‘Quite easily, he’d be the most successful player to join the team since Robert Pires,’ reads a line on a popular Aston Villa blog in a news story confirming John Terry’s arrival at Villa Park. It’s certainly a back-handed compliment: Pires played nine times for Villa in 2010/11 before retiring and popping up three years later at FC Goa.
There is no secret to John Terry’s motivation for dropping down to the Championship. “The problem is that John wants to play regularly and for this reason I think that we have to respect his decision,” Antonio Conte said as far back as April. “I was a footballer and I know when you arrive at this point in your career. Your mind and your body tell you continually that you feel you can continue but you want to play regularly.”
All Terry has known since the turn of the century is playing football, and it is all he wants to know. This is a decision based partly on hunger, but partly on dependence. Many players of a certain age discuss the difficulties of letting go of a career that has become the backbone of their lives. Having worked towards becoming a footballer from the age of eight and faced a constant battle to stay at the top, the first morning post-retirement promises to be a sorrowful and soulless occasion.
It is impossible not to focus on Terry’s age when discussing this move. He turns 37 in December; only three outfield players aged 37 or older played in the Championship last season. The youngest of those three is Wes Brown, who started three matches – all defeats – in Blackburn Rovers’ relegation campaign and is now without a club. There was no interest in Terry from the MLS because his wage demands were too high and he was too old.
That is the reason why the claims from some that Terry should move to Arsenal, say, were so baffling. Those holding such opinions were guilty of retro-anamnesis, picturing the marauding, brave central defender of 2004-2014 rather than the Terry of the present day. Terry has managed eight league starts in the last 18 months, two of those nothing more than his ceremonial goodbye to Stamford Bridge including the farcical 26th-minute substitution against Sunderland. Those appearances felt like the final farewells not just to a club, but a career. There is no question where Terry’s heart lies.
Watching the reaction to Tony Xia’s announcement of the signing on social media, you wonder whether this delayed memory syndrome surrounding Terry is catching. The lure of the star name is a powerful tool for increasing supporter anticipation, with the word ‘coup’ used with gay abandon, but every description of Terry begins with the suffix ‘former’. Are Villa paying at least £60,000 a week for what once was, rather than what might be? Even if they fall on the right side of that question, is it possible to separate the player and the person?
Part of the appreciation from supporters lies in Terry’s decision to turn down Birmingham City and Harry Redknapp for Villa Park, a wonderful PR move, but on Saturday Birmingham signed Barnsley captain Marc Roberts. Roberts is ten years Terry’s junior, was exceptional at Championship level last season and is on less than a third of the money that Birmingham were offering to Terry.
There is a danger of p*ssing on chips here: If Villa supporters are excited then good luck to them. Terry may well be fine in a division where central defenders are expected to rely on jumping and heading more than in the Premier League. But the gruelling nature of a Championship season, with its unending cycle of Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday, erodes away the energy of even the fittest players. If the obvious answer is that Terry only plays 25-30 league games, his cost per game escalates.
The obvious retort is that to Xia – reportedly worth £990m – this is an inexpensive gamble. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Yet in an open season in the second tier without an obvious title favourite, this campaign is crucial to Villa’s hopes of returning to the Premier League and avoiding becoming part of the Championship furniture. The success of the Terry experiment is crucial to that success. The camera’s glare will be on one Villa player more than all of his teammates combined.
“John Terry, what a w*nker, what a w*nker,” has been Terry’s usual greeting at Villa Park over the last decade. Now Aston Villa supporters need to find a new chant for one of the country’s most divisive sportspeople. The next six months will dictate whether Tony Xia has bought the player or paid for the name.