My Captain, My King

Cricket has a lot to answer for, as does rugby, albeit to a lesser extent. I’ve always liked rugby (union, not league) but the charms of cricket remained elusive to me for many years. Let’s be honest, much/most of cricket is extraordinarily tedious. The recent final Test between England and India would have looked truly dramatic to the uninitiated, the teams locked together with over three-quarters of the game gone. But anyone who knew anything about what was going on would have seen the dreaded draw looming large on the horizon. Imagine two football teams playing twelve two-hour sessions spread over four days, where the score was the aggregate of all those sessions. With another three sessions of football to follow on the fifth day, would anyone even think of a draw occurring? It would be possible but bookmakers would be giving you odds from the same slate as those ones about Elvis riding Shergar onto Centre Court at Wimbledon to play Lord Lucan. At bowls. Yet in the cricket, there was about one chance in twenty that the game would not end in a draw. Heck, even Mark Waugh, one of the greatest players ever to wear the green Jaffa Cake-like hat of Australia, was recently quoted as saying he couldn’t watch a day of test cricket. Bearing in mind the potential last days play at the AMP Oval (what the . . .) in that match of the series, you could see his point.

Then the rains came and washed away even that small chance. Restage the match? That just wouldn’t be cricket.

Despite all this, I’ve come to appreciate the charms of cricket in recent years, mainly because of the strange crowd who play it. The English are either Muslim toffs or gruff Yorkshiremen, the Aussies are universally arrogant, the Windies are angst-ridden because they’re not as good as they should be, the Sud Afrikans think they should be walloping everyone even though anyone can see they’re rubbish and the Indians and Pakistanis treat their star players like gods – it’s quite possible that the polytheistic Indians believe that Sachin Tendulkar is a god. All kinds of exciting clashes emerge from that kind of mix, and once you understand the arcane rules of the game, international cricket becomes quite exciting. Let’s not mention the awful county game, by the way.

Cricket and rugby are descended from the public schools of the 19th century. While the Scots were the foot soldiers of the Empire, Eton and Harrow boys were being drilled to command those foot soldiers. You can still see the legacy when David Elleray (Harrow) goose-steps his way across the pitch to send someone off for kicking the ball against the corner flag. As a result, they placed great emphasis on the notion of captaincy. Everything in the public school – has there ever been a more inappropriate title than “public school”? – reflected this ethos of creating leaders of men. Every team, every house, every outhouse had it’s own captain, someone who was expected take decisions, administer a damn good trashing to those who stepped out of line and fall on their sword should their leadership efforts result in failure. Anything else just wouldn’t be cricket

Football is not descended from this lofty lineage. The notion of England as the home of football has taken firm root in recent years, but the history of football is a lot more complex than that. There’s no doubt that Englishmen were the first to sit down and develop a coherent rulebook for the game, and this form of football soon swept aside all variants on the continent. But most European countries would have had their own version of the game where you don’t use your hands, which is, when you think about it, the only rule that matters. Other countries would put their own stamp on the beautiful game, with the French seemingly determined to establish regular competitions between Everybody and Anybody, while the Brazilians played the game with a zeal and style that put everyone else to shame. England may be where the game was born, but the ubiquity of football means that it cannot seriously be said to still be England’s game.

Many of the taboos and rituals that dominate the English footballing psyche are rooted in that public school tradition. Football in Europe and South America has always been blessed/cursed with a cheat’s charter. When Rivaldo did his audition for the role of the man whose had acid thrust into his face during the first World Cup match against Turkey (phew, didn’t compare him to the Twin Towers), there were many howls of outrage, almost all of them utterly hypocritical. Diego Simeone put it best when he implied that cheating to gain an advantage, a la the Beckham incident in France ’98, is seen as a legitimate tactic in Argentina. The pooh-poohing was at its greatest in England, where cheating is just not cricket. Much agonised analysis took place to try and conjure a foul from Michael Owen’s dive against the Argies, and some even managed to convince themselves that he hadn’t cheated.

One of the most blatant examples of where the rest of the footballing world is out of step with England is the matter of captaincy. When the armband becomes vacant in England, the same debate springs up time and time again,. It can’t be a goalkeeper, because they’re too far away from the action to provide a leadership role. It can’t be a young player, because they don’t have the necessary gravitas. Being small is out, because tall players look down on you. Strikers are generally excluded because they don’t put in enough bone-crunching tackles to be seen as truly inspirational. Wingers haven’t a hope because they are seen as too flighty for the awesome responsibility of captaincy. Consequently the only people suitable to be captain are beanpole centre-backs and hatchetman midfielders.

For proof of this, you need look no further than our own doorstep. The captain’s armband at Anfield through the 70’s and 80’s is an almost unbroken line of centre-backs and central midfielders – Ron Yeats, Tommy Smith, Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen, Ronnie Whelan, Mark Wright. Phil Neal needed four European Cup medals before he got it, and Ian Rush was about two decades older than the next oldest player before he was considered for the role. John Barnes was never seen as captain material until he moved into the middle. After the anomaly of Jamie Redknapp (fancy dan) and Robbie Fowler (trouble maker), we’re back with the giant defender in Sami Hyypia.

Why is this? Continental types would scratch their head at the amount of variables involved in selecting a captain. The philosophy there is simple. The best player is the captain. If no player is demonstrably superior, the prize goes to the longest-serving/most-capped player. Cafu and Oliver Kahn were the respective captains in the World Cup final because they were the most experienced players, rewarded for their long years of dedicated service. The idea that these players are somehow ‘leaders of men’ is fanciful. Oliver Kahn is a bad-tempered, mean-spirited churl. The only inspiration he’s likely to provide is to scientists looking for the descendant of the corpse of a Neanderthal found in a melting Arctic glacier. Cafu’s greatest claim to fame, that of having played in three successive World Cup finals, is merely testimony to his ability to stay standing while old age caught up with those from the 1994 team. Yet he’s the captain, because the Brazilians don’t place much stock in the mysticism of the captain.

It’s that cricket/rugby thing. It’s less prevalent in rugby now, with tactical substitutions, half-time breaks and runners on the sideline, but there was a time in rugby when, if things were going badly, it was up to the captain to change things. It was also made a lot easier by the tacit understanding that you could hammer hell out of your opponent and never get sent off. Nowadays they even have sin-bins for foul play, the wimpy bastards, so the role of the captain is effectively honorary, just like it is in football. So important was the captain that Lion’s tours down under were known by who the captain was, e.g. John Dawes’ 1971 team, Willie John McBride’s 1974 team. Now they’re known more by who the coach is, and the captaincy is so diminished that they even committed the heresy of appointing the same captain for two successive tours. Rather like football, in fact.

Cricket still has it. The captain is a selector, he makes field changes, decides when to declare, whether to force the follow-on (if you don’t understand any of that, don’t worry; I don’t think I do either). But it doesn’t apply in football. Most football coaches wouldn’t trust their captain to enter the right dressing room at half-time without directions. And even if a player were considered worthy to be a genuine leader of men, does the fact that they are not the captain diminish this leadership ability? Would Roy Keane mouth off any less if Ruud Van Nistelrooy were captain? Would Roy Keane mouth off any less if his tongue was removed? The respective answers must be ‘no’ and ‘don’t know, but let’s give it a try’.

The classic example of the indifference of our continental cousins to the captaincy is the fact that David Beckham is England captain. Young(ish), a winger, inarticulate and a complete Romeo in the tackle, Beckham was appointed England captain by Peter Taylor, more as a publicity stunt than anything. Then when Sven-Goran Eriksson was appointed, he gets a phone call from some wacky, zany DJ pretending to be Kevin Keegan. When asked by ‘Kev’ whether Becks will remain captain, a bemused Eriksson, who had clearly given the issue no thought at all, says, “I think so, yes”. He couldn’t have cared less, and despite hysterical coverage in the tabloids that Beckham couldn’t recreate the spirit of Dunkirk in the manner that Paul Scholes or Sol Campbell might, Eriksson saw no reason to change the status quo.

My point – eventually – is this: the captaincy should be viewed as a reward for services rendered, not the kind of decision upon which a team’s fortunes can be made or broken. Give it to Hyypia, because he’s given us back a sense of self-respect in defence. Give it to Owen because he’s a genuinely world class player. Give it to Gerrard because he’s Scouse. Give it to Carragher because he’s our longest serving player, and Scouse. But don’t give it to someone because they’re not a goalie or a winger or young or ineffectual in the tackle. To do so just wouldn’t be football.