What Makes A Great Captain?

In the end, then, football didn’t come home. The European Championship was a genuine pleasure to watch, if for no other reason than I had no skin in the game and could watch matches for the joy of watching football rather than being emotionally invested in anyway. Anyone who reads my pieces or follows me on Twitter will know that I have no love for the England national side, with the scenes we’ve witnessed since their final defeat a big part of the reason why. Even so, plenty of people that I like would have been very happy if the Three Lions had won last night, including my mum and dad who I watched the match with. I therefore feel as though I’m able to think about England’s tournament performance in as close to an objective way as possible. It is difficult for me to get away from the idea that Gareth Southgate is to blame for the national side’s defeat to Italy, with his tactical naivety and unwillingness to take a chance proving their downfall.

Italy’s defence is a brilliant one, but the one thing it doesn’t want is fast young players running at it and moving the ball at speed. Where were any of Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho or Marcus Rashford during normal time? They should have been on after sixty, but instead the manager seemed to freeze and not have any ideas of how to change things for the better. He had an idea of the players he wanted to take the penalties, but he didn’t get them on quickly enough to give them time to have a few touches of the ball before hitting their spot-kicks. It’s no coincidence that the three that missed were the ones who came in cold. As for the decision to put the decisive penalty in the hands of a nineteen-year-old, that is really poor management. Southgate is a decent enough manager and clearly a nice bloke, but it’s clear he’s been promoted above his station. That being said, why was Harry Kane on the first penalty? A decent captain wants responsibility, he seemed to shirk it.

Is It All About On The Pitch Performances?

During the week, I had a genuinely interesting exchange with @PHauchentaus about the various merits of Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard as club captains. Paul was of the opinion that Gerrard is the best captain the club has ever had, based largely on his on-pitch performances. I personally believe that Henderson is the best club captain there has been during my lifetime because of what he does off the pitch as much as what he’s done on it. It got me thinking about what it is that makes a club captain and whether their on-pitch performances are all that matter. For me, Steven Gerrard is the best player to pull on a Red shirt during my years actively watching the club. Luis Suarez was a mercurial genius, but Gerrard was something else. He carried the club on his back during some genuinely poor times, dragging us to cup finals and top four finishes in a manner that means he’ll forever be remembered as one of the game’s greatest midfielders.

Yet I’m not convinced that he was a great captain. Paul’s argument was that captains should lead by example and that Steven Gerrard did that every time he pulled on the Red shirt. I totally agree that Gerrard gave his all when he stepped onto the pitch and that he very much led by example, but I also think that Jordan Henderson does the same thing. Whilst I think that Henderson is much better than scores of fans will ever give him credit for, I also think that he was nowhere near the level of Gerrard, who was a generational talent. Does the fact that Henderson lacks Gerrard’s pure ability mean that him giving his all on the pitch is worth less? Not for me. Henderson does lead by example, but he also works incredibly hard to lift his teammates up. One of the few good things about a lack of crowds during lockdown was hearing the current captain talk his teammates through matches, even when he wasn’t playing. He’s a true leader.

Off-Pitch Work Is Important Too

This article isn’t intended as a comparison between Gerrard and Henderson, with that just being the catalyst that got me thinking about the role of a captain. I can’t remember much of the work that Steven Gerrard did off the pitch, but at the same time he wasn’t a player at a time when it was the done thing for footballers to take a stand on social issues in the manner we’re seeing from the current crop of players. Even so, Jordan Henderson has gone above and beyond what plenty of his peers have done. Whether it be his work on behalf of the National Health Service, his support of members of the LGBTQ+ community or the manner in which he gathered his teammates to argue against the Super League, Henderson has been presented with numerous opportunities to display his leadership and stood up for all of them. On top of that, it’s clear that his fellow Liverpool players really value him as a captain and regularly say as much.

When the club signed Virgil van Dijk, there was a clamour from some quarters for the Dutchman to take over as captain. This was seemingly based entirely on his ability on the pitch, rather than any real acknowledgement of what a captain’s role is. A club captain does so much more than merely what we get to see when there’s a match underway. When van Dijk arrived, it was Jordan Henderson that welcomed him and his family to the city and the football club. It would be unfair to have asked van Dijk to do so for future players, given he barely knew either at the time. In my opinion, the best captains are willing and able to stand up and be counted both on and off the pitch, leading by example on it and being an extension of the manager off it. I can think of no one that is a better representative of both sides of that coin than Jordan Henderson. When Bukayo Saka missed his penalty last night, I think Henderson would have given anything to swap places with him. That’s what real leaders do.

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