Monsieur Salut writes: long ago, Pete Sixsmith and I were the owners of a would-be business empire we called the North Eastern Programme Club. The idea was to augment paper round earnings and pocket money by buying and selling football programmes. It was an abject failure, as the article to which I link above explains. If we couldn’t trade in programmes, maybe we could end up writing in them. Salut! Sunderland answered a call from SAFC and agreed to provide pieces for the revamped matchday programme. My own first offering, which I shall eventually get round to posting here as item one in a series we shall name after that ill-fated venture, appeared in the programme for the Charlton game. This is Pete’s follow-up, on the subject of football captains. Others may follow …
As I was driving home from the Charlton game with a smile as wide as the Wearmouth Bridge, I tuned into the round up of the afternoon games on BBC 5Live. Mark Clemmit was rattling on about something and my ears pricked up when they mentioned that Brentford manager Dean Smith had not appointed a captain this year.
Brentford are an innovative club who have a business model that others are emulating in that they will sign players from lower leagues, give them an opportunity to shine and then sell them on.
One of these was last year’s captain, John Egan.
He had joined the Bees from Gillingham at the start of the 2015-16 season and went on to be an integral part of their successful line up last season. He has moved to Sheffield United ( who once had him on loan from us) for what is described as a “club record fee” and will hope to use his experience and expertise to guide the Blades to success this year – although losing the first two games doesn’t help.
Manager Smith hopes that there will be leaders all over the pitch. “I want an environment of leaders rather than followers” said the former Walsall boss, “where there is collective responsibility.”
He is following the example of both rugby codes where there are often separate “captains” for the forwards and the backs and where a group of senior players take it on their shoulders to inspire their team mates.
Those of us who played the game as youngsters in the back streets and public parks, know that captains were always the best players and invariably the best looking. In a 23-a-side game, nobody looked for inspirational leadership, more for someone who knew the relative strengths of the large group of boys (I am talking 50s and 60s here) and who would not make a catastrophic blunder by selecting the overweight kid with glasses rather than the lad who had had a trial at Hartlepool.
There are different types of captain. In my time as a Sunderland supporter (far too long), there have been local lads like Stan Anderson, whose passion for the club made him a natural choice as skipper. There have been chest beaters like Kevin Ball and Lee Cattermole and quiet but efficient players like Dean Whitehead.
Bobby Kerr tapped into the culture that Bob Stokoe created in that glorious Spring of 1973 and Tony Towers took it up a level two years later when he captained us to promotion, leading by example.
Maybe now, with all the scientific aids and background preparation that goes on, it no longer needs a Charlie Hurley to say to Jimmy McNab that it was time to put that inside forward on the running track a couple of times – although I doubt that the redoubtable Jimmy would need to be told.
But if you were to look at the upper echelons of English football, you would probably struggle to name the skippers of most teams.
After you have come up with iconic figures like Vincent Kompany at Manchester City, former Sunderland star Jordan Henderson at Liverpool and (perhaps) Hugo Lloris at Tottenham Hotspur, it would be hard to name many more. Who is the Arsenal captain this year? Actually they have five with Laurent Koscielny being the senior one.
It’s the same at international level. Harry Kane would be the first to admit that he is no Bobby Moore and his role as chief goal scorer was more important than his tactical input on the pitch. Lloris skippered the French national team to World Cup glory but he was no chest beater, just a man who the other players respected and who probably had a good ratio of correct coin tossing calls.
Long gone are the days when the likes of Danny Blanchflower could, and frequently would, change the approach of the Spurs and Northern Ireland teams that he skippered. Presumably Bill Nicholson, a fine manager but no great tactician, allowed him to get on with it – and seeing as Spurs have not won a league title since the mercurial Ulsterman retired, Nicholson may well have been right.
Having said that, I cannot imagine either Stan Anderson or Charlie Hurley abandoning what they had been told to do by Alan Brown and changing the pattern of play. The Bomber would expect his captains to ensure that players did exactly what the manager had told them to as well as being upstanding members of the community.
Over the course of the season, we will have a look at some of the men who have captained Sunderland, some to success and some in adversity. Not all have been great players, but they had a special something about them which led to respect from their fellow professionals and (usually) from the man and woman on the terraces.
George Honeyman is following in a long line of worthies and I am sure that he would wish to emulate the likes of Hugh Wilson, Charlie Thomson, Raich Carter, King Charlie and Bobby Kerr. If he were to become the legend that those five have, he will have done very, very well.