LONDON (Reuters) - Stamford Bridge erupted in celebration on Sunday as departing Chelsea captain John Terry lifted the Premier League trophy in Antonio Conte’s record-breaking first season in charge, but the carnival atmosphere had a bitter-sweet edge.
Terry, 22 years at the club and 13 as captain, started the final league game of the season and wept as fans sang his name after unfurling banners describing him as “captain, leader, legend”.
In a piece of sentimental theatre, Conte substituted Terry with his successor as captain Gary Cahill in the 26th minute -– his shirt number –- of the 5-1 win over Sunderland and the emotional 36-year-old hugged team mates who formed a guard of honour as he left the pitch to a standing ovation.
Terry, who may earn a last run-out for the club he joined as a 14-year-old schoolboy at the FA Cup final at Wembley next Saturday, merited a supplement in the match programme handed out for free at the ground. He has made 717 appearances for Chelsea.
The visibly emotional former England captain thanked owner Roman Abramovich, the supporters, his wife and children as well as staff and players in an address at the end of the game.
He said Sunday was “one of the most difficult days of my life”.
“You are the best supporters in the world,” he added.
“Thank you will never be enough but I will be coming back here one day and I love you all from the bottom of my heart,” he said, his voice cracking. He then hugged Conte and passed the microphone.
“He’s been fantastic and very important for me and the players,” Conte said while Cahill called him “the best centre half in Premier League history”.
It was Chelsea’s fifth title since Abramovich bought the club in 2003. During that time the club have also won four FA Cups.
But it was a tough day for relegated Sunderland who finished the season bottom of the league on 24 points compared with their hosts’ 93. They did, though, surprise their hosts in the third minute by scoring their 29th goal of a miserable season, a rebound by Javier Manquillo.
Chelsea responded by battering the beleaguered Sunderland goal, finishing with five -- from Willian, Eden Hazard, Pedro and two by Michy Batshuayi in the dying minutes.
They became the first Premier League side to register 30 victories in one season.
The sun-drenched crowd were in fine voice, breaking into chants of “Antonio, Antonio”, joined by Conte’s nine-year-old daughter Vittoria who sang her father’s name along with the supporters. She also got the chance to hold the trophy when the families joined the players for a lap of honour after the game.
A huge banner above the Stamford Bridge shed end proclaimed: “Thank you – Grazie” and the former Juventus and Italy coach, who has praised the sell-out crowds and atmosphere at English grounds, acknowledged the chants by applauding the four sides of the ground.
Former captain Dennis Wise carried the gold-topped Premier League trophy to a rapidly-constructed dais and as Terry and Cahill lifted the trophy, blue-and-white bunting rained down on the players while cannons blew celebratory flames into the air.
Dozens of small children in Chelsea kit, the sons and daughters of the players and staff, joined the festivities as players sprayed Conte with Champagne and loudspeakers blared out “We are the Champions.”
The players are unlikely to be drinking much of the fizz, however, with their Cup final game against London rivals Arsenal only six days away.
Editing by Clare Fallon