Date published: Thursday 16th March 2017 9:27
Carlo Ancelotti briefly flirted with the idea. Andre Villas-Boas embraced it, but later admitted he took the wrong approach. Rafael Benitez did the same, but such an intensely unpopular figure never stood a chance. Even Jose Mourinho attempted the impossible, but to no avail.
At least four doctors have walked through the revolving doors of Stamford Bridge’s operating theatre, each scrubbed to remove the heart of Chelsea Football Club and make the surgery as painless as possible. Each time the patient rejected the transplant, and each time the doctor was soon struck off.
In Antonio Conte, the Blues have finally found a surgeon meticulous enough to oversee the procedure. Chelsea are marching towards a fifth Premier League title, but their first with a peripheral long-standing captain.
For years, a dominant Blues side not spearheaded by their fearless leader was unfathomable. ‘John Terry is Chelsea,’ read the opening line to a fan-written letter addressed to Roman Abramovich in February 2016. A few days before, the 36-year-old attempted what would be his final power play at Stamford Bridge by announcing that the club had no intention of renewing a contract that was to expire that summer.
Terry would have foreseen the subsequent fan reaction. Chants of “Roman, sign him up” and “We want you to stay” echoed around Stamford Bridge at the club’s next home game, a 1-1 draw with Manchester United. He soaked in the post-match adulation of a worshipping Matthew Harding Stand. By May, a one-year extension was signed and celebrated.
It is hardly surprising that the captain has made no such announcement over his future this season; confirmation of the inevitable exit is unnecessary. It was once unthinkable that a manager could successfully remove Terry from his position of power – he ‘is Chelsea’, after all. That Conte has managed to engineer a situation where his departure goes almost unnoticed is quite something.
The secret to Conte’s success perhaps lies with one of his many predecessors. When Villas-Boas was appointed in the summer of 2011, part of his remit was to rebuild an ageing squad, Terry chief among them; he was sacked after nine months. A few months later he expressed his regret, admitting that his approach was too “aggressive”.
The same could never be said of Conte. It seems an eternity has passed since, but Terry started the season in a familiar role: at the heart of a first-choice defence. The manager gave Terry ample opportunity to prove himself, but the evidence showed only that he was no longer fit for purpose. He disappointed during the club’s first four Premier League games of the season, and has started just three games in all competitions since. While previous incumbents tried to publicly hang the captain out to dry, Conte handed the 36-year-old the noose. No manager sounded the death knell for Terry’s Chelsea career; his own performances did that job.
If any manager understands how much sway Terry once boasted at Chelsea, it is Conte’s direct predecessor. Claude Makelele wrote in his 2009 autobiography that Mourinho’s first reign as boss ended after a row with the defender. ‘If there is one person who is untouchable at Chelsea, then it is John,’ the former midfielder wrote. ‘And Mourinho knew.’
The Portuguese will be relieved that his latest attempts to sideline an influential captain have followed a far smoother path. Louis van Gaal surrendered to Wayne Rooney’s influence, while David Moyes signed him to the five-and-a-half-year-£300,000-a-week contract that makes his eventual exit slightly more difficult to manoeuvre than Terry’s. But Mourinho has dislodged Manchester United’s record goalscorer from his first team with almost no protest.
Like Terry at Chelsea, Rooney was played (and played and played) until the fans in his corner dwindled; he proved himself unfit for purpose without Jose Mourinho needing to sharpen his axe. He will be inconspicuously shuffled out of the back door this summer, and the football world will keep turning.
Terry and Rooney were once the beating hearts of their sides, but neither are able to keep the blood pumping and the success flowing for a lifetime. Many a surgeon was charged with removing the failing organs, but Conte and Mourinho are the only ones to have wielded the scalpel without even leaving a scar.