PARIS (AP) — England is running short of legends.
Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard both qualify. But this Premier League season looks like being their last. The all-time record goal-getter for Chelsea and the Liverpool captain both head for Major League Soccer swan songs from July.
Paul Scholes, one of the top names on Manchester United’s official list of “legends,” by virtue of his 718 appearances and 155 goals for the club in two decades of success under Alex Ferguson, has recycled himself as a sharp TV pundit, surprising for a player so taciturn and private before his retirement in 2013.
Former England captain and Scholes’ ex-teammate Rio Ferdinand, now 36, is winding down at Queens Park Rangers, in the bottom reaches of the Premier League as age blunts the elegant pace that graced his 12 years at the top with United.
Which leaves who?
One consequence of allowing so many foreign imports to crowd out homegrown players is that the Premier League now has just a handful, and arguably not even that, of English bona-fide megastars still at the top who meet the dictionary definition of a legend: “A person having a special place in popular opinion for their striking qualities or deeds.”
Remarkably for a player his age, John Terry still ticks that box.
There are few more unappealing characters in the English game than Chelsea’s captain. Legendary deeds — Terry has won titles galore at Chelsea — don’t automatically also make someone likable or even admirable. The racist insult Terry directed at a black player, Ferdinand’s brother Anton, in 2011 and repeated boorish off-field behavior are indelible stains.
But credit where credit is due. Convincing Jose Mourinho, a manager with no qualms about discarding players who don’t meet his exacting standards, that he is still indispensable to Chelsea’s future is an achievement.
Before Chelsea crossed London to West Ham on Wednesday night, looking to increase its Premier League lead over Manchester City to eight points, Mourinho said he will keep Terry next season, which will be his 18th for the only club he has played for, and possibly even beyond that.
To prevent the onset of complacency, to keep them motivated and “to make them feel the past doesn’t play a role and it’s all about the present and tomorrow,” Chelsea offers older players take-it or leave-it one-year deals, even to those of Terry’s stature, who agreed to such a contract for this season, Mourinho explained.
“If they don’t accept they are not ready for the challenge, and we wouldn’t want them. John accepted the first challenge last year, accepted this season already. That is a guarantee the fire is there,” the manager said. “If the fire is there, this (next) contract will not be the last contract he signs.”
Such a public vote of confidence for a central defender who will turn 35 in December signals that Mourinho is determined not to make manager Arsene Wenger’s mistake at London rival Arsenal, building teams top-heavy with young talent but wobblingly short of a seasoned spine of leadership.
By some measures, this already has been one of Terry’s best Chelsea seasons. Already the highest-scoring defender in club history, Terry added another six in 36 games before the trip to West Ham, including Chelsea’s opener in its 2-0 triumph over Tottenham in the League Cup final on Sunday.
Unlike with other players more reliant on raw speed, age hasn’t seriously eroded skills that have long made Terry one of the world’s best defenders. He still foresees danger and quickly reads the game and remains the tough guy willing to put himself in harm’s way, as he famously did when kicked unconscious diving for a header in Chelsea’s League Cup final win against Arsenal in 2007.
But it is Terry’s on-field management that Mourinho most needs, marshalling and stiffening the defense that allows Chelsea’s fearsome attack to roam forward. Terry’s partner at the back, Gary Cahill, still doesn’t provide the same you-shall-not-pass bulldog presence as Chelsea’s “captain, leader, legend,” to quote the banner hung by fans at the club’s Stamford Bridge stadium.
Kurt Zouma, signed a year ago from French club Saint-Etienne, is a fabulous defensive prospect, quick-thinking, cool under pressure, and able to play in front of the defense as well as in it.
But Zouma is only 20. He will learn from another season under the most successful captain in Chelsea history, just as the younger Terry did in his early club days under Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf, 1998 World Cup winners with France.
And once Terry, Lampard, Gerrard and other giants are gone, who will be England’s legends in future?
The Premier League was more English, with greater use of home players, when Terry started for Chelsea in 1998. Wayne Rooney is on course for legendary status, with Bobby Charlton’s scoring records for England and Manchester United in his sights.
But English players with such stature, experience and achievements look an increasingly rare breed in a league relying ever more on foreigners for “striking qualities or deeds.”
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
This article was written by John Leicester from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.