John Terry came within touching distance of the Premier League trophy at a sponsors' event in London on Thursday morning and felt another stab of the pain that has accompanied him since the end of last season.
"Seeing the trophy without the blue-and-white ribbons on ... it hurts, it really does," the Chelsea captain said. "Hurt is the only way I can describe it."
The central defender will not want for motivation when he begins the quest to wrest the title back from Manchester United and his image as the ultimate competitor felt reinforced. He spoke of wanting to win at simply everything, from five-a-side sessions to training-ground swims. Yet it was a different kind of perception that Terry found himself forced to address, as the excitement built ahead of Chelsea's opening fixture of the season at Stoke City on Sunday, which will represent the first test for the new manager, André Villas-Boas.
The popular theory goes that Terry and a seasoned cartel of players who thrived under the former manager, José Mourinho, run more than just the dressing room at Stamford Bridge. The influence of Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Petr Cech and Ashley Cole reaches across the club – up, even, to the owner, Roman Abramovich – and Villas-Boas, aged 33, will struggle to assert himself, particularly when results go badly.
Moreover, as Villas-Boas worked as a relatively humble opposition scout under Mourinho at Chelsea, his return at an elevated level is sure to feel incongruous to Terry and Co and is potentially problematic. Terry, though, dismissed those concerns, as he banged the drum for unconditional loyalty. "People think that about the club ... that a lot of us are strong and we've got too much input," he said. "I can honestly say that's not the case and, certainly, it hasn't been for the last four or five years.
"What you will get from the likes of myself, Lamps, Didier, Petr and Ash is that we'll be committed and we'll be making sure that everyone follows and listens to what he's saying. I think he knows that. He had this respect from us before, anyway. His age is not a problem at all.
"I also know there's this feeling out there that players like myself, Lamps and Didier, the players that have been there for a long time, take our places in the team for granted but it's the complete opposite. We are the ones, day in day out, who are digging in deep, getting everyone together and making sure we are setting the right example."
Terry has been impressed with Villas-Boas's conviction and his powers as a persuasive orator and has noted how the Portuguese worked on team shape from the outset, rather than pure pre-season fitness work, and how he has drilled the players to "press more and higher up the pitch".
Terry mentioned "certain things where you think that is very Mourinho-esque" and, although the comparisons were "a bit unfair to him", some of the similarities pointed towards that necessary authority. "We had a good relationship with José but there were days when you wouldn't have gone near him," Terry said. "And that's honestly the same [with Villas-Boas]."
Chelsea went unbeaten through pre-season and Terry senses optimism about the team's prospects, which would only swell with the "one or two" signings that he expects to see. The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Luka Modric is prominent on the list of targets. "Modric is a great player," Terry said, "so, whether it's us or another team, he would certainly make any team stronger.
"I think we are stronger than we were 12 months ago. Naturally Nando [Fernando Torres] was going to take a while to settle in and we're all hoping he can hit the ground running. Yossi [Benayoun] was injured last year but he's looked very good in pre-season and so if he stays, he could be a great player for us as well. André feels that we're in the position now where he wants us to be."
Torres, though, has mild concussion and is a doubt for the Stoke match.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010