James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: The case for the captain’s defence

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So go on then, what makes a good captain?

The alpha male who headbutts walls and beats his chest in the tunnel before games?

Or a modern, David Beckham type of bloke, sensitive to his colleagues’ feelings and needs?

Perhaps, if a football club is really lucky, something inbetween.

The answer, of course, is that it depends on the type of team he is leading. Is it predominately made-up of polite young lads who respond better to an arm around the shoulder rather than good old fashioned rollocking? Is so, then Goldenballs-Light is probably best whereas a dressing-room stuffed to the rafters with gnarled old pro’s means a Terry Butcher wanna-be is the best way to go. Bloody bandages, cracked plaster, broken ribs and all.

Managers are best placed to make this call because they know the personality of their squad. Most of us think we know a player’s character after watching them from afar. But appearances are often deceptive. Rugged defenders who earn a living smashing centre-forwards can also, behind the scenes at least, possess a pretty fragile egos. Many waif-like wingers, by contrast, have hearts of stone.

A recent conversation with a former United midfielder and member of the side which reached the Premier League in 2007 revealed some pretty surprising warriors and, despite their hard-as-nails image, a few soft touches too. It takes all sorts.

At United, Nigel Adkins is best placed to make the call because, unlike us, he is in a position to assess the whole picture. Jay McEveley, the manager’s pick, won’t win any popularity contests at Bramall Lane having seemingly, in several quarters, been made the scapegoat for the club’s poor finish to last season. Let’s be frank, with a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of Nigel Clough’s side could have been cast in this unenviable role but, for some unfathomable reason, many observers have decided the Liverpudlian will do. “He’s crap,” is the default position of most naysayers. Maybe. It’s a game of opinions after all. But, clearly, Adkins and Clough, two very different characters, believe otherwise. Which, ultimately, is what counts.

Another prerequisite for captaincy candidates is the total respect of their colleagues. Which, due to time percentages, is won or lost during training. McEveley and Jamal Campbell-Ryce are the two senior players most often mentioned by academy graduates as enthusiastic mentors ready to pass on their knowledge and valuable tips. Conversely, I recollect how one of their predecessors, who shall remain nameless, was a popular member of staff until he returned home from a foreign tour early due to a lack of sleep. He wasn’t ostracised and remained popular. But, from that moment on, was viewed as being mentally weak.

English football probably places too much emphasis on the armband anyway. Yes, it’s an honour. But, for fear of descending into the realm of cliché, you want eleven on the pitch. I suspect Adkins subscribes to a similar school of thought given his decision to establish a leadership group.

Maybe this desire to follow a leader imbued with almost mythical powers is why a frequent charge labelled at young homegrown players is that they can’t think for themselves?

Twitter: @JamesShield1

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