Date: 25th August 2008 at 5:06pm
Written by:

Since the departure of Patrick Vieira, the issue of captaincy has reared its thorny head from the rose bush more than once amongst Arsenal fans. From Henry’s moon faced shrugs to Gallas’ teary tantrum, the armband has attracted many a pontificating broadside, from myself included. But does captaincy actually matter anymore? In England, we’re raised on fairy stories of Bobby Moore’s ability to play a sixty yard ball onto a five pence piece before dashing off to lift the Jules Romet trophy with his winning smile and charming side parting. Arsenal fans remember the gritted teeth of McLintock and the slanting posture of Adams surveying the scene.

But in modern football, does this position have any relevance anymore? On the continent, the captaincy is usually automatically awarded to the most experienced player, or to whoever came through the youth team. (See Raul, Totti, Maldini for examples). Continental sides see the skipper as little more than a glorified PR position, the bigger clubs tend to lean towards experience/ age, the smaller clubs usually award it to the star player as a commercial figurehead, like Atletico Madrid did with Torres. In England, we take it a little more seriously. It’s perhaps paradigmatic of our constant quest for ‘identity’ that one associates with an island mentality, it’s the same reason we cling steadfastly to the institution of monarchy. Perhaps captaincy and monarchy are similar bedfellows, monarchy is essentially an impotent figurehead position is attributed as much to the idea of ‘identity’ as any meaningful method of governance. So in Britain we expect to see our captains performing some good old fashioned hand wringing and fist pumping on matchday, we want pictures of them screaming obscenities at teammates in the matchday programme on one page and a shot of them with children and flags on the other. It’s a very English trait to be obsessed with iconography, hence the obsession with terms such as ‘chav’ or ‘toff’ and all of the associated imagery. (In fairness, this probably happens in other cultures too).

But once the toss has been called and the obligatory pre match photo with the mascot has been taken, what does the captaincy mean in real footballing terms? Surely every player should be capable of motivating themselves without having their ear chewed off by the skipper? But there again, everybody looks to someone for guidance every now and then. In your own jobs, perhaps you have a manager or colleague that you look up to to be a conduit through pressured moments. But on a football pitch is it a piece of material or a positional responisbility? You would imagine your goalkeeper, your centre half and your central midfielder would all have a hand in organising and communicating with the team. Should an armband really preclude other players from guiding younger charges? I remember Freddie Ljungberg’s debut, no sooner had he sauntered onto the pitch than Nigel Winterburn had him by the arm, cajoling and instructing him. Adams was the captain that day. Had that situation emerged today, I feel Gallas would have been lambasted ruthlessly by Arsenal fans if another player, Sagna say, was seen giving Nasri an earful in the West Brom match. My issue is not with Gallas’ captaincy, but as to whether he has enough lieutenants. It is easy to chide Billy’s tenure, but even Adams had Dixon, Winterburn, Keown and Bould alongside him.

I think I have come to the conclusion very recently that it really is not that important who the captain is. For all the clamour to give Cesc the armband, would it really improve his game? It would in all likelihood only add pressure to him such is the obsession with the captain’s armband in this country. I am certain he could handle it, but I am really not sure what it would add to him. He doesn’t need the armband to be our most important player. Gallas has come in for yet more criticism following the defeat to Fulham. Whilst his defending for the goal was abysmal and he needs to ask himself why Hangeland wanted the ball more than he did, I’m not sure that his poor captaincy was one of the factors behind the defeat. I’m not entirely sure what it was that he was supposed to have done. Some photo friendly fist shaking perhaps? Would that have made our lightweight midfield any more muscular? (The guy’s criticised for doing that anyway as far as I can see). While I’ve always considered a captain to be primus inter pares, it is surely unfair to lay the blame exclusively at the door of one man? Surely once the whistle blows, the team has a responsibility to itself?

I am starting to wonder in the cut throat world of modern football where players change clubs with alacrity and largely play for themselves, whether the skippers armband is really anything more than a glorified PR position governed by press conferences and photo shoots. Are you really telling me players like Adebayor, Ronaldo and Berbatov give a screw who their captain is? It has never been considered anything other than that abroad and I wonder whether we are linked to some romantic notion that doesn’t really exist, a bit like ‘English identity’ and ‘Bulldog spirit.’ Does an armband make you a leader and does not having an armband inhibit your ability to be one? Isn’t leadership a collective concept? The Prime Minister would not govern without a Cabinet. Or has football just got to a stage where characters such as Roy Keane and Tony Adams are extinct? The truth is, I’m not sure I know the answer.LD.