There was a game of football set to be played, but you wouldn’t have known it. Chelsea versus Manchester City in February 2010 became more of a soap opera than a sporting contest.
That City would win the game 4-2 at Stamford Bridge, inflicting Carlo Ancelotti’s first home defeat as Chelsea boss, was strangely irrelevant. All anyone wanted to talk about was John Terry and Wayne Bridge.
The headlines were all about the pair’s broken friendship, on the back of rumours that Chelsea’s captain had been caught having an affair with Bridge’s ex-partner, Veronica Perroncel.
Formerly bosom buddies – excuse the pun – Terry and Bridge were now being billed as the fiercest of enemies. Their private lives were being played out before a backdrop of tabloid scandal.
A month after the News of the World first broke the story, they finally came face-to-face on a football pitch.
In one corner was the man being painted as a love rat; in the other was Bridge, the powerless victim whose former teammate had allegedly taken advantage of his move to Manchester by moving in on his former girlfriend.
That was how the papers painted it at least. Such were the claims and counter-claims to the contrary, it became a murky narrative that meant the public had to make their own minds up about who was the villain.
As seems so often in football circles, those decisions were largely influenced by which team you supported. For Chelsea fans, Terry had no case to answer; so much so, that when Bridge lined up against his former employers that afternoon, he was booed inside Stamford Bridge.
It was an odd atmosphere. Here was a player who, in 2004, had earned himself legend status by scoring the winning goal to knock Arsenal’s team of Invincibles out of the Champions League quarter-finals. He had been lauded in west London ever since, but then as news filtered through from tabloid newspapers in January 2010 about the breakdown of his relationship with Terry, he became an instant outcast. Bridge was now the enemy.
That fuelled the plot in front of the Sky Sports cameras, as everyone waited with bated breath to see if Bridge would shake hands with Terry in the pre-match presentation. Forget the tearing down of the Berlin Wall or any other international peace treaties – this was the history in the making. A Premier League footballer was about to snub another. And it was all live on TV.
The furore around Bridge’s rejection of Terry’s hand meant the media, supporters and broadcasters lost sight of what actually happened. The coverage focused on the controversy, forgetting that City’s victory represented something more meaningful than a revenge mission for Bridge.
The first of England’s nouveau riche, Chelsea had been dictating transfer windows for almost a decade, ever since Roman Abramovich had waltzed his way into west London. Any team chasing a new signing had to do it under the radar to avoid competition from Chelsea as the Blues were hoovering up talent.
Indeed, City themselves had previously benefitted when they sold Shaun Wright-Phillips to Chelsea in 2005 for an eye-watering £21 million.
The fee sounds like loose change in these days of multi-billion pound broadcasting deals, but a decade ago it was the sort of money spent on players who were signed to win titles single-handed. Wright-Phillips never held that status, of course, but his move was a sign of how Chelsea were inflating prices to dictate the market and get their way.
When Sheikh Mansour lifted the blueprint and implemented a similar policy in Manchester in 2009, that was all to change. Gradually Chelsea’s financial muscle has been diluted and the balance of power more evenly distributed, even if it is among a select few at the top of the pyramid.
But that was all in the boardroom. City were still to make the same sort of statements on the pitch. And then they thrashed Ancelotti’s Chelsea in convincing fashion.
From Frank Lampard putting Chelsea 1-0 up in the first half, City would score four goals before the hosts could reply for scant consolation. The Blues looked brittle as Carlos Tevez ran them ragged, bagging a brace alongside Craig Bellamy.
The day was supposed to be about Bridge, but it was Bellamy who would have the last word for City on and off the pitch. He scored his team’s last goal and, when he had a TV camera put in his face at the final whistle, he didn’t hold back.
“I know what JT is like. Nothing surprises me about it so I’m not going to comment on that guy,” said the Welshman. As ever, Bellamy went on to contradict himself by doing the very thing he said he wasn’t about to do: “I think everybody in football knows what the guy is like.”
Bellamy’s words were stinging for Terry, but the impact of the result has been even more so for Chelsea.