Terry: Lessons from a legend
Twenty years after he signed for Chelsea, the impact and influence Gianfranco Zola had around the club can still be felt. Speaking exclusively to the club’s official website, John Terry, the most successful captain in our history, pays tribute to his former team-mate and one of the true greats…
When Gianfranco Zola signed for the Blues from Parma on 8 November 1996, John Terry was just a teenage boy with big dreams.
His only target at that time was doing enough in training, and when playing for our youth and reserve teams, to earn his Chelsea debut which would eventually come in a League Cup game against AstonVilla in 1998.
Terry remembers Zola’s arrival vividly and explains why the Italian, who was an established international when he joined, had such a positive impact on everybody at the club.
‘When he came his professionalism stood out,’ Terry says. ‘He was such a big name in world football but he really took to the younger players. I was only 16, doing my YTS, but he had so much time for everyone. He always wanted to help us younger players and give us advice.
‘I’d always try to watch the way he prepared for training and games. As a kit boy I used to have to be in at 7.30am or 8am in the morning and he would come in at the same time. He’d be in the gym stretching and doing strength work which, back then, was unheard of really, so he was very much ahead of his time. It was great to pick his brains and we’d always be asking him questions about what he was doing and why he was doing certain things.
‘He ended up making a head-tennis court in the gym, it was only tiny but he got the tape out and we’d use a little ball, he used to beat us all every morning. He was such a big star but to see how he prepared for training and what he ate was great, he took care of himself in every way.’
Terry says the guidance he was given by Zola during his early days has benefited him immensely over the course of what has been an outstanding career.
‘He set high standards at the club, he didn’t accept people not working hard or not trying, and obviously when you have players like Gianfranco around it naturally lifts the quality and intensity of the sessions,’ he adds.
‘Even after training he’d grab a bag of balls, call you over as a young defender and run at you, twisting, turning and leaving you in tangles. It was all a learning curve, though, because he would step in and tell you where to position your body to make it more difficult for the striker. He was always offering advice.
‘It was the same with his free-kicks. Over the years we saw so many of them go in the top corner and as a youngster watching from the stands, every time we got a free-kick on the edge of the box you fancied him to score. That was purely because he worked so hard and practiced them over and over. That was a massive lesson to us all back then.’
Terry went on to play alongside Zola many times, but while he was delighted to be on the same team as the little maestro in competitive matches, it was a different story in training.
‘Training against him was a nightmare because he had everything,’ saysthe Chelsea captain. ‘He could drop off and play in that little hole where he would twist and turn on the ball, but he was also very quick and he worked hard on his explosiveness.
‘His ability on the ball was just natural, he was one of the best players I’ve ever seen. As a centre-half you didn’t know whether to get tight against him because if you did, he’d be able to spin and go in behind, and he also had the acceleration to pull away.’
Zola was a hugely popular figure with supporters during his time at the club and the example he set to the likes of Terry wasn’t just limited to the pitch, as his former team-mate explains.
‘He’d always have time for the fans after a game and he stressed to us younger players the importance of doing that,’ Terry recalls.
‘He’d tell us that one day there would be a time when nobody wanted your autograph and little things like that have always stuck with me.
‘He gave us so many great memories and he’s a true legend at this club.’