‘Captain, leader, legend' is how one banner at Stamford Bridge describes John Terry's legacy at Chelsea. The 36-year-old centre-back has been a central figure during the club's greatest period, winning 14 major trophies that include four Premier League titles and the 2011-12 Champions League. Terry's 22-year association with Chelsea is at last set to come to an end, however, with the league leaders announcing on Monday that the club captain has taken the decision to leave at the end of the season.

One of the most popular stories on John Terry is recited by Graham Stewart. Graham Stewart, who played as a midfielder for Chelsea when Terry was in the youth program, said –

“He would run through a brick wall to play for Chelsea.”

In a way, Terry’s image problem is compounded by his symbiotic relationship with the team. To many English soccer fans, Chelsea is like the Yankees, only worse: obnoxious and arrogant, too rich for its own good, full of preening egomaniacs, with fans who are as entitled and pleased with themselves as the players. It does not help that in 2003, Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch who, in true oligarch style, tends to throw money at problems, bought Chelsea.

Terry had a growth spurt in his midteens, shooting up to his current height, 6 feet 1. His puppy fat turned to muscle. He moved from midfield to his current position, centre back, the linchpin of a team’s defense. By the time he was 17, he was regularly substituting for first-team players, playing alongside the gifted French defenders Frank Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly, whom he would eventually succeed as captain.

Ray Wilkins, long time coach at Chelsea said –

“He was like a sponge, the way he took in all the information you were giving him,”

Ray Wilkins left Chelsea later in 2010 and is currently the assistant manager for Aston Villa. In an interview published by Guardian, by phone from his native Ghana, Desailly recalled how he regarded Terry as an apprentice, but a precocious and cheeky one who barraged him with questions about tactics and positioning, and who once went to him with a detailed suggestion about how the physios, doctors and fitness coaches should fit into the team. Desailly said –

“He was sharing his opinion, and to hear this from an 18- or 20-year-old guy was something a bit special for me,”

In a 2006 interview, Terry said he became “a different character” on the field.

“Normally I would be too scared to say hello to the first-team players but when I was playing with them, I was shouting and bossing them about a little bit.”

At 20, Terry was named Chelsea’s player of the year.

El Capitano

When Desailly sat out with injuries, Terry sometimes filled in as captain; he was given the job for good in 2004.

“John is naturally somebody who attracts people to follow him. You know how you can dress any way you want, but if you don’t have natural style, it doesn’t matter? John has that leadership naturally.”

Terry was already captain when Avram Grant took over as manager in 2007. The club was full of outsized, alpha-male personalities, but Terry helped wrangle them into a cohesive playing unit. Avram Grant that year said –

“There were many international players: the captain of England, the captain of Germany, the captain of the Ivory Coast, many captains of national teams, There were a lot of egos. It was not easy to be a leader of so many leaders, but Terry did a very good job.”

Other players say that Terry leads by force of personality and by his consistently high level of play, season after season. And in an age of histrionics and exaggerated dives, of players clutching body parts and rolling around in fake pain that evaporates when they realize no one is buying it, Terry plays through his injuries — he has been plagued by back and ankle problems — and sometimes even courts them.

The Arsenal clash in 2007

A classic Terry situation came in 2007, during the League Cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal. As he rushed straight into a thick pack of players in an attempt to score with a diving header, Terry’s head made contact with the ball at the exact moment his face made contact with the foot of Abou Diaby, the Arsenal midfielder. Knocked out cold, his airway temporarily blocked by his tongue, Terry was carried off the field on a stretcher and taken to a hospital, but later discharged himself and returned to help his team celebrate its 2-1 victory. A week later there was a banner held in Stamford Bridge –

“That’s the kind of dedication that Chelsea supporters see week in, week out from John Terry,”

In 2006, Terry was named England’s captain. Though England has been an under performing team — the only time it won the World Cup was in 1966 — Terry has been regarded as a charismatic, effective captain. Meanwhile, his record at Chelsea has been stellar. For Terry, Europe's most prestigious competition represented his sweetest and sourest moment.

That night in Moscow

John Terry is a through and through Chelsea man. Playing at the centre half position, he is one of those old school English defenders who go to the ground every day to come out as winner, no matter if blood runs down his nose or a bone or two is broken. He wanted to win. Chelsea was not exactly the trophy clad club till Russian money and Jose Mourinho arrived in 2004. But they had tasted success in domestic league for two consecutive seasons earlier. Time was perfect to capture some European glory. No better person than John Terry to lift the cup.

He missed that Penalty and was distraught and his image is still a matter of fun for Manchester United fans but the game has a beautiful way of levelling up things. Terry kept that shirt he wore and runners-up medal he received in that dreaded night in Moscow, and drew inspiration from it. Four years later, in Munich, at the home of Bayern Munich, Chelsea won the Champions League final … through penalty shoot-out! This time Drogba was present to take – and convert – the last penalty in the shoot-out to give the cup to Chelsea. John Terry was suspended for the match, but he dressed up as if he was playing the match, and turned up for the presentation ceremony to lift the cup. He drew a lot of flak for this incident, but John Terry had waited four long years for this moment. He probably still replayed that “slip” in the rainy Moscow night, as he was celebrating with his teammates after the victory in Munich.

The Other Side

But it is the other side of Terry that people who are not Chelsea fans tend to emphasize. Along with talent, trouble has dogged him at every step: trouble with drinking, troubles with women, trouble, reportedly, with gambling. Terry is hardly the only one who gets in trouble. But Terry seems to do worse things, or to do bad things more often, or to get caught more frequently, than other players do. The tabloids kept finding people willing to discuss, for money, vivid accounts of their romantic interludes with Terry.

He never admitted anything, but the rumours stuck.  Nor did he ever confirm widespread reports of an affair with Vanessa Perroncel, the former partner of Wayne Bridge, an England teammate, although the rumours about it were sufficiently damaging that he took out a super-injunction — a court order forbidding the news media to report on a story, or even reporting on the existence of the injunction itself. When it was overturned, the papers’ moral distress at Terry’s supposed transgression was exponentially compounded by their anger at his efforts to gag them.

Vilified in the papers, Terry now looked shabby to other players, too. Bridge refused to play for England while Terry remained on the team; Terry remained but was stripped of the England captaincy (he was reinstated as captain a year later, but not for long).

Nothing Terry has been involved in before, however, has proved as serious or had so many negative repercussions as what happened on Oct. 23, 2011, in the last few minutes of a match between Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers at the Loftus Road stadium.

Chelsea was behind, tempers were frayed, and the anti-Terry chants from the QPR fans were especially harsh. The QPR defender Anton Ferdinand was feeling especially aggrieved. Most of the dialogue was so eye-wateringly profane and so staggeringly immature as to be almost comical. The players exchanged aggressive gestures — Ferdinand’s had to do with sex; Terry’s had to do with accusing Ferdinand of having bad breath — and then engaged in long and abusive soliloquies in which they compared one another to unprintable body parts.

While saying that Terry was not a racist, but had merely used racist language, the panel fined him and banned him from four matches. For its part, Chelsea imposed a further fine, said in some reports to be as high as £440,000 (about $709,000), but allowed him to remain as captain.

“Unspeakable Human Being”

Chelsea was playing at Arsenal, one of its hated rivals. The anti-Terry chants began even before the Arsenal fans got off the subway. “John Terry — you know what you are,” the Arsenal supporters sang, meaning that John Terry knows he is a racist.

Inside the stadium, the Chelsea fans were confined to one little corner of the stands and watched over by security guards, so as to prevent them from attacking or being attacked by the Arsenal fans. (Fans from opposing teams are not good at mingling with each other in English soccer.) They proudly displayed their “JT: Captain, Leader, Legend” banner.

Every time Terry came near the ball, he was greeted by a loud chorus of boos.
Ollie Cantwell, 16, an Arsenal fan said

“I think he’s an unspeakable human being. It would be easier to tell you what I like about him — nothing.”

But Terry played just as hard as ever, directing his teammates, never letting up on the Arsenal strikers — oblivious, it seemed, to everything else.
Michael Ballack famously said –

“What’s impressive about John, and why everyone at Chelsea Football Club loves him, is that whether he’s been right or wrong in any controversy, when it comes to playing football he’s never lost his focus, You need concentration as a defender, but when you’ve got all the surrounding things going on, the booing and hissing — that requires a real strong person. That could break some people.”

Terry's departure will mark the end of an era. And as a rival I will have to admit, he does deserve the banner –