I was having a conversation with an Arsenal fan about what his club will do about the captaincy this season if Barcelona aren’t permitted to buy Cesc Fabregas. The lad has repeatedly stated his desire to join his boyhood club and if he stays at Arsenal it’s nothing to do with his own wishes, rather the fact his club won’t negotiate and Barcelona won’t offer enough cash. How can that be your captain?
One of the points that he made though was if not Fabregas, who would be suitable to wear the armband? Appointing William Gallas was a comedy of errors and a massive mistake on Arsene Wenger’s part, with the stroppy Frenchman guilty of an array of faux pas, but his character summed up by his very public break down following the draw against Birmingham in 2008. Whilst the rest of the team rushed off the field to check on news of team mate Eduardo, who they had all just witnessed break his leg, captain Gallas withdrew from the rest of the team to sit in front of the cameras in the centre circle on the pitch. The Arsenal players needed leadership that day and got nothing, then went on to squander the five point advantage they once had over us and fading away to finish 3rd.
Now, whilst giving the armband to Fabregas was obvious in a lot of ways, given that he is their best player, has been at the club a long time, kisses the badge, talks very fondly of the fans and club etc., it still seemed an odd decision to me. He was only 21-years-old and is hardly a warrior on the pitch. Compare him to Wayne Rooney for example, he’s timid and unimposing, yet Rooney wasn’t close to being named our captain at that age, and Sir Alex Ferguson, whilst identifying him as a possibility for the future, still wants more experience and maturity from him before naming him United captain. Would a 21-year-old Ryan Giggs have been named captain? A 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo? Course not. Being supremely talented, as Fabregas is, doesn’t make you captain material. But like Henry before him, another wishy-washy choice, he was handed the armband anyway.
Robin van Persie has worn the armband for Arsenal before and he certainly has more about him (and unlike most United fans, I’m a fan of the nasty Dutchman), but it should be a worry for fans if a player like him is the best candidate for captaincy. He’s no Tony Adams is he. So I had a look through Arsenal’s squad list and realised there just aren’t many leaders in that team. Looking through the more experienced players, you wouldn’t want Almunia, Silvestre, Rosicky (who was named captain in Arsenal’s opening pre-season friendly), Eboue or Arshavin as your captain. So then you have a look through the others, like Sagna, Clichy, Denilson or Walcott, and they’re no captain either. Possibly Vermaelen? But he’s only been there a year. Diaby has been billed as the next Vieira by some, but is he a leader? Arsenal fans would know more about that then me, but they’re hardly natural borns are they.
But this conversation made me think of United and how really we are spoilt for choice where leaders are concerned. Sir Alex Ferguson has tried playing the likes of Paul Scholes and John O’Shea as captain when more obvious players are missing, based on the fact they’ve been with us since they were kids, but neither are particularly vocal and like being the best player doesn’t necessarily make you a good captain, neither does being at the club for a long time.
So, who are the leaders that we have in our current team? In Gary Neville, whatever rival fans may think of him, you have the best captain in the league. He’s so unpopular but I’d love to meet a fan who doesn’t wish their captain had the same attitude to their hated rivals as Neville does to ours. Who wouldn’t love to see their captain wildly showing their badge to the travelling section when a goal was scored down the other end like Neville did to Liverpool? Who wouldn’t want to see their captain going absolutely barmy down the touchline and on the pitch after a 96th minute winner like Neville did against City last season? Who wouldn’t have a grin on their face when seeing their captain sticking their finger up at a player you all hate like Neville did to Tevez?
“I can’t stand Liverpool, I can’t stand Liverpool people, I can’t stand anything to do with them,” Neville said.
It’s the stuff of legend and whatever non-United fans say about Neville, whatever they try and convince themselves of when slagging off this ‘unprofessional’ behaviour, Arsenal fans would love to see Fabregas tell Ashley Cole where to go, Liverpool fans would love to see Gerrard giving United fans stick at Anfield, and City fans would love to see Toure celebrating a last second winner against United from the bench with an ounce of passion that Neville showed.
Ryan Giggs is second in charge and isn’t someone who I think stands out as a natural captain. He’s won everything with United, he’s played for our first team for 20 years, but he hasn’t always been the most vocal or inspiring man on the pitch. But Darren Fletcher revealed something interesting about our legend this season when reflecting on our Champions League win in Moscow. As the players were dancing around on the pitch, Giggsy got in to the middle of the huddle to have a word. “He said, ‘Lads, this is what it’s all about — let’s have it next year as well’, and we were looking at this trophy, which hadn’t even been presented to us, and there was Ryan already talking about next year.” There’s a hunger in Giggs, his never-ending striving for perfection, which sees him demand the best from the players around him and sets high aspirations and belief in them.
Then we have Nemanja Vidic, Serbia’s captain, Patrice Evra, France’s captain, Darren Fletcher, Scotland’s captain (and also chosen ahead of Giggs and Van der Sar as captain against Celtic this week), Park Ji-Sung, South Korea’s captain (although not someone I would really consider for United’s captaincy) as well as the likes of Wayne Rooney and Jonny Evans who have all the attributes of future captains for our club. We’re spoilt for choice.
I personally think the captain’s role is massively important and whilst all players should do their fair share in spurring the team on, I think it’s important to have a figurehead who has a word in the ear of players who need to be told to up their game, who lifts the chins of players who are demoralised or who have made mistakes, and who gives a slap on the back to a player that has done well, and it actually means something to them.
Wenger though, apparently, doesn’t seem to value the captaincy in the same way. Henry and Fabregas would never be captains at United but Wenger gave it to them to keep them sweet and keep them at the club. Wenger isn’t alone in this attitude, I’ve heard players and managers state their belief that it’s just a bit of material to wrap around the arm, there for the sake of it, rather than it actually meaning anything or making any difference.
There are conclusions you could draw from this without any conclusive proof, but it’s interesting to speculate. Arsenal play good football but year after year they just seem to give up when it matters. You could argue that Wenger’s refusal to spend money to strengthen the squad and stubbornly stick religiously to his youth policy could explain this, and that is probably a more likely reason, but it’s possible that this lack of leadership amongst their players also makes a difference. Don’t forget, Arsenal haven’t won a thing since the last player more in the captain’s mould, Vieira, left. When you’re top of the table and draw 2-2 against Birmingham, you want a captain and players who will go in to the next game with fire in their bellies… not ones that go on to draw three and lose one of their following four games and surrender the title, for example. Look at Arsenal this season, with an outside chance of achieving something following United and Chelsea’s woeful seasons, who then won just 2 of their last 7 games, losing to Wigan, Spurs and Blackburn. Or maybe that has nothing to do with leadership at all…
Equally, more conclusions could be drawn to the contrary about United. Whilst having talented players and a brilliant manager has obviously contributed, I think the strong leadership we have amongst the squad is definitely a contributing factor to the success we’ve had over the past few decades and one of the reasons why we never give up, keep playing until the last second. The likes of Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Paul Ince and Roy Keane, to name a few, came before them, and that is a tradition that has carried through.
“You just hope you have a strong dressing room,” Keane said when reflecting on the United captaincy. “You hope you have a few captains in your dressing room to take care of things. I was lucky in my playing days that we had some strong characters and we used to deal with what ever was going on in the dressing room. If I was missing something, which I very rarely did, then there was another couple of players to spot things. A good dressing room and a good captain can make the manager’s job easier.”
I’d love to see the likes of Fletcher, Rooney and Evans regularly wearing the armband one day, and I would hate to ever have someone captain United who didn’t want to be there. As soon as Ronaldo publicly stated his desire to leave for Real Madrid, I wanted him gone, and that was him just as a mere player, let alone if he had been captain!
Neville, Giggs and Rio will all retire, but who would have any doubts over what a fantastic job Fletch could do as our captain? Who would question Rooney’s ability to lead our players to victory? But who do Arsenal have to take over from Fabregas? Who do Chelsea have ready to replace Terry and Lampard? What will Liverpool do once Gerrard and Carragher retire? We have a next generation of great leaders at United and I’m really looking forward to their time at creating a name for themselves in our history books.
The RoM Manchester United 2021-22 season preview is now available for just £6. It includes articles from the country's best football writers about our expectations for the season ahead and our brightest talents, as well as proposed transfer business and which youth players to keep an eye out for. All profit goes to Trafford Macmillan so please support this fantastic cause.