No use for a skipper

Football isn’t cricket. A cricket captain is an important figure, above all when his team is fielding. He it is who decides the placing of his fieldsmen, he who decides on the use of his bowlers. By sharp contrast a football captain by and large is subordinate to the team’s manager or in some cases the coach. By Brian Glanville.

In a bitterly resentful biography Sol Campbell, the centre back who was capped no fewer than 73 times by England, but captained them only three times, insists that had he not been black, he would have captained the team for ten years.

Were he playing still today, I have no idea whether he would be captain, but beyond all doubt he would be an immense improvement to a team which desperately lacks a player of his power and quality in central defence. Paul Ince, another black player of renown, a star with West Ham, Manchester United and Inter, skippered the national team on several occasions. Whether Campbell would have been given the captaincy on many more occasions were he white, who can with certainty say? My own contention is that it simply would not have mattered. With minimal exceptions, football captaincy, not least at international level is little more than an honorary function.

Pragmatic to a degree the Italians have treated it over the years as exactly that. The captain of the Azzurri has been appointed simply on the basis of which player has won the most caps. Back in the 1950s, the potentially farcical situation arose that the two most capped players, the Fiorentina full backs Aldo Magnini and Sergio Cervato, each had exactly the same number of caps. How to resolve the dilemma? Simple enough. Magnini was the choice, because he had one more B international appearance than Cervato!

Football isn’t cricket. A cricket captain is an important figure, above all when his team is fielding. He it is who decides the placing of his fieldsmen, he who decides on the use of his bowlers. By sharp contrast a football captain by and large is subordinate to the team’s manager or in some cases the coach. It is they who will outline tactics and deployment before the game, they, from the bench, who will decide on any substitutions when the game is taking place.

And even that rarity, the truly influential and inspirational captain, will not necessarily have the last word. One thinks especially of Danny Blanchflower, just a notable right half and captain with Tottenham Hotspur and Northern Ireland. An elegant creative footballer, technically adept, always looking for new ways to improve his team during a game, it was he above anyone who enabled Northern Ireland to shock and eliminate the far more fancied Italy team from the 1958 World Cup qualifiers.

True, he had a perfect partnership with the team’s manager, Peter Doherty, once a dazzling inside left, by then a manager with whom Danny had a perfect understanding. Nor was Blanchflower merely a splendid and inspiring tactician. Never was he more bravely influential than at the end of a torrid match against Italy in Belfast in 1958. It was meant to be a qualifying group game for the ensuing World Cup, but when the designated referee was stuck in the fog and could not fly to Ulster, the match was played but downgraded to a friendly.

Some friendly! Certain Italy players were guilty of deplorable fouls, and at the end of a torrid drawn match, infuriated Irish fans invaded the pitch meaning to attack them. Instantly Danny sprang into action, telling every member of his Irish team to protect and safeguard an Italian player, all of whom were thus seen off the field in safety.

It was Danny, with the support of Doherty and the talented, intelligent Burnley inside right, Jimmy McIlroy, who worked out the tactics for the team, making the most of what talents the other players had. The sadness of it was that after Northern Ireland had sensationally beaten the Italians again in Belfast thus qualifying for the finals in Sweden that Danny’s gifted brother Jackie, a versatile and accomplished centre half, should be so cruelly injured in the Munich airport disaster of February that year when Manchester United’s aircraft crashed on take off that he had no hope of playing. Which meant that in his absence, Danny was obliged to play a far more restricted game.

Yet even a captain as naturally effective as Danny had to bow to the demands of even as obscure and ineffectual an over-promoted manager as the late Jimmy Anderson, at Spurs. When Tottenham fell behind in the 1956 FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City, Blanchflower, of his own volition, moved Maurice Norman, his big centre half up to centre forward. It was an undoubted gamble but also if did not work. City scored again, Tottenham were eliminated from the Cup and a vindictive Jimmy Anderson, not so long before merely trainer to the Spurs third team, not only took away Danny’s captaincy but dropped him from the team.

Ever ebullient, Danny joked before the World Cup finals that his team had a player “we’re going to equalise before the other team score!” In the event an Ireland team exhausted by a ludicrously protracted coach journey crashed out 4-0 in the quarter-finals against France.

But Danny would have rich consolation in 1961, when he skippered Spurs to its first FA Cup and League double in the 20 {+t} {+h} century.

It is arguable that a really strong captain can do harm as well as good. One thinks especially of Ferenc Puskas, alias The Galloping Major, one with the supreme and pulverising left foot. “With a left foot like that, you don’t need a right foot!” I remember Danny joking to me before a Spurs home march at White Hart Lane, where he would hold court in the great car park.

One cannot imagine Puskas walking off the field in an Arsenal match at half-time, walking right out of the stadium after an error ridden performance and flying off to Belgium as Campbell did in an evening match I saw long at Arsenal. But his absolute dominance of the great Hungarian team of the early 1950s could be a two edged sword. Kicked by Germany’s centre back Werner Liebrich in a farcical 8-3 Hungarian victory in their early World Cup 1954 match in Switzerland, he never fully recovered by the time of the final; which Hungary had impressively reached without him. But he not only insisted on playing against the Germans in Berne; he imposed other changes on the team which arguably weakened it and was plainly not fully fit in a final dramatically lost to a German team since plainly shown to have been on drugs.

Talking of Tottenham, their famed push and run team of the early 1950s was nominally captained by their adventurous Welsh international left half Ronnie Burgess; all too often inclined to run out of position. But the true major influence on the team was unquestionably its England right back Alf Ramsey, significantly nicknamed The General and destined to manage England in the 1966 World Cup at home.