Have a Hart, Roy

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on ESPN, 8 May 2012

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an England football team in possession of a new manager must be in want of a captain. If there was one consistent theme to Fabio Capello’s time in charge of the Three Lions, it was the endless hemming and hawing over The Armband; ultimately, the FA’s decision that John Terry’s forthcoming trial precluded him leading the team provoked Capello’s resignation, which in turn set the stage for Harry Redknapp, except of course it didn’t.

Now the responsibility falls to Roy Hodgson, and as far as squad harmony goes, he finds himself pretty well zugzwanged. He has to do something, but whatever he does, somebody, somewhere, is going to be seriously peeved.

In his first press conference, Hodgson — in between fielding questions about Redknapp and, unexpectedly, apartheid — ducked the captaincy question, on the not unreasonable grounds that he had absolutely no idea, he’d only been in the job five minutes and he didn’t even know where his desk was or where the pens are kept or that you need to talk to Janet in procurement if your chair’s broken. But it is a question that exercises the press, the players, and the public at large. All we know for sure is that it’s not going to be Terry — the FA was clear on that — and Hodgson doesn’t seem the kind of manager (or the kind of man) to fly in the face of an employer’s edict.

So what to do? Time is ticking, and England’s rivals are announcing their squadsidentifying their leaders, and generally giving every impression of being well along the road to readiness.

There are two approaches that Hodgson could take. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is to sift through the rest of the squad for a Terry-cipher. Steven Gerrard is the obvious favorite, with Scott “Scotty” Parker close behind. Both are redoubtable footballers, and Gerrard would certainly be handy if England drawsOlympiakos in the semifinals. The pair graduated with honors from the traditional English school of leadership (“our students excel in the three S’s: shouting, singing, and shirt-thumping”), and each would doubtless be lauded for his bustle, drive and passion. But leaving aside the fact neither is guaranteed to start in Poland/Ukraine, both fit the template of “England captain” with a weary, almost depressing familiarity.

For too long, The Armband has been a distractingly totemic prize, an Elastic Band of Discord inscribed “For The Bravest”. Choosing another battle sergeant would be conceptual continuity; Hodgson, preciously, has an opportunity to let a little fresh air into the dusty corners of English football, and to redefine the idea of captaincy.

Basically, he needs to give the cursed thing to Joe Hart.

Hart would not be your typical England captain. He’s not his club’s captain, for a start. And, by virtue of his position as well as his personality, he’s not going to be called upon to inspire or energize or any of the other ephemeral responsibilities that captaincy brings; gone would be the curiosity that is “the Captain’s goal.” What he is, though, is (A) a pretty good footballer, (B) an apparently sensible and relatively articulate bloke, and (C) one of only three players guaranteed a first-team place. (The other two are Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole, one of whom is suspended for the first two games, the other of whom is Ashley Cole.) Hart will play every game, more than likely well, and he’ll even look good in the pregame photographs now that England has abandoned that spearmint shirt atrocity.

Obviously, making the decision on such a basis opens Hart up to the accusation that he is “captain by default.” Yet this, perversely, would be his greatest strength. By doling out The Armband this way, Hodgson would effectively be saying, “Look, obviously we need a captain. Somebody has to toss the coin. But it really isn’t all that important who does it.” There’s a simple way to kill the presumption that the England captain has to be a roaring avatar of Englishness, you know, the veritable lionhearted lovechild of Boadicea and St. George: Just stop presuming.

Further, by diminishing The Armband, Hodgson would also minimize the significance of not being captain: As the symbolism withers away, so too does the sense of rejection. Not being the man who leads his country into battle sounds pretty depressing. But not being the bloke who exchanges pennants? That’s no great hardship.

It might be possible for England just to give the armband to whoever has the most caps from any given XI, like Italy does, but adopting such an approach wouldn’t sit comfortably with a country that still feels the need to have a monarch. The national team should probably reflect the nation, neuroses and all, and ceremonial figureheads matter greatly to this bonkers island. This is why it is imperative that the team find a figurehead as unassuming, as unpretentious, as default as can be.

In short, it needs to stop looking for Henry V and settle for Elizabeth II — in the nicest way possible, Hart is from the pastel suit, pearls, and pillbox hat school of sovereignty. His appointment as captain, rather like Hodgson’s as manager, would represent a modest step toward a less insane England. Give him the armband, let the whole thing simmer down and then pray to King Arthur, Britannia and the Venerable Bede that he doesn’t snap a hamstring.

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