So, John Terry v Robbie Savage. It’s the bout of the century. Take a side. Bob Arum will promote it. There will be a weigh-in with the two men standing on scales wearing only their pants. There’s going to be an introductory press conference in which the two combatants stand nose-to-nose, and one of them almost certainly thinks ‘What would happen if I kissed this bloke on the mouth, with tongues?’ Clean fight, nothing below the belt, no biting, touch gloves.
Well, sort of. You’ll no doubt be aware that during the pre-match press conference for Chelsea’s Champions League win over Dynamo Kyiv, Terry declared he’d take criticism from good footballers, but not from rubbish ones. Or at least not from ones with faintly absurd coiffuring and teeth so white they could take down a small plane with their glare. So that’s yes to Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Rio Ferdinand, but no to Savage.
One can only wonder what Terry makes of Fletch’s thoughts if Sav doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Or indeed what level of footballer you have to be before he will listen to you. Do you have to have a certain number of England caps? Carragher played 38 times for the national team, so if that’s the standard then Emile Heskey (62), Phil Neville (59) and Mark Wright (45) can all line up to take a pop. Although, neatly enough, Savage played 39 times for Wales, so that can’t be it. Perhaps there’s a certain standard of trophy one has to have won? If so, step forward Champions League winner Djimi Traore, this is your time. Is it just his mates? Well, probably not, given Terry’s, ahem, ‘history’ with the Ferdinand family.
Maybe Terry wasn’t actually referring to the quality of the player, more the quality of pundit. In which case this can only be described as a SNUB to Steven Gerrard, Thierry Henry and Jamie Redknapp. Who knew that Terry was so devoted to maintaining the standards of quality analysis in the modern game?
Assuming that Terry was having a pop at Savage based on his footballing abilities, on the oft-worn theory that if you haven’t done it then you can’t talk about it, you can sort of understand why he might be annoyed. Of course it’s absurd from our point of view, because if this policy was law then every one of us would not be able to take issue with anything Terry, or indeed any professional footballer does on the pitch. However, most people have probably been in a situation where you’ve been criticised by someone not as good as you, and your instinctive response was probably: ‘Get f**ked, you little squirt, you have a go then.’ It’s illogical, but you can see why Terry might think ‘I’m not taking any flak from him.’
Still, as others have pointed out it’s a bit odd considering his apparent devotion to the man under whom he has won three of his four Premier League titles. Jose Mourinho wasn’t a player of any repute at all, certainly inferior to Savage who, while not a world-beater, played in the English top flight for over a decade. And it’s not as if Savage doesn’t have a point in slagging off Chelsea this season, given that the defending champions are being kept off the bottom of the table by two promoted teams and the collective incompetence of Sunderland, Newcastle and Aston Villa.
However, all of this misses the point rather. It’d be rather surprising if Terry, a man with a famously thick skin who can perform on the pitch under the most swirling abuse – deserved or otherwise – even really paid much attention to what Savage had to say, much less actually be bothered by it in any way.
Of course, Terry knew exactly what he was doing. Ol’ JT might not be the sharpest in some ways of measuring smarts, but he’s been at this game for long enough to know that a soundbite in a tough spot will take the heat off, if only for a short while. Terry knew that Robbie Savage is a name that will prick up ears, and one that so many people despise that they might even take his side. He could have made his point by referring to a non-specific mass of pundits rather than picking on one, but that wouldn’t have created the same stir.
It’s the classic ‘Hey! Look! Your shoelaces are untied!’ trick that his manager has been doing for years, the conventional wisdom being that it concentrated all the attention on him, and not his players. Mourinho made an art of it, and Fergie before him; call it mind games, call it distraction, but from a PR standpoint it almost always works to one extent or another. This week, for a little while at least, people were talking about Terry’s words rather than how poorly Chelsea are playing.
But the really interesting thing about Terry’s proclamation about Savage was why he needed to do it at all. It speaks to the situation at Stamford Bridge that Terry thought he required a distraction. Things are seemingly so bad that, while in previous years Mourinho made an attention-grabbing statement to take the focus away from his poorly-performing players, this time one of his players made an attention-grabbing statement to take the focus away from a poorly-performing manager. Terry staunchly defended his boss, but at the same time suggested that things have reached the point where Mourinho can’t handle it all on his own anymore.
Well, that’s one theory at least. Or, it could be that Terry just really hates Robbie Savage. He wouldn’t exactly be alone there.