O captain! My captain!

March 20, 2011 § 10 Comments

Strictly speaking, the captain of a football team has one job, and one job only: to call the coin toss. And there are plenty of teams that seem content to let the armband simply be a technicality; give it to the oldest, the most capped, or the goalkeeper, let them exchange pennants and call heads, then get on with it. Job done. Yet for England (as pointed out by Barney Ronay) it matters, and it matters because it matters. That is, it matters to the team because it matters to the players. Some of them. John Terry, anyway. (Insert your own “tosser” joke here.)

Terry, clearly, attaches an importance to the captaincy, for club and country, above and beyond any ceremonial aspect. Wearing the armband is often described as an honour, and it is readily apparent that Terry understands the role in this sense, as a public prize bestowed upon the most worthy candidate (which in this case, of course, is John Terry). As the banner at Stamford Bridge has it: “JT: Captain, Leader, Legend”. The logical progression is clear: you are the captain. Therefore you are a leader. Therefore you are a legend. And the England captaincy is, of course, of infinitely greater importance, since it implies legendary status on a national scale. To be anointed as England captain is to be invited to take one’s place in the parade of greats, to assume the mantle of Billy Wright, of Bryan Robson, and of the great golden God of English football, Bobby Moore. Despite the records showing that the captaincy has always been passed around to a certain extent, the armband has become inculcated with the memories of the ghosts who have gone before.

An instructive parallel might be drawn with one of the great pillars of English footballing sensibility, the comic strip Billy’s Boots, in which the titular hero finds the old football boots of former England striker “Dead-Shot” Keen and is transformed  from hapless clogger to a kind of schoolyard Dixie Dean. While it is never clarified exactly what size shoe Billy (a school-boy) and Keen (a grown man) share, the central idea — that the powers of your predecessors can be harnessed through the assumption of their mystically-charged ephemera — is a resonant one. And not just for England: one need only think how many shoulders have buckled under the weight of the Argentinian no. 10 shirt to see the same kind of magic at work. Though in that case, the idea is that the players must live up to the great Maradona; the England captaincy, being an essentially empty responsibility, is about status.

This, then, is what Terry is looking for: external confirmation of his own sense of significance, importance, and worth. There is a quite dispiriting neediness about the whole kerfuffle: from that press conference in South Africa, through that game where he pouted and simpered as the armband was passed mockingly around him, and onto his recent re-ascension. Fabio Capello, significantly, described his year’s exile from the role as a “punishment”, conjuring a pathetic image of a bawling Terry being deprived of his very favourite toy. “You can have it back once you’ve learned your lesson,” admonishes a finger-wagging Capello, though it’s a little unclear what lesson that might have been. Wait for your rivals to get injured, perhaps.

Arsène Wenger, who has recently been challenged over his own team’s perceived lack of leadership, believes that the English obsession with the wearer of the armband is rooted in the English approach to the the game, and to sport in general: “For the English, sport is a combat, and they can’t imagine going into battle without a general.” He draws a contrast with the French who, seeing football as “a form of collective expression”, are less concerned with the identity of the captain. But this doesn’t ring quite true: a general, after all, is set apart from the mud and the blood; his role is to take a strategic overview from a safe position. The English football captain is one of the men: a sergeant, perhaps, or a standard-bearer.

Staying with Wenger, it is noteworthy that the criticism over the Arsenal captaincy isn’t really anything to do with the armband at all. He is often pilloried for assembling a squad deficient in certain qualities — leadership, derring-do, shouting — to which the solution, if true, is to either buy or train a player that does these things. Alternatively, the same criticism is dressed up in terms, once again, of those-who-came-before. But if it is true that Arsenal need “an Adams” or “a Vieira”, then it’s not because they need a captain, but because they lack a dominant centre-half and a driving midfielder who’s willing and able to chastise and galvanise their teammates. If “captaincy” is a quality, then it’s not contingent on being the formal captain; if Wenger can get the balance and qualities of the team right, he can give the armband to Gunnersaurus. Where the team’s good enough, it doesn’t matter who leads them out; where it isn’t, it won’t make the blindest bit of difference.

Similarly, England don’t need another “Bobby Moore (c)”, much as they might like to have him at centre-half. They need their eleven best players to play coherent, intelligent and effective football. Wright, Moore and Robson weren’t great players because they were great captains; they were great captains only because they were great players. To suggest that any of them required the armband to reach the heights they did is not only to fetishise the role but to insult the player. So if Terry needs the overt acclamation of being Captain, Leader, Legend, then he should probably have it; Capello, with his two-year plan, needs him playing well. But while pulling that elasticated band back onto his bicep may make him more effective as a player, the fact that he needs it, and needs it so obviously, so selfishly and cravenly, only serves to diminish him as a man.

Though it’s not his fault, as such. He is a perfect product of a footballing culture that believes excellence can be achieved through simply finding the right leader, but understands leadership in reductive and ultimately destructive terms. English football has made the captaincy a golden armband, destined “For The Bravest”. It’s little wonder that England’s players, like Homer’s goddesses, make such fools out of themselves in its pursuit.


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§ 10 Responses to O captain! My captain!

  • H&V says:

    Superb piece. Really interesting take on the situation. Really interesting insight into the ‘need’ the captaincy inspires in certain players.
    We looked at the issues surrounding Terry and concluded in fact Capello didn’t have too many other options;
    http://bit.ly/eymLhq – what do you think, is there an alternative?

    • twistedblood says:

      Nice piece. I think, if England are to persist with having a “captain”, then Terry’s probably the right choice, if only because he wants it more than anyone else.

      What I would like to have seen happen – and, for the record, I’m not an England fan – is for Capello to say something like “Look, this captaincy issue is a complete distraction. Whoever has the most caps wears the armband, and that’s it.” Issue instantly defused; media circus destroyed.

  • […] 15.03.2011, HeadersandVolleys.co.uk It is the Autumn of 1993 and Bayern Munich vs. Norwich City. In a game forever remembered by Canaries fans as their greatest ever, Jeremy Goss’ sensational goal secured victory for the East Anglian minnows against one of the giants of the European game. Let H&V take you back… . O Captain! My Captain! […]

  • Daniel says:

    Excellent piece.
    Glad you didn’t overplay the “JT is a total tool” thing as well (as deserved as it is), and focused on what you did.

  • deiseach says:

    Part of the obsession the English have with who is the captain is related to rugby and cricket where the captain really does have a role, particularly in the latter. I wrote many years ago (http://www.comeonthedeise.ie/2002/09/20/my-captain-my-king/ – this thread is going to produce a lot of pingbacks all around) about how for a long time Liverpool seemed to be determined to limit the captaincy to ‘beanpole centre-backs and hatchetman midfielders’ and produced a list to bolster that argument – Ron Yeats, Tommy Smith, Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen, Ronnie Whelan, Mark Wright. Those days are gone now but the spirit lingers on with the England captain.

    • twistedblood says:

      I absolutely agree that there are certain captaincy archetypes that the English game seems wedded to. The hatchetman (or perhaps, being kind, box-to-box) midfielder and the towering centre-half dominate, then a certain kind of striker (the “Shearer”), then the goalkeeper. Occasionally a fullback, if they’re shouty enough.

      It’s the shouting and pointing that seems to be the key.

  • […] 15.03.2011, HeadersandVolleys.co.uk It is the Autumn of 1993 and Bayern Munich vs. Norwich City. In a game forever remembered by Canaries fans as their greatest ever, Jeremy Goss’ sensational goal secured victory for the East Anglian minnows against one of the giants of the European game. Let H&V take you back… . O Captain! My Captain! […]

  • dan willis says:

    I agree, a captain is unnecessary (apart from in tournaments). They don’t really do anything. But like your point about a captain like John Terry relishing the opportunity to ‘lead’ his country.

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