Officially, nothing happened. This is, by the way, no minor detail: to this day Vanessa Perroncel fervently denies that any affair took place between her and John Terry in late 2009, and she has the printed apologies and legal documents to back it up. Normally this bit is begrudgingly buried at the bottom of the piece. But it’s worth dwelling on, if only because it forces us to confront the vast, incalculable gulf between what we definitively know and what, over the years, we’ve simply assumed.
A decade on, fact and fiction remain knottily entangled. Over time, the story of how Terry and his former friend and Chelsea teammate Wayne Bridge found themselves at the centre of one of English football’s most hysterical scandals begins to feel surreal, perhaps even a touch unreal: a bad memory that most would prefer to pretend never happened.
Even so, this is a tale that invokes a multitude of still-relevant issues: the limits of privacy, the obligations of celebrity, the boundaries of press freedom, what happens when the lawless, unregulated longing of new media meets the ravenous, swaggering bombast of the old. But it also touched on timeless and universal tropes: friendship and betrayal, voyeurism and morality, our sordid and irresponsible curiosity for what famous people do in the privacy of their own bedrooms.
It would define the lives and reputations of all three. A decade on, Bridge still gets the words “John Terry” shouted at him every time he walks past a building site, or posts a fitness video on social media. For his part, Terry’s personal brand was irrevocably tarnished, the England captaincy stripped from him, his status as the game’s most convenient villain cemented. But really, the human core of this story isn’t a footballer at all.
For Perroncel, a 33-year-old single mother who had broken no laws, the events of early 2010 would be a cruel tutelage in the way football and society treats women: the sex‑shaming, the humiliation, the public guillotine. The way they are regarded as male property, to be held and exchanged without agency. The way they are framed in terms of the male gaze, a framing that is then used against them. In one breath, Perroncel was reduced to her sexuality alone; in the next, she was condemned for it.
“The woman who brought down John Terry”, as one newspaper put it, was born in 1976 in Bandol, a village on the Côte d’Azur. Her parents ran a clothes shop and split up when she was five; her father died when she was 11. After spending her teenage years in Paris doing acting and modelling work she moved to London, where she took a job at a nightclub in Soho to earn a bit of extra cash. Here, in 2004, she met a Chelsea footballer named Wayne Bridge.
Then aged 23, Bridge was a left‑back at the peak of his powers. Signed for £7m from Southampton at the outset of the Roman Abramovich era, he would prove pivotal in his first season at Chelsea, scoring the vital late goal that knocked Arsenal out of the Champions League. For years, Bridge’s biggest obstacle had been an absence of self-belief: the killer instinct that propels good players to the very top of the game. Finally, the tide appeared to be turning.
Bridge and Perroncel were together for five years, and during that time developed a close friendship with a man whose stature and personality held the club in an almost imperial grip. From growing up in relative poverty in east London and starting out as a YTS trainee on £48 a week, Terry had risen to a position of extraordinary power in the court of Abramovich: captain of England, captain of Chelsea, one of the very few people with an open door to the owner himself, who would consult him on tactics, teammates, potential signings, even managers.
What must it have been like for a young man such as Bridge to arrive from sleepy Southampton and step into Terry’s world? Those who knew Terry reckoned he had changed a bit since his younger days. It wasn’t so much the money, more the control it bought him; not so much the success on the pitch, more the adulation and repute they had earned. There was a heft and an aura to him, a spikiness and an intensity underpinned by a curious low-slung insecurity. “There are no jokes [made] at him, never,” Carlo Ancelotti would say. “I don’t know if the players are scared of him.”
For a while, as he rose to the summit of the English game, Terry had cut a popular figure in the media for his affable manner and ability to give a straight answer to a straight question. But he had been badly burned, too. In late 2009 his father, Ted, had been trapped in an elaborate sting by the News of the World, caught supplying cocaine to an undercover reporter. The following month, the same newspaper filmed Terry Jr apparently accepting £10,000 for a private tour of the Chelsea training ground.
He claimed the money went to charity but the collage being assembled was of a man with almost untrammelled power and a gambler’s streak, with the political cover to do and take as he pleased, and the messianic self-belief to explain it away afterwards. The previous summer, after a bid from Manchester City, Terry had successfully negotiated a contract worth in the region of £170,000 a week. Pointedly, in their meeting it was Terry who had sought assurances of Abramovich’s commitment, not the other way round.
That same summer Bridge and Perroncel split. Bridge had moved to Manchester City in early 2009 and, after trying to make the relationship work for a few months, the pair called it a day. At some point after that, Terry started visiting Perroncel and her three-year-old son, Jaydon, at their house in Surrey. In an interview with the Observer, and in every other interview she has given on the matter, Perroncel was unequivocal: the pair were friends, nothing more. “What we had cannot be described as an affair,” she said. “It was a friendship. Not one word of what was written about me was true.”
On 22 January 2010, with the News of the World sniffing around a potential story, Terry dispatched the law firm Schillings to the high court to apply for an interim injunction, banning publication on the basis that it would breach his right to “private and family life”. One week later, in Terry v Persons Unknown, the Honourable Mr Justice Tugendhat overturned it, arguing in a stinging rebuke that the substance of Terry’s complaint was not to safeguard his privacy but “to protect [his] reputation, in particular with sponsors”.
The injunction was lifted at 2pm on 29 January, at which point all hell broke loose.
‘Betrayed by his captain’
The British press has never needed much of an excuse to publish salacious celebrity gossip. Here, though, there were two aggravating factors. The sensational accounts of Tiger Woods’s marital infidelity a few months earlier had stoked the public’s appetite for a sporting sex scandal. In addition, there was a collective resolve within Fleet Street to punish Terry for having the audacity to muzzle them. All day, rumours of an impending story involving Terry’s private life had been streaking across the internet like fire. The following day, the story had pushed Tony Blair’s incendiary appearance at the Chilcot inquiry off most of the nation’s newspaper front pages.
The initial coverage focused almost exclusively on Terry’s supposed betrayal of a teammate. The fact the England pair no longer played for the same club, that Bridge and Perroncel were no longer a couple, the strenuous denials that any affair had taken place: all were conveniently brushed aside. “JOHN TERRY CHEATS ON WIFE,” read the headline on page one of the Daily Mirror. “Betrayed by his captain and best pal,” read the inside spread in the Sun, beneath a double‑page photograph of Perroncel in her underwear. From the very start this was a tale in which men would be framed as the protagonists, and women the passive accessories.
Above all, what was largely forsaken in the feeding frenzy was any concept that these were humans, for all their faults, having their lives ripped to pieces. “My primary concern is the welfare of my son,” Bridge said in a statement issued through his lawyer. Terry’s wife, Toni, flew with the couple’s three-year-old twins to Dubai, where she was followed by a phalanx of photographers and journalists, straining to catch a glimpse of the grieving woman glowering by the pool in her designer bikini.
Within the game, there was a good deal of sympathy for Bridge. Dozens of players sent him supportive messages. Even the Chelsea dressing room, nominally loyal to its captain, was deeply split. That Sunday, two days after the allegations surfaced, Bridge’s City teammates Carlos Tevez, Stephen Ireland and Nigel de Jong all wore T-shirts reading “Team Bridge” after the club’s victory against Portsmouth. With remarkable speed, this most private of matters was beginning to polarise along extremely public battle lines.
“If you acted like [Terry did] in Argentina, you’d be dead,” Tevez later said. “In my opinion, Terry has no moral code for what he did to Bridge. In my neighbourhood, if you do that, you lose your legs.”
What of Perroncel? She was not an England captain, nor an England footballer, nor even very much of a celebrity. Clearly there was no public interest justification in exposing her private life, and yet in order to go after Terry that was exactly what needed to happen. In its lust to hold Terry to the flames, the press thus needed to find some justification for burning Perroncel too. She needed to be recast as a malign influence, one who deserved everything that would come her way in the subsequent days, weeks and years.
Out came the classic caricatures. The News of the World called her “the brazen brunette”, a disloyal home-wrecker. “A woman of truly voracious ambition,” declared a particularly spiteful article in the Daily Mail. It alleged – without proof – that she had slept with seven of the Chelsea squad. That she had had an abortion paid for by Terry.
“I didn’t know what to say or do,” Perroncel later remembered. “It felt horrible. I have a three-year-old son, a child that is going to read about this. It is all made up. But you can’t compete. What can you do?”
By now, of course, there were newer forms of media to worry about. The rip-roaring salaciousness of the allegations made them a perfect target for social media’s nascent football banter culture. Photoshopped images of Bridge beating Terry to a pulp pinged across the web. “John Terry has scored more often away from home than at home. Cheeky,” tweeted OptaJoe, the popular football stats account. Messageboards and email chains glowed white hot with bad topical jokes. Hey, John Terry has signed up to star in a new TV show. It’s called Other Footballers’ Wives. Hey, what have Wayne Bridge’s ex and the 2008 Champions League final goalpost got in common? They’ve both been banged by John Terry.
All of a sudden, everyone from Twitter users to highbrow columnists had to have an opinion. A YouGov poll found that only 7% of the British public thought Toni should take Terry back. Further afield, they were more bemused than outraged. Sepp Blatter, Fifa’s president at the time, declared the shrill reaction “Anglo-Saxon”, and posited that if it had happened in a Latin country Terry “would have been applauded”. Over time the John Terry/Wayne Bridge saga became a blank canvas. It was sex, it was friendship, it was football, it was your lame joke, it was the arch Shakespearean reference you deployed to make yourself look clever at dinner parties. It was, in short, whatever you wanted it to be.
Summoned to Wembley
For Fabio Capello, the England manager building towards the World Cup in South Africa, it was a monumental pain in the backside. Capello had been convalescing from knee surgery in his Swiss holiday home when the story broke, and it wasn’t for another six days – the following Thursday – that he returned to England. His assistant, Franco Baldini, had been speaking to players in the meantime, and at Capello’s Belgravia home they discussed what should become of his captain and his second-choice left-back. “Here you read more things about this than in other countries,” Capello would later observe. “But it’s not normal, what happened between Terry and Bridge. I have never experienced it.”
Demonstrating their characteristic decisive leadership, the Football Association delegated the decision to Capello in full. The next day, 5 February, tracked for every yard of his journey by a Sky News helicopter, Terry was summoned to Wembley and sacked as captain after a 12-minute meeting. “He had to make a decision quickly,” said the prime minister, Gordon Brown, interrogated as he left a cabinet meeting. “He couldn’t let it go on. But he alone can know what effect this is having in the dressing room.”
Perhaps Capello’s intention was to clip Terry’s wings and keep Bridge in the fold. If so, it backfired. A few weeks later, on 25 February, Bridge abruptly brought his 36-cap England career to an end, claiming his presence was “untenable and potentially divisive”. Undeterred, the Daily Mail described him as a “wimp” and a “cuckold” for his decision.
Attention now turned to the Saturday lunchtime fixture between Chelsea and Manchester City, at which the pair would meet for the first time. Rarely, if ever, has the build-up to such a high-end Premier League fixture – Chelsea were top of the table, City fourth – been so utterly shrouded in off-field intrigue. One bookmaker offered odds of 7-2 on every City player refusing to shake Terry’s hand, and 10-1 for either player to receive a card for a tackle on the other.
Behind the scenes, remarkably, many of the same discussions were taking place. Privately, Bridge was torn. He was emboldened by the messages of solidarity, some from within the Chelsea dressing room, some from within his own. But he was mindful, too, of the City hierarchy, and their strong preference for him to avoid fuelling the controversy further. Even as the teams lined up in the tunnel, club officials were still urging Bridge to shake Terry’s hand.
In a piece of footage that has probably been parsed and replayed in more granular detail than the Kennedy assassination video, Terry offered his hand. Bridge ignored it. In front of a banner behind the Shed End goal reading “TEAM TERRY”, an inspired, vengeful City won 4-2, their first win at Stamford Bridge in 17 years. “Everybody in football knows what John Terry is like off the field,” a gleeful Craig Bellamy said afterwards. “I know what JT is like. Nothing surprises me about him.”
And that, in a way, was that. Showdown complete, honour satisfied, or at any rate what was left of it. Over time Terry’s carefully plotted media strategy – say nothing at all, wait a suitable period of time for the storm to blow over – began to bear fruit. There was an elaborately choreographed reconciliation with his wife in Dubai, with the paparazzi handily in place to document their public displays of affection. Then, after England’s 3-1 win against Egypt at Wembley in March, Terry finally broke his silence to magnanimously declare the crisis over. “We need to forget about all that now,” he told us all. “I hope this draws a line under everything.”
‘A national trauma’
Of course Terry had the advantage of being able to let his football drown out the noise. Around the same time Terry was being restored to the England captaincy, Bridge’s career was beginning to wind to a quiet halt. In the summer of 2010, Roberto Mancini made his intentions clear by signing Gaël Clichy and Aleksandr Kolarov in his position. In 2014, after loan spells at West Ham, Sunderland and Brighton, followed by an injury‑plagued swansong at Reading, Bridge retired.
“The most disappointing aspect of it all,” he admitted years later, “is that I’m probably more famous for not shaking someone’s hand than I am for playing football. I get abuse walking down the street. I still don’t think anyone knows the full story.”
The sociologist Dr Neil Ewen describes the controversy and Terry’s subsequent 2012 racism trial (an incident precipitated in part by Anton Ferdinand taunting Terry over his conduct with Perroncel) as a “peculiar kind of national trauma”. In a paper on the subject, he posits Terry as a subversion of the idealised English hero: indomitable on the pitch, fatally corrupted by money and fame off it. While Terry on the pitch came to embody the very best of English football, off it he came to embody the very worst.
To this day Terry has still said virtually nothing about the controversy. Those close to him insist that as far as he is concerned none of it ever really happened. After retiring in 2018, he was appointed as assistant coach of Aston Villa and still lives in Surrey with Toni. Barely a stone’s throw away is the home that Bridge shares with his new wife, Frankie. According to multiple sources, the two men are still not on speaking terms.
Perroncel also lives in Surrey, with Jaydon. She keeps a low profile these days and did not respond to requests for comment. You can’t really blame her. For years to come, and perhaps for the rest of her life, her name and her reputation will be synonymous with the names of Terry and Bridge, and the few squalid weeks in which her life changed for ever. Every so often – usually as a result of something Bridge or Terry have said or done – some website will find an excuse to publish pictures of her doing something extremely mundane. Driving a car. Going to the shops. Visiting a theme park with her son.
For the big tabloid beasts, a different sort of reckoning was coming. The News of the World was mothballed in the midst of the 2011 phone-hacking scandal; elsewhere, declining sales have slowly eroded the once-frightening influence of the printed press. The Leveson report in 2012 exposed some of the industry’s more scurrilous practices, as well as the culture of shaming and invasion that defined them for decades. “There is ample evidence,” Leveson wrote, “that parts of the press have taken the view that … anyone in whom the public might take an interest are fair game, public property, with little if any entitlement to any sort of private life or respect for dignity. Where there is a genuine public interest in what they are doing, that is one thing; too often, there is not.”
Was there any public interest in exposing the personal interactions of three unelected private individuals, beyond our own sordid nosiness? Does the press exist simply to satisfy the desires of the public, or must it stand for more? What are the human consequences of our thirst for gossip, and the means by which it is satisfied? A decade on, these are questions that we are all still asking.
On 3 October 2010, more than eight months after the initial story was published, Vanessa Perroncel finally got her apology. A short notice appeared at on page 18 of the News of the World, buried at the bottom of a column of text. It read:
On January 31 and afterwards we published some personal information about Vanessa Perroncel in articles concerning an alleged affair with the footballer John Terry. Miss Perroncel has since informed us that she would have preferred her personal information to remain private and it was untrue in any case. We apologise to Miss Perroncel for any distress caused.