Captain Wayne. Captain of Manchester United. Perhaps captain of England by next month if all goes smoothly at Old Trafford. Is this a graduation season for Wayne Rooney? At the age of 28, can he finally be trusted? Or can anybody do it?
After all, the only official duty on the pitch is the coin toss. Off the pitch, maybe some programme notes and a column in the local paper. You lead out the team and might get to lift the trophy, but otherwise does captaincy in football really matter?
There is limited tactical scope, unlike in cricket or rugby and, as Sir Clive Woodward is quick to note, the idea that virtually anyone can pull on the armband is enhanced when it is aimlessly slung around after a substitution.
His own view is that on the field the captaincy is more important in cricket than rugby and more important in rugby than football, but that the reverse is true off the pitch where a football manager, the real decision-maker, needs his man in the pack.
‘He doesn’t have to be your chief sneak, but you need your captain there, delivering your message and letting you know if something is brewing,’ said Sir Clive. ‘We’ve all seen teams implode and we hear about managers who lose the dressing room.
‘I set great store by it and I think Louis van Gaal might be the same. He will have made this decision with great care. You want your captain to be in line with you and you have to trust him. It is not just about 90 minutes of football, but on the pitch too there will be times when you need your captain.’
History’s finest captains are usually those associated with success. In English football they range from Roy Keane and Graeme Souness to Bobby Moore and Billy Bremner, who was voted the Football League’s greatest captain in a poll last year.
‘I’ve never heard of a great captain who wasn’t a great player in his own right,’ said Bremner’s Leeds team-mate Johnny Giles. ‘You won’t get many better captains than Billy and that’s because you won’t get many better players than Billy. He’d fight, he’d scrap, he’d create goals and he’d score goals.
‘The great Leeds United team was committed to a man, but you always need the sort of dynamic qualities you got from a guy like Billy. That’s what I think of as proper leadership.’
The best players score key goals and solidify defences, but the best captains add something more, an indiscernible binding quality which infiltrates the crowd, most evident when they are missing.
John Terry, Steven Gerrard and Vincent Kompany are in this category. When Terry was a young captain, Jose Mourinho would encourage him to take advantage of his status; to exert pressure on officials and influence the game.
Tony Adams was a ‘visual captain’ according to Martin Keown, who also played at Arsenal under Patrick Vieira.
‘Patrick wasn’t that type,’ he said. ‘He was softly spoken but on the pitch he came alive. There was steel in his play.’
The roar of the lion-hearted captain has faded amid technical advances at the top. There are more foreign players and coaches, for whom captaincy means something subtly different, and more backroom assistants.
As a teenager on loan at Brighton, Keown found his skipper Danny Wilson was the go-to man for anything from pay packets to accommodation complaints.
He need not sort out lodgings for Ander Herrera, but Rooney must develop his leadership style while performing consistently. It is only a few weeks since his England place was up for discussion and he’ll be at the mercy of his goal rate.
‘You must do your own job first as Alastair Cook has found out over the last nine months,’ was Nasser Hussain’s instant reaction to the question: What makes a good captain? Beyond that, Hussain cites man-management skills and an ability to understand what makes others tick.
Leading by example can be sticking your head where it hurts or soldiering through pain, or summoning a free-kick like David Beckham against Greece in 2001. Beckham wasn’t Manchester United captain but led his country well.
In football, international captaincy is different, more occasional, more ambassadorial and Beckham’s mass appeal helped. At the World Cup, there were six goalkeeper captains, lots of midfielders and half a dozen high-end strikers: Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robin van Persie, Didier Drogba, Asamoah Gyan and Samuel Eto’o.
In last season’s Premier League, 75 per cent of teams were captained by defenders, mostly centre halves, and the rest by midfielders. At club level, managers choose the voice of authority over the poster boy; someone who understands his working principles and tactical demands — often a defensive player who is well-placed to read and organise the game (and help to referee it). If you can spot a problem and fix it without instruction, that helps, too.
There has to be good reason, iconic status or a local bond — Alan Shearer, for example — for placing the armband in attack. Pandering to precious stars or trying to reform rebels is seldom the best policy, as Arsene Wenger has found with five captains in nine years since Vieira left.
Rooney’s appointment has a ring of diplomacy to it. United’s defence is low on experience without Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra and Van Gaal does not need to prove his loyalty to Van Persie, his captain for Holland.
‘One of the biggest issues is how to galvanise Rooney and Van Persie,’ said Keown. ‘Van Persie is no problem. He knows the manager loves him. The player most ill-at-ease is Rooney. This is a show of faith. It will give him a lift. Just what Rooney needs at this stage of his career.’
Plenty will suspect that with his short fuse and penchant for off-field controversy Rooney is not one of football’s natural leaders.
‘You can be pigeon-holed,’ said Hussain, who found his own attitude the matter of national debate when he became England captain. ‘People were asking why they were giving it to an angry youth, a selfish cricketer,’ he said.
‘I remember sitting down with (former ECB chairman) Lord MacLaurin at Lord’s to explain how that was before I was England captain. I was the one going out to face Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne and had to prepare myself in the best way I saw fit.
‘Wayne Rooney might be the player he is because of his aggression and anger. You might not want him to be the good guy.
‘You certainly don’t want him to be sent off, but you change when you’re captain. You start thinking of others.’
Van Gaal is backing Rooney to adapt and for his contagious enthusiasm to win the day. It is a big call, one he needs to pay off if he is to swiftly end last season’s rot.
For the Dutchman, Captain Wayne matters. – Daily Mail