How much do Captains matter?

There have been many a great, inspirational skippers in football. But their role in the pitch is very limited. Over to Brian Glanville.

On a recent European international match-day, both England and Wales had a new captain. England’s, somewhat surprisingly was Wayne Rooney. For Wales after a shocking 6-1 defeat in Serbia, young Aaron Ramsey had the captaincy taken away from him and given to Ashley Williams, the Swansea City centre back. How much, you wonder, did it matter? England, captained by Rooney in the absence of Steven Gerrard, cruised past the feeble San Marino team for a 5-0 victory with Rooney himself scoring two of the goals, the first of them from a penalty. Wales in Cardiff, under the captaincy of Williams, managed a somewhat fortunate 2-1 win against a Scottish team which probably deserved better.

On the face of it, the last thing you would think of Rooney is that he is captaincy material. His international career has been sullied by embarrassing incidents, sudden serious moments of violence. He was sent off in a World Cup quarterfinal against Portugal after badly fouling an opponent. He was sent off in a European Championship qualifier in Montenegro last season for another malicious foul; meaning that he was banned in the finals from England’s opening matches against France and Sweden. While though he did score the winning goal against Ukraine on his return it was a point blank header, after he had missed a palpable heading chance in the first half; and never looked up to speed. This followed a negligible performance in the South African World Cup when so much might have been expected of him.

With John Terry having just announced his premature retirement from international football, Gerrard and the only other possible choice as skipper being the goalkeeper Joe Hart you could say that Rooney was appointed by default. As for Terry, his experience of the captaincy had been dogged by controversy and confusion.

Initially it had been taken away from him by the then manager Fabio Capello when it transpired he had been having an extramarital affair with the former girlfriend of England left back, Wayne Bridge; which seemed a decision taken on moral rather than footballing grounds. For the ire of Capello, who resigned his role, Terrey was deprived again last season of the captaincy at the apparent behest of the unconvincing FA top man, Alan Bernstein, for being accused of racially abusing Queens Park Rangers Anton Ferdinand; long before the case ever came to court. Thereby plainly ignoring the ancient tradition that a man is innocent until he is proved guilty.

As for Wales, Ramsey and Williams, there seemed no logic in the decision of a consistently unsuccessful Wales manager, Chris Coleman, in seemingly finding a scapegoat for the debacle in Serbia. Not least since Ramsey was one of the pitifully few Welsh players to come out of the game with some bit of credit. There was always an argument that he was too young, despite his undoubted ability, to skipper an international side in the first place, but that seems another story. Did Williams’ captaincy make all the difference? Surely if anybody made it that evening it was the brilliant Gareth Bale.

Initially, giving such significance to an international captain would seem bizarre. The fashion has been simple and casually to award the captaincy to the most capped player in the team. Many years ago I remember a slightly comical situation, when the two most capped players for the Azzuri were the two Fiorentina full backs, Ardico Magnini and Sergio Cervato. How to resolve the dilemma? Simple enough; by giving the role to Magnini because he had one more cap than Cervato!

By and large, football captains, by sharp contrast with cricket captains, simply do not matter. In cricket the captain, when his side is fielding is a crucial figure. It is he who chooses his bowlers, he who decides the position of the fielders. But in soccer it is almost always to the manager who decrees what tactics will be used, what substitutes will be fielded.

Yes, there are exceptions who prove the rule and not always for the better. In the years when he was captaining Hungary, before he played out his later distinguished years with Real Madrid in Spain, Ferenc Puskas with his remarkable left foot, was a commanding, even a domineering captain of a great Hungarian team.

Yet it is arguable that when he insisted on playing in the 1954 World Cup final in Berne against West Germany — whose centre back Fabric had kicked him out of the tournament, literally when the teams first met — he unbalanced and weakened a previously resplendent Hungarian side. He was clearly not fully match-fit and he insisted on team changes which disrupted the team’s effectiveness. So Hungary lost; though we know that the German team, most of whom soon afterwards succumbed to jaundice, had taken dope.

Sometimes, the real captain isn’t the designated one. Such as Alf Ramsey an England right back who won the World Cup as manager in 1966. When he played for Tottenham, the actual skipper was Ronnie Burgess, an exuberant left half, picked for Great Britain against the Rest of Europe in Glasgow in May 1947, sometimes running out of position. But the true major influence was Ramsey, nicknamed ‘The General’. A later exceptional Spurs and Northern Ireland captain was that elegant right half Danny Blanchflower. When enraged Northern Ireland fans invaded the Belfast pitch after a game versus Italy he assigned every Italian player to the care of an Irish footballer.

He was the inspiration of a team which reached the World Cup finals of 1958 in Sweden, always full of bright new tactical ideas.