Underneath the banner that’s been hanging from the upper deck at Stamford Bridge for years, John Terry committed heroics and a gaffe in a matter of just two minutes.
The banner, next to an image of his silhouette, reads: “JT. Captain. Leader. Legend.”
The 36-year-old central defender, who has been at Chelsea since he was 14, will be gone at the end of the season, leaving a towering yet complicated legacy. Even though he plans to join another club next season, Terry’s memory will loom large over the Blues in the coming years. He is the lone constant between Chelsea’s Premier League titles in 2004-05 and 2005-06 and the ones in 2014-15 and 2016-17. He bridges the entire span of the most successful period in the club’s history by far, when it also reached two Champions League finals and won one of those in 2012. (As it happens, Terry’s missed penalty cost the Blues a second European title in 2008.)
The Blues clinched the Premier League crown at West Bromwich Albion on Friday, before winning 4-3 at home over Watford on Monday. And in a flash, Terry illustrated both why he is beloved by the fans in spite of his controversies and why he is being moved on – as they say in the soccer business.
In the 22nd minute, a corner was deadened by a jumble of bodies and fell for Terry. He threw himself at the loose ball without regard for his own body, demonstrating the kind of abandon for his team’s cause that has made him so popular. He spun, slipped and somehow bundled the shot in off the post. It was his 41st league goal for the club.
But just a few instants later, fellow defender Nathan Ake headed away a Watford cross. It looped up towards Terry, who completely misjudged the play and nodded it straight up and into the path of Watford’s Etienne Capoue, who scored calmly to equalize.
It was an embarrassing mistake, the sort of anecdotal evidence that can easily be borrowed – misrepresented, perhaps? – to show why Chelsea did not offer him a new contract, after 22 years of faithful and exceedingly well-compensated service. But the moment maybe said more about the awkwardness of honoring club legends being phased out.
There is a reason Terry’s Chelsea time is at an end. He is no longer believed to be of the caliber of a defender for the Premier League champions. Or he doesn’t justify his salary any longer. But it’s more likely the former, considering that for months and months of the season, he had played a cumulative seven minutes. In the opinion of manager Antonio Conte and likely his staff and the front office, Terry could no longer hack it, even though Chelsea plays in a fairly-forgiving, three-man back line with a pair of wing backs and at least one holding midfielder.
Terry got the start on Monday because the title was already locked up and it was the second-to-last home game of the season. And then he was found out as the over-the-hill club icon that he now is. This is the risk of honoring such players with playing time, with giving them a victory lap before they’re seen off.
Does it stain Terry’s long and glorious legacy when the last images of him in the blue jersey contain some embarrassing moments? Are they lasting? Perhaps, perhaps not. But this is the risk of giving a player time on the field not on merit but to feed the melancholy and create a last hurrah.
The trouble with saying goodbye to aging players is that the more they are pulled into the spotlight, the plainer it becomes why they’re past it.
John Terry got a moment. And minutes later, he got exposed for what he now is.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.