John Terry may have acted as big brother to Jack Grealish this season but the Aston Villa captain wore a look of youthful delight at confirmation another Wembley trip beckoned.
At 37, Terry is one game from returning to the Premier League and while that would prompt a personal dilemma about facing Chelsea it underlines the wisdom of Steve Bruce spending time on an Algarve golf course making Villa’s case last summer.
‘I had to take some beatings off him to get him signed,’ Bruce said before the play-off victory over Middlesbrough. ‘Letting him win, missing putts on purpose.’ There may be another round or two this summer but both men hope it is with the comfort of top-flight football again.
John Terry’s influence has played a key role in Aston Villa reaching the play-off final this year
The talismanic captain has led by example on and off the pitch to spur on his team-mates
Having beaten Middlesbrough in the semi-final, the 36-year-old had a look of youthful delight
Terry is ready to sign on for another campaign if Villa gain promotion – and take in his stride the prospect of lining up against his boyhood club – but staying down would mean serious discussions and most likely a parting of the ways. His £60,000-per-week wages would be untenable due to financial fair play rules.
A third season in the Championship is set to shred Villa’s budget and everyone at the club is aware of the importance of beating Fulham on May 26. But amid the pressure there is steely belief.
Terry’s influence has been instrumental in getting Villa to this point. Described by dressing-room sources as ‘quiet and reserved’, he does his leading by example through how he trains and what he eats. His calibre of achievements has naturally raised standards in a squad that was rudderless in relegation.
‘Should we be winning the league? Yes,’ was Terry’s view at the season start. ‘Nothing else is really acceptable for me as an individual and what I have been around in previous years. Missing out makes me boil inside.’ Villa fell short of that target but the fierce drive to succeed spoken by a player of his standing has provided a psychological spur.
Villa youngster Jack Grealish has been one of the biggest beneficiaries since Terry’s arrival
The 22-year-old has seen Terry like an older sibling who he cites as the reason for his fine form
Certainly Grealish is a beneficiary. The 22-year-old has enjoyed a coming-of-age campaign, emerging as Villa’s key creative influence and adding maturity to his game.
Against Boro Grealish covered huge ground to help form the blockade to keep a clean sheet and relieved pressure through controlled possession. The tricks are still there but done when appropriate and for effect.
Terry’s guidance has been a factor and if he is not quite a paternal figure then he is certainly an elder sibling. ‘I put a lot of my good form down to this guy,’ said Grealish at the Villa Park pitchside after being swamped by jubilant fans.
Grealish has said of Terry: ‘When he first signed I had to pinch myself. He is so professional and that rubs off on us young players. He is always the last person there, doing everything right.’
There are a number of pillars in the Villa team though. Mile Jedinak, 33, has been outstanding and was actually the first player to visit Grealish in hospital after his freak kidney injury last July.
While Terry has played a key role, midfield general Mile Jedinak has also been outstanding
In the likes of James Chester (L) and Robert Snodgrass, Terry is in a team of strong characters
Jedinak arrived on the Sunday morning following Grealish’s emergency surgery the night before and spoke for an hour, offering advice and encouragement.
Both Jedinak and Grealish returned from the treatment room in November and it is tempting to wonder whether the season would have finished positively by now had they been fit throughout.
Bruce also brought in Glenn Whelan, 34, and 30-year-olds Ahmed Elmohamady and Robert Snodgrass for senior stimulus and while that may create a conundrum of an ageing squad in the Premier League their experience this season has proved crucial.
Bruce inherited James Chester, who he knows well from Hull, and the Wales international has in truth been the best defender at the club, not missing a single Championship minute since signing in August 2016. Alan Hutton has excelled at left-back and Bruce wants to offer the 33-year-old a new contract if finances allow.
Lewis Grabban’s arrival in January provided fresh attacking impetus and the 30-year-old has impressed not only with his scoring – eight goals in 17 games – but his technical link-up play.
So Terry has been supported in forging a team of strong wills. It was that confident environment that James Bree, 20, stepped into on Tuesday night in replacing Elmohamady.
Terry’s galvanising effect on his team-mates has been crucial in their fight for promotion
Young defender James Bree, aided by Terry and his fellow defenders, impressed against Boro
Bree only got notice he was starting at right back due to the Egyptian’s injury a couple of hours before kick-off but he handled the occasion superbly.
Through a most turbulent personal period Bruce has steered the ship with his usual blend of determination and deft humour, galvanising a thoroughly professional performance over two legs, and another individual is also credited with a major impact.
Steve Agnew rejoined Bruce in December as first-team coach and is a highly accomplished and popular figure. ‘He has a session for every match situation,’ a source said.
Agnew was said to be key in coaxing the best from Scott Hogan at the turn of the year. His five goals in five games – including three winners – were vital.
So Villa’s story this season does owe much to Terry. But there are many who deserve credit too and their march forwards is steady and sure.