We like to think that good always triumphs over evil, but that’s rarely the case when it comes to football. Thankfully, when Arsenal visited Chelsea in 2011, we got a glimpse of a brighter world.
In the realm of complex melodrama that is children’s entertainment, the good-guy vs bad-guy dichotomy is more layered than many give it credit for.
Admittedly, you can wager good money on good triumphing over evil when push comes to shove, but ask anyone what their fondest memories of the genre truly are and a fair few will look past run-of-the-mill final battles. You know, the ones that set up the coda where Our Hero kicks back and enjoys his victory, content that there are no more worlds to conquer.
Whether it’s because of the variety it offers in contrast to the predictability of an ultimate victory, or because our sense of humour as a population has never been hugely complex, that triumph often plays second fiddle to the villain embarrassing themselves in increasingly complex ways.
Whether it’s Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern suffering at the hands of the double-threat of Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin and the tenets of slapstick humour in Home Alone, or Tom from Tom & Jerry setting himself up for a world of pain, nothing else brings people together in quite the same way as The Villain of the Piece getting their comeuppance.
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Sadly, it rarely works that way when it comes to football. The Good Guys – or at least the Not Explicitly Bad Guys – generally only have fleeting moments during which they’re able to come out on top.
The latter stages of the Champions League tend to be dominated by the same clubs, while Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain have shared 14 of the last 15 domestic titles between them in Germany, Italy and France.
This is why even the most flawed underdog stories – like Leicester in 2015-16 and Monaco last season – are often clung to for the sake of novelty.
For this reason we should perhaps be grateful to Chelsea – and specifically to John Terry – for providing us with an outlier: the closest we’ve had to a Disney-scripted villain in the Premier League this century.
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Even before the allegations of racial abuse during Chelsea’s 2011 match against Queens Park Rangers, Terry was both a regular villain and someone who it had become surprisingly easy to laugh at.
More than a decade on, plenty of fans have fond memories of Terry being kicked very hard in the head by Abou Diaby on the grounds that he was fine after and he was John Terry before.
Similarly, the standard ‘the world isn’t fair and the bad guys always win’ narrative ought to have seen the Chelsea captain dispatch the winning penalty in the 2008 Champions League final.
At the very least, if he was to miss, it would have been in the form of Edwin van der Sar saving his kick, rather than anything as indisputably hilarious as what actually happened.
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Four-and-a-half years on from that Diaby incident, Arsenal had many of the same flaws they have always had – after all, Arsenal don’t ever change, only our perceptions of them do.
When they travelled to Stamford Bridge in October, they had already suffered a humiliating 8-2 loss at Old Trafford – a defeat which encouraged Arsène Wenger to dip into the transfer kitty.
Deadline day saw the club bring in three new faces including Mikel Arteta, whose main selling point was his years of Premier League experience and composure on the ball, and André Santos, whose main selling point was not being Armand Traoré. However, the Gunners were already ostensibly being carried by Robin van Persie – he had scored seven of the club’s 15 league goals before the Chelsea game and would end the season with 37 in all competitions – it was just the supporting cast that had changed.
As my friend Nick recalls: “Arsenal’s 11-12 was basically the gas leak season of Community. Loads of weird shit knocking about that no one really accepts as canon.”
In addition to the humbling at Old Trafford, Arsenal had seen Emmanuel Frimpong start and get sent off (honestly, it’s tough to figure out which part is the more surprising) in a home defeat to Liverpool, while a 4-3 reverse at Steve Kean’s Blackburn involved two own-goals, the second when Laurent Koscielny ran the length of the pitch in an attempt to stop a Rovers counter before inexplicably slotting past Wojciech Szczęsny.
But that aforementioned “weird shit” came to a head against André Villas-Boas’ Blues.
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Chelsea were firmly ahead of Arsenal in the table when the game rolled around, but their own start to the season hadn’t been without its hiccups.
They had lost two of their first eight games, with their nine men slipping to a 1-0 defeat at QPR and an attempted comeback at Old Trafford falling short when Fernando Torres missed an open goal. However, after parting ways with Carlo Ancelotti the previous summer, their new manager was performing relatively well and had already completed the first step of putting the club in pole position to top their Champions League group.
Chelsea were without Didier Drogba for Arsenal’s visit due to his red card at QPR, but Juan Mata’s late goal had brought them level in the lunchtime kick-off after goals from Van Persie, André Santos (as we explained, not canon) and Theo Walcott had helped the visitors come from behind.
Terry and his charges had clawed it back, and they were ready to go on the offensive in the closing stages. But then…
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The beauty of a slip from a top player comes from how it shows their quite literal fallibility.
There’s a tendency to think of football’s big-hitters and the sport’s villains (and yes, there’s a large overlap here) as robots, whose shield is only pierced by a level of brilliance from opponents which is unsustainable in the long run: eventually things will even themselves out and the minor slip will return to insignificance in the grander scheme of things.
At the very least, these moments tend to have little bearing on the things that matter – it always felt that those few moments when Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United let their guard down would be overcome by the club reaping the rewards of their never-ending ability to put pressure on their opponents, while Germany’s international opponents tend to operate on the mindset that it’s important to capitalise on the first mistake because there won’t be a second.
Slips like Terry’s aren’t meant to happen in the last 10 minutes of a 3-3 game against one of the Big Four (as Arsenal were then), just as John Terry penalty misses aren’t meant to arrive on a stage as grand as the Champions League final – the laws of football narrative dictate they ought to occur early on against a smaller side, giving Terry time to front up and redeem himself.
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Of course, all of this ignores the most important point: it is always – yes, always, no exceptions – funny to see a grown man fall over on a football pitch.
Attacker or defender, clean through on goal or covering back, the sight of the legs giving way and the rest of the body taking a split second longer to accept the consequences is never not hilarious.
Oh, so you’ve got an example where it happened in heartbreaking fashion for an underdog, do you? Nope, still funny. “What about that time when….” – I’m going to stop you there. You know what I’m going to say.
That doesn’t mean it’s not even funnier when Terry is involved, though. Of course it’s funny to see a man with a game based on solidity end up crumbling in front of his own eyes, gifting a London rival a precious three points.
Of course it was also funny to see him put his team out of contention for the title with an own goal in 2014, and of course it was also funny to see him score his final Chelsea goal and then gift Watford an equaliser barely 90 seconds later.
Sure, it’s not quite as funny as a man saying “this does not slip” and then literally slipping to cost his team the Premier League title, but we’ll take what we can get.
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