Reign of Terry in doubt as Chelsea kingpin loses way
The baronial hall where John Terry displays his framed football jerseys, England caps and replica trophies is an expanding monument to his indispensability. Meticulously arranged, the museum at his Surrey home rules out the possibility of decline.
More than most modern pros, Terry (below) has escaped the terror of being marginalised or dropped. Power has tended to flow upwards from him to the manager rather than down from the coach to the centre-half and captain.
Even in his less convincing phases he has cultivated an aura of unshiftability which Chelsea managers have generally tiptoed around.
Those days are sliding into shadow. In successive home Premier League games Terry has appeared indecisive, off the pace and prone to clumsiness.
The slip that allowed Arsenal's Robin van Persie to put the game beyond Chelsea in last month's 5-3 home defeat was one intimation of mortality. In Sunday's 2-1 home to loss to Liverpool, Terry was again unsure of his ground as Luis Suarez and Craig Bellamy flailed at Andre Villas-Boas' high defensive line with their speed and angled runs.
This season Terry's tackle success rate has dropped to a seven-year low of 68pc. The high of 93pc in 2007-08 is a distant memory for the leader of an increasingly leaky back four who have conceded 17 times in 12 league matches.
The imprecision in Terry's tackling points to a malaise that could turn out to be deeper than a bad starting position when the opposition start their attacks.
Given the chance by one of Roman Abramovich's circle, Terry might be tempted to grumble about the positional indiscipline and physical timidity of David Luiz, his fellow centre-back, or Villas-Boas' insistence that pressure on opposing sides should start with the defence pressed high up the pitch. He could play the loyal servant speaking truth to power.
Political influence has rescued him from many tight spots since he established a quasi-managerial role at the head of an influential core of players which also covers Petr Cech, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard -- all custodians of the glory years. But without his old reliability at the heart of the action he is less well placed to offer solutions.
Either his injury-weakened body is beginning to disobey the orders from his mind or the psychological shadow hanging over him has disrupted his normal athletic thinking. The alleged-racism investigation now in the hands of Hammersmith and Fulham police threatens everything -- his prospects of playing for England again (never mind the captaincy, which would be stripped for a second time), his chances of ever managing Chelsea, his whole place in society.
With each twist in the Terry-Anton Ferdinand imbroglio the pressure on the alleged perpetrator intensifies. Last week Sepp Batter dragged him in even deeper with his risible comments about handshakes and the absence of racism in the game. In the subsequent furore Blatter used Terry as an example of English hypocrisy while Tokyo Sexwale, a former inmate of Robben Island, said it was "not helpful" for Chelsea's No 26 to be wearing any captain's armband while the Loftus Road case was unresolved.
For each home game Terry walks into a multicultural stadium with many black staff. Opposition fans goad him with accusatory chants. On Sunday Villas-Boas wore an anti-racism badge on his raincoat. Even if he believes in his own innocence the threat of a guilty verdict and ostracisation by right-thinking society is an enemy to mental peace.
Sheer force of will has been another reliable Terry weapon -- not only for him but his team-mates. Many wilting Chelsea players have been lifted and forced over the winning line by their leader's appetite for a battle.
Even this counts for little if Glen Johnson, a full-back, is swerving through the Chelsea defence with three minutes left, to inflict a fourth league defeat in a dozen fixtures.
In those circumstances resilience and fist-clenching fall short. The problem becomes one of organisation and individual errors that no amount of barking can correct. Nor can Terry glance leftwards and see his old wingman, Ashley Cole, in quite the same light. Cole was tormented by Theo Walcott in the Arsenal game and twisted inside out by Johnson for Liverpool's winner.
These defensive vulnerabilities also reflect the ponderousness of John Obi Mikel in the screening role and bad communication between Cole and Florent Malouda, who seldom work together to cover each other's backs. If these players cannot operate Villas-Boas' more risky system he will have to find players who can, or else abandon the experiment.
Pressure now mounts for him to fast-track Oriol Romeu into the holding role and restore Alex to the back four while finding another job for Luiz.
In his vast memorabilia store at home, Terry has laid out his past with the skill of a natural curator. His future looks less well organised, and less brightly lit. (© Daily Telegraph, London)