It’s fair to say John Terry has never been one of football’s most popular players, but on October 29, 2011, when Arsenal visited Chelsea, he made a lot of people very happy indeed.
Whether it’s Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern suffering at the hands of Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin 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.
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.
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.
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.
Plenty of fans, for example, still have fond memories of Terry being kicked very hard in the head by Abou Diaby in 2007 – on the grounds that he was fine after and he was John Terry before.
Similarly, even the most ardent ABUs must have afforded themselves a cheer when the Chelsea captain stepped up to dispatch the winning penalty in the 2008 Champions League final only to do this.
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.
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.
It all came to a head against Andre Villas-Boas’ Chelsea, who themselves had suffered a few hiccups in their first eight games, losing two, including when Fernando Torres missed an open goal at Old Trafford.
In what we’re legally obliged to refer to as a topsy-turvy game, Terry had actually put Chelsea ahead on the stroke of half-time after Van Persie cancelled out Frank Lampard’s opener, but André Santos and Theo Walcott swung the game in the visitors favour within 10 minutes of the restart.
Juan Mata’s goal 10 minutes from time then drew Chelsea level. Terry and his charges had clawed it back, and they were ready to go on the offensive in the closing stages.
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.
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.
But the most important point here is that 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.
By Tom Victor
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