Self-styled and choreographed to within an inch of its life, the John Terry Chelsea leave-taking was high on cringe and sentimentality and follows an unfortunate trend in modern sport.
You don’t hear much about football testimonials anymore and, to most supporters, that is assuredly a good thing. In an age when top players can command total career earnings resembling the GDP of small Caribbean nations, nothing feels more incongruous or just plain wrong. As a note of gratitude to players who have already been thanked millions of times over, the gesture seems unnecessary, if not altogether crass.
After the crude theatrics at Stamford Bridge last weekend, sponsored by John Terry Productions, perhaps it is time for a rethink. Maybe there is a place for the old-fashioned testimonial after all, a gentle kick-about in which the regular Fifa rules can be waived in any number of novel and interesting ways, thus avoiding the farce that pertained when Terry, in his final outing for Chelsea, orchestrated his own substitution in the 26th minute to tally with the shirt number he had worn for the duration of his stay with the club.
Predictably, Terry’s Broadway turn provoked a range of reactions. There was outrage at the sheer neck and perceived tackiness of it. Then there was outrage at the outrage itself. The thrust of the latter seemed to be that, given the horrific nature of events happening elsewhere, most notably a couple of hundred miles north of the capital, getting worked up about something that happened on a football field seemed as ludicrous and over the top as Terry’s leave-taking itself.
But this seems problematic on a very basic level. In the wake of terrorist atrocities, such as the one that struck in Manchester last week, are we not told that the the most fitting response to such unspeakable provocation is to continue with normal everyday life as much as is humanly possible and what could be more normal than finding fault with the overblown spectacle that was Terry’s valedictory appearance for his club.
It is true that in an extensive rap sheet accumulated over the years, last week’s vanity project might struggle to even make the top 10. Still, to act as organiser and chief choreographer at your own ceremonial leave-taking surely takes a level of chutzpah that would make even Cristiano Ronaldo blush. And given such a monumental level of self-regard, it’s hardly surprising that Terry would face down the criticism by saying he couldn’t care less. It was his day and he pretty much did what he liked with it.
But Terry isn’t just the story here. Because these long, overwrought celebrations seem to have seeped right through into the fabric of modern sport itself, partly a consequence of the grip that the media and marketing departments have taken on people, whom they label as consumers. As they simply can’t be trusted to find the desired note anymore, fans have to be instructed and there is an increasing range of emotional stewards to guide them, from broadcasters to stadium announcers and, now, it seems, even the players themselves.
A couple of weeks before John Terry, we had the drawn-out saga of Tottenham’s farewell game at White Hart Lane. For sure, the ceremony had some nice touches to it and 118 years of history was worth marking in some fashion but, to an outsider at least, the entire thing seemed painfully and needlessly overcooked. Spurs aren’t going anywhere, after all. In an effort to increase revenue and make certain people even wealthier than they already are, the club is moving, what, all of 50 yards closer to the High Street.
If there is comfort to be drawn, it lies in the fact that football has yet to reach the gargantuan levels of sentimental schlock that pertain in America. Two weeks ago the New York Yankees staged a pre-game ceremony for legendary player Derek Jeter that was so gut-wrenchingly solemn and over-wrought that one radio commentator described it as a “living wake.” “Derek Jeter is not dead,” he felt obliged to remind his listeners. “DEREK JETER IS NOT DEAD.” What distinguished this particular occasion was that Jeter actually retired from baseball three years ago. This ceremony, billed by the Yankees marketing wing as “Derek Jeter night”, was to retire his No.2 jersey. No doubt they will have given John Terry a few ideas.
Of course, none of this is to say there isn’t a place in society for memorials and tributes, and sentiment unquestionably has a part to play in that, as does sport, but it is also true that sport doesn’t lend itself quite so well to such overbearing displays of pageantry. Millions are spent every couple of years on ever more flamboyant and choreographed opening ceremonies for major sporting events, but beyond a temporary surge of national pride, what true purpose do they serve? Millions that could be spent on more pressing and worthy causes.
Sport is good and wholesome for a whole raft of reasons, but one of its special joys is its inherent unpredictability, its endless capacity to upstage whatever scripts we believe to be ordained and uplift even the dreariest of souls. Which is why such deliberate, staged theatrics sit so awkwardly alongside it. And why Terry’s self-managed exit stuck in the craw of so many people. Garth Crooks is often maligned as a pundit, but he struck the target when he said: “This isn’t Hollywood. This is a Premier League fixture.” And that gap is been narrowed all the time.
These things work best when they are spontaneous, not rehearsed to within an inch of their lives. And when they are rehearsed, they lose the essence of what sport is supposed to be about. The fans begin to resemble a set of extras. The Chelsea fans who raised a couple of grand between them to create a tribute banner to cover the entire Shed End can be applauded for their sense of industry and initiative but something about the economics doesn’t sit right. In a show of his own making, couldn’t John Terry have afforded his own banners?
The mind drifts back over 20 years now, a night at Anfield when a Euro 96 play-off defeat at the hands of the Netherlands draws the curtain on Jack Charlton’s career as Ireland boss. Sensing the end of an era, the Ireland fans massed in the Kop End refuse to leave until the manager has emerged to pay his dues and you do not have to be much of a fan of Charlton the man or manager to appreciate the intimacy and profound impact of that moment.
It was perfect because it stemmed from a well of a deeply-rooted collective emotion that didn’t need to be corralled or harvested. That’s what sport should be and the scriptwriters trying to shape and form our collective responses would do well to pay heed.