John Terry at Stamford Bridge, if he wants to continue playing.
Sunday’s game against Manchester United was a case in point. Chelsea named the usual starting centre halves, David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta. Terry was on the bench. Then left wing-back Marcos Alonso pulled out through injury. Antonio Conte moved Azpilicueta to his position, and promoted Kurt Zouma. Terry stayed on the bench.
Had a fifth central defender been required, would he have played? Perhaps not with Nathan Ake now back from loan. Terry last featured in a league game as an 84th-minute substitute when Chelsea were already 5-0 up against Everton on November 5. He hasn’t started a league fixture since September 11, before Conte made the decision to switch to a back three. That call was as good as the end of Terry’s career as a Chelsea player.
He cannot play in a back three against significant opposition with confidence, that is well known. He needs the protection of a full back.
Conte understood the consequences of a back three for Terry but could no longer afford to be indulgent, and in pushing ahead with his plan, he solved a problem that had eluded previous Chelsea managers.
The reason past attempts to marginalise Chelsea’s captain have been unsuccessful is that a better alternative has never been discovered. Chelsea always improved once Terry was restored to the side. That is not the case any more.
The back three suits Luiz, and has brought the best out of him this season. He is the club’s priority now, not Terry. Yet, while in previous years it seemed there was a hasty imperative to oust a player who has given exceptional service to the club, this is simple evolution. When Terry leaves at the end of the season, he will do so amicably.
Maybe his last act will be to lift the league trophy; maybe he will leave with Chelsea winning the Double. He may even don the full blue kit again to do so, whether he plays or not, in on the joke this time, winding up the trolls, laughing at their mockery.
He may return one day, to join the staff, as Steven Gerrard has at Liverpool. Stamford Bridge will remain his spiritual home.
Both sides have spoken with nothing but fondness of each other. It is a proper end, a fair end. Wherever Terry goes from here, this affords a way back. The bad feeling from a year ago, when it seemed he was being forced out against his will, has subsided. Conte’s common sense has allowed Chelsea to give Terry the send-off he deserves.
He has been a quite brilliant player for the club, the best defender in their history, arguably the finest of the Premier League era.
We know what the banner says and it is no exaggeration. He has steered the club to four league titles and missed only five matches of the 152 matches in those seasons.
He has won 14 trophies — 16, if one includes the Community Shield, as Jose Mourinho always does — more than any player in the club’s history. He has been Chelsea’s home-produced heart and soul, at a time when it would have been easy to surrender that identity.
In January, almost half the clubs in the Premier League asked about his availability and having once said he could never play against Chelsea it is understood he has changed his mind and wants to remain in English football.
That is fair enough, too. Just as Frank Lampard enjoyed a season with Manchester City without harming his standing at Stamford Bridge, so Terry could come back in the shirt of a rival and be understood by all but those who cry Judas at Mourinho for having a career.
So this is a good end, a deserved end. He goes out as the captain, he goes out as the leader, he goes out as a legend — but, most of all, he goes out with dignity.