If you had told John Terry when he lifted the Champions League title in 2012 that he’d be ending his career at West Bromwich Albion, his response would’ve likely been a Phil-Jones-esque-gurn of confused disbelief.
If you had told a Chelsea fan the same thing when Terry lifted the Premier League crown just two years ago, they’d probably have been borderline offended by your suggestion of such a modest ultimate setting for one of their all-time heroes – a one-club hero, for that matter.
West Bromwich Albion are an unfashionable club with an unfashionable manager; at a superficial glance, it’s hardly a graceful place to end such a glistening career. Likewise, it’s hardly alluring when compared to the comfort, idolisation and financial incentives Terry could enjoy in the Chinese Super League or the MLS, simply by smiling for the cameras every now and then and lacing up his boots every Saturday.
But Chelsea’s Captain, Leader, Legend reportedly believes he still has something to offer the Premier League and all twenty managers would likely agree with him, even if they don’t all make offers when his Chelsea contract expires this summer. The problem is that you have to play in a certain way to get the absolute best out of Terry, whilst more fanciful systems of high defensive lines and bombing full-backs can make him look distinctly average. The beauty of West Brom, however, is that they’re already employing the kind of philosophy that can make Terry look like a world-beater once again.
The Pulis game-plan isn’t always easy on the eye, especially away from home. But there’s no questioning how effective it’s been this season and in the absence of more aesthetic elements, it’s functionality can’t be faulted. West Brom’s system is all about getting the basics right to protect the defence as much as possible – something Terry has always needed due to his limited pace, but more now than ever at the age of 36.
Indeed, the system keeps the roles of the centre-backs relatively simple – partly a consequence of Pulis’ needs to play to the strengths of his own golden oldie, Gareth McAuley. The central defenders leave no space behind and are protected in front and out wide; their tasks instead are the nuts and bolts of the trade – clearing the ball away from the box, heading crosses and long balls to safety and blocking any attempts at goal. If the centre-backs are made to come out and win the ball in the way Terry no longer consistently can, someone further upfield hasn’t done their job properly.
Right now, that’s exactly what Terry needs – a system that allows him to get on with what he’s good at. For all his increasing limitations, Terry still reads the game as well as any defender in the Premier League, whilst he’s still near-impervious when defending the near post. That’s precisely what West Brom offer him.
The aforementioned McAuley provides the perfect case in point; if he can produce those levels of performance at the age of 37 towards the tail-end a largely mediocre career, imagine how at home a once world-class centre-back one year his junior would be in the same system. McAuley’s also made a huge difference at the other end with six goals this season and as the top-scoring defender in Premier League history, one can only assume Terry would offer equal potency from the same kind of service and Pulis’ devotion to making the absolute most from set pieces.
But footballing reasons shouldn’t be the only pull factor from Terry’s perspective. Pulis may be viewed by many as a footballing dinosaur, but West Brom are well on course to match their best ever finish in the Premier League, highlighting what a brilliant job the Welshman has done over the last few years. The Baggies have improved from last season and Pulis’ ability to get the best out of players with top-class pedigree – something many naively presumed was beyond his abilities as a survival specialist – has been a major factor.
Salomon Rondon is a former Champions League striker with Zenit, Nacer Chadli was part of Tottenham’s title bid last season and Darren Fletcher and Jonnie Evans won countless trophies together at Manchester United. Fletcher and Evans may be unfashionable footballers at unflattering stages of their careers, but Pulis has shown he can maximise their experience and natural ability in a lesser side – and perhaps more importantly, keep two players motivated despite them being accustomed to playing at a higher, more glamorous level.
Perhaps the greatest incentive for Terry, however, and one of the biggest reasons he should welcome reported interest from the Hawthorns, is the protection of his legacy at Chelsea. A move to another London club or to a Premier League rival would always leave a sour taste, regardless of what Terry has achieved in west London Frank Lampard’s move to Manchester City in 2014/15 split opinion and created tension when the Blues faced their title rivals at home and away that season, despite Lampard being the club’s all-time record goalscorer.
Whilst some may argue Terry’s earned the right to join any club he wants, moving to West Brom – a club with completely different ambitions and no real connections to Chelsea, positively or negatively – would ensure he’s always treated like a hero when he comes back to Stamford Bridge. Fans can be incredibly fickle, even when their Captain, Leader, Legend is involved, but joining West Brom would allow Terry to play his football without distracting questions about his loyalty to Chelsea. The same couldn’t be signed if he joined Liverpool, Arsenal or even West Ham.
Of course, more obvious and lucrative opportunities will come Terry’s way before the end of the season. But West Brom’s interest stems back to the January transfer window and for all the clubs that could sign him this summer, the veteran centre-back will struggle to find a team with a philosophy that suits him better. Likewise, the Hawthorns is the perfect place for Terry to enjoy his twilight years; in a team that supports him, at a club that stays out of the limelight, and with nothing to distract him from the simple hope of playing first-team football for as long as his body will allow.
West Brom and Tony Pulis may not be fashionable, but they’re exactly what Terry needs.