Tribalism alive and kicking in hateful derby
When "Number 26 -- John Terry" was read out on a night of endless hostility and some thrilling football, applause rippled through the Chelsea end.
The recipient of this support scratched his neck frantically like someone bothered by his nerves and then went on with his warm-up in a Chelsea team more black than white.
Terry woke yesterday to find his face on every newspaper front page beneath headlines of the utmost seriousness.
The Crown Prosecution Service's decision to charge the England captain with a "racially aggravated public order offence" must have felt like an out-of-body-experience to a household name who was due at White Hart Lane to lead his team in the battle of third versus fourth in the Premier League.
The show goes on. But how weird it looked. There was no mistaking the look of disorientation in Terry's eyes. In the tunnel, Sky's camera fixed itself on him with unusual intensity. He tried to stare over and beyond the lens, wiping his nose and then drying his hand on his tracksuit top.
A few feet ahead gleamed the clear pitch: a place of sanctuary, footballers always tell us, unless they are due at West London Magistrates' Court in February to "fight tooth and nail" (Terry's phrase) to prove their innocence.
On he trotted, without his usual proprietorial air, to derision from the Park Lane end, where the Spurs supporters behind Petr Cech's goal fizzed with animosity.
This was just the start of a long night of insult-trading by both sets of fans. Boy, do this lot hate each other.
To report on often stupid taunting might seem a waste of space after a game of so much fervour, except there is no ignoring the context brought into play by the eight-match ban imposed on Liverpool's Luis Suarez and the criminal charge laid against Terry, who took a verbal pounding from the home crowd.
His first act was to stifle a Gareth Bale attack in harness with his old wingman, Ashley Cole. The two exchanged a low-five. This was the signal for Chelsea's boisterous followers to assert their support for their leader and for Tottenham's to fire back: "John Terry, your mum's a thief," a reference to his mother's caution for shoplifting in 2009.
Then Chelsea's fans came over all sociological, chanting at the Spurs contingent: "You stupid b-******, you burned your own town," a comment, of course, on this summer's riots, which were always unlikely to extend to Fulham or the King's Road.
From Chelsea: "There's only one England captain."
From Spurs: "John Terry, you know what you are."
Expect this to be a constant feature of Chelsea games from now on.
What we have in the midst of an enthralling title race is a looming court date, lingering TV shots, headcams for stewards, a presumption of innocence struggling to hold its ground in the twitter age and a great swamp of tribalism.
This, more than anything. Already we are seeing that the moral contortions take much lower rank with many fans than finding excuses to bait the opposition. The animosity directed at Terry here was less about outrage on the Tottenham side than the suspicion of weakness and vulnerability in the enemy's ranks.
Chelsea's pro-Terry chanting will seem objectionable to those who think it would be decent to see how he gets on in court before rushing to stand in his corner, much as Liverpool's pro-Suarez t-shirts point to a kind of blind loyalty.
Here at the Lane there was a simpler urge at play. Spurs' fans attacked Terry so Chelsea's rushed to his side. Football is not a philosophy seminar, on or off the pitch. Nor does it know how to behave, much of the time. Its saving grace is enterprise and entertainment.
The last time Terry was under such scrutiny was after his alleged affair with the ex-partner of Wayne Bridge and his subsequent demotion as England captain.
Then, too, we examined the vortex around him and then left him to his strange life of John Bull intensity, macho defending and high-profile controversies.
We will do the same again now: wander off to find other talking points while the levers of justice start to crank. There will be nothing left to say until a magistrates' court decides the next step.
In the meantime, Terry will plough on. (© Daily Telegraph, London)