Back in the day, a Captain at a club or international level was the ultimate honour, one reflected certain qualities that a manager would want to project onto the field of play. It was a post that would require a genuine leader who could motivate, cajole, orchestrate, organise and instruct.
Over the years, the role has diminished like everything else, it’s now normally given out as a sweetener to keep the best player at the club engaged and committed, but it’s far from the post of leader. Look around the Premier League for one such character and it might provide a stern test because today’s managers and coaches aren’t as dependent on an on-field Lieutenant as they once were. The coach of today looks at multiple leaders within the group but in my prehistoric view, it doesn’t work.
Arsenal’s Unai Emery made it even worse by putting the Captaincy to a vote which yielded five candidates, something I still find absurd to this day. Back in September 2019, the Spaniard revealed that Granit Xhaka was his official Captain but he was to be joined by Mesut Ozil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Hector Bellerin. Out of those five, I would have given it to Bellerin but had there been other options, he may have missed out in the lottery for an armband.
Legends of the game will come to the minds of the historians of the game such as Harris, Mullery, Moore, Beckenbauer, Bonds, Bremner, Charlton, McLintock, Adams, Terry, Keane and Vieira.
Let’s cast our minds back to the Graham era when the armband was something that made a player stand out, with a position that was seen as the boss’s right-hand man, the on-field general for the man in charge who kept it all together during 90 minutes and beyond. The epitome of the role was the partnership between George Graham and Tony Adams, who wanted the same things and worked in unison to achieve them.
Behind the scenes, it was all Graham, every facet of the game was planned out meticulously but when the whistle went, Adams was in charge of operations. When Wenger arrived in 1996, he didn’t have to change his Captain because he had witnessed the way the Gunners’ number six operated and was glad of his focus and influence.
In 2002, when Adams retired, the void was filled competently by Patrick Vieira, whose mere physical presence and winning attitude set the bar for his fellow players to follow his lead. Further down the line, Arsenal had less imposing figures and I’m about to upset a great many by naming players that weren’t worthy of the captaincy and in some cases, only got the position to keep them sweet.
The list shows evidence of the obvious decline and only Henry and Fabregas provided performances that were considered inspirational but they underlined a departure from the traditional authoritative figure. Yet, there were a series of questionable appointments that strayed further from the blueprint and delivered very little.
William Gallas, Robin Van Persie, Mikel Arteta, Laurent Koscielny, Granit Xhaka and of course, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Had Per Mertesacker been in his prime when he arrived, then he would surely have shown what a magnificent leader he could have been for the Gunners, but injuries played their part.
Today, it’s almost guaranteed that if you are a club’s best player, then you’ll end up with the captain’s armband in an attempt to secure your services long-term. Yet, many of those with the armband aren’t natural leaders or even influencers in the traditional sense, they are players that stand out in a personal sense and are generally the focus of media attention.
The likes of Adams and Vieira are extremely difficult to find and at this moment in time, you wonder if you’ll see anything close to what the pair bought to Arsenal. Much has been made of Kieran Tierney’s arrival, complete with his winning mentality, appetite for competition and a growing sense of leadership that he might, at some point, become the Arsenal captain and that appointment will certainly change the perception of the captain’s role, if only at the North London club.
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I can’t speak for any other group of supporters but apart from the home crowd, does anyone know who the club captain is? It appears that no one is bothered by the captaincy anymore, a Captain now rarely talks to the media, that’s the manager/coaches job.
He isn’t a figure that represents the club away from the field of play and at this rate, the dying art of the captain could eventually see the role become obsolete altogether as the game continues to morph into a glossy sports package designed for the masses of armchair fans who seem addicted to Sky’s endless stream of football games.
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