Why England Need John Terry If We're To Stand Any Chance In Brazil


Let me start by saying that I have never met John Terry personally and I am not here to comment on his moral integrity right now.

But following another stellar display at the heart of Chelsea's rearguard last night, it's time we accept that the Blues' captain must lead the England defence if Roy Hodgson's men stand any chance of success in Brazil this summer.

For all of the controversies that seem to have followed him throughout his career, John Terry is still a Rolls Royce of a football player; an elegant defender, a chief communicator and a master strategist in an era of supreme – and often mismanaged – athleticism.

Terry is a rare entity in the modern game: a player whose footballing brain is as important as his physical attributes. As such, he has squeezed every smidgeon of ability out of his very being.

Through intelligence, dedication and ingrained confidence, Terry has become the best footballer his tools could possibly have allowed him to be, and he continues to perform with distinction at the ripe old age of 33. Central to this is his deep understanding of how to organise a defence, and his natural instinct for leading his fellow troops into battle.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw John Terry play live. It was at Stamford Bridge on a cold December night in 2002. Chelsea were hosting Everton in the League Cup and I went along in the hope of catching some ingenuity from a much-heralded 16-year-old forward by the name of Wayne Rooney. But the young pretender was quiet that night. Instead it was Chelsea’s all-encompassing centre half that caught my eye.

Often you have to be there in the flesh – to see the whole pitch and all of its interactions – to properly understand the role of each player. That winter’s night at Chelsea, I was astonished by the level of influence one single man could have on a top-level football match. I’d seen individual players boss games at lower levels, sure. But Terry was one of 22 top-class Premier League footballers performing on the Stamford Bridge turf that night. And yet, at just 21 years old, he was in a league of his own.  

As a centre half he could see everything ahead of him, and he was not shy about using that to his team’s advantage. He marched them around in tandem, often gesticulating, sometimes barking, but always in constant contact with his team-mates, conducting the orchestra in their strive for perfection. It was an impressive, well-choreographed routine, and Chelsea won the game convincingly. 

Fast forward more than eleven years and it was more of the same last night at The Etihad, where he conducted the orchestra once more - holding a high line when required, ensuring his midfield men were marshalling the pockets of space in front of him, and guiding Gary Cahill on a leash. It was the most impressive deconstruction of Manchester City's previously irrsesistible attacking force that we've seen all season. And the two key components were English.  

Traditionally, there are two types of centre half. There is type 2: the athletic ball winner, also known as the marker, and he is best accompanied by a type 1: the guy who reads the game, often more technically advanced, and always the main talker, or the sweeper as he is conventionally – but somewhat inaccurately – regarded.

The greatest defences are made up of one of each of these profiles. Terry played alongside William Gallas that cold night against Everton a decade ago, and later had huge success alongside Ricardo Carvalho. As partners, each of these guys complimented Terry perfectly, with their pace, bravery and willingness to listen to their skipper’s orders. 

When I consider the best centre halves of my living memory, I think mainly of type 1’s. I think of Franco Baresi, Ronald Koeman, Paul McGrath, Laurent Blanc and Fabio Cannavaro. Each were cornerstones of respective great sides, but none of these were necessarily blessed with tremendous pace. However, each read the game superbly, marshalled their troops accordingly, used the ball intelligently, and, as a result of their lack of pace, they seldom dived in to tackles.

Terry too, while he’s unlikely to go down in history with as much reverence as the luminaries mentioned above, was forced to develop and adapt certain skills because he couldn’t rely on his pace to get him out of trouble. And this made him a world-class defender in his own right.

Put simply, John Terry is the closest England have had to a legendary type 1 defender so far this century. 

During England's tricky away matches in qualification for the 2014 World Cup, I watched on with concern.

There was Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott – each very good players in their own right – struggling with the intensity of patrolling England’s rearguard against a lively Polish front line in Warsaw.

Next came Montenegro away, where Lescott and Chris Smalling - two type 2's side by side - trod water for more than an hour as England's disorientated shape condemned them to the back foot, and we just about escaped with a point.

Finally, the dour goalless draw in Ukraine, where Cahill and Jagielka were run ragged by the interchanging movement of the hosts' forward line, sporadically taking a moment to hoof it towards poor, isolated Rickie Lambert. 

In Terry’s wake, Jagielka has been the best centre half commander Roy Hodgson could muster. But at 31 years old, the Everton man is very much for the present England reckoning, rather than the future. So if we're looking for a short term option, then why not upgrade to Terry, who - lest we forget - excelled during the last major championship at Euro 2012.   

Jagielka is not quite an archetypal type 1 – he is a watered-down version – and herein lies a major problem: England do not possess one any more.

More alarmingly still, I wonder if we’re ever likely to produce a great one again.

Such is the emphasis on pace in 21st Century football, there is an argument that John Terry would not have made the top professional ranks had he been born in the year 2000 rather than in 1980.

Indeed, were he a 13-year-old at an academy now, there’s a chance he’d be told he was too slow to cope with the demands of the frenetic top flight. As such, talented young type 1’s are currently being released by the same academies that are, all the while, producing type 2 defenders galore – see Steven Caulker, Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling and Leicester's budding star Liam Moore.

Roy Hodgson will be acutely aware of this significant dearth, and is no doubt on the lookout for Terry’s heir apparent as a matter of urgency. One hopes he carries this message to St George’s Park and the academies further afield, because if talented type 1 communicators continue to be tossed onto football’s scrapheap due to a lack of pace, then this dieing breed will become an endangered species.

For now, the FA and its manager must make every effort to march on to the World Cup with their last great type 1 centre half, chief communicator and master defensive strategist in tow.

Because while I am not here to comment on John Terry’s moral integrity, what I do know is England desperately need this Rolls Royce of a football player.

Click here to read more football comment from Ben Cove.