4 February 2010
The debate over John Terry’s captaincy of England has snowballed into a minefield of moral, practical and sporting issues. I certainly don’t envy Fabio Capello – it’s far from easy to see what should be done next. Capello is a worldly man, and a hard one, and he’ll want to make a decision that works best for English football – but even if you narrow the grounds on which the decision will be taken, putting England considerations above all else, the issues are still difficult ones.
But what occurs to me, as a professional who played for 12 clubs, and England, over a 20-year career, is that the captaincy issue is a red herring anyway. Some footballing people will say this is blasphemous, but captaincy in football is massively overrated, almost to the point of being irrelevant. In cricket, a captain makes frequent, crucial strategic decisions. He often has vital input in selecting the batting order, he decides who bowls and when, sets fielding positions and strategy.
Football captains are rarely anywhere near so important. In my whole career I can only cite Roy Keane as being, effectively, a boss on the pitch, dictating play tactically as well as emotionally, and even then Keano was often his master’s voice, for Sir Alex Ferguson.
I hate to disappoint those who buy into the notion that every captain gives a Braveheart speech before a game, calling for his troops to die for him and the cause, but it’s a myth.
In any given dressing room you can have 11 strong personalities, 11 captains, each capable in their role. Sure, some captains are shouters – Gary Neville – but so are many non-captains. Some captains are quieter and let their feet do the talking – Ryan Giggs. Others wouldn’t dream of telling you how to play, just lead by example by working hard in training and giving their all on a pitch – David Beckham. Does captaincy really require a unique temperament? No.
I use Manchester United as an example because I know them best, but in recent memory Rio Ferdinand has been captain, so too Vidic, Evra, Van der Sar. It can be taken as an honour for the man with the armband but the captain’s identity, on its own, is never going to win you a match.
To my mind, that’s why stripping JT of the captaincy, or not, is cosmetic, quite frankly. Stripping him of the captaincy won’t change Terry, for better or worse. The issue is whether he stays in the team at all; and if he’s being judged as a football player that’s an easy decision. He’s in.
If we didn’t let people who make serial errors in their private lives near a pitch, we’d never have had George Best, Maradona, Gazza and umpteen more. We can talk about leadership but did Tony Adams suddenly become a bad leader when it was known he’d driven his car into a wall when drunk? You can’t have it all ways; saying someone is a good leader until you come into possession of new facts, then retrospectively call them a bad leader. Either they’re a good leader or a bad leader, regardless of their other failures. The complexities then stem from image issues, not leadership issues in themselves.
I only partly accept the “role model” argument that expects players to be models of virtue. Top footballers are easy targets to be held responsible for the ills of the world. But does anyone seriously suggest that knife crime, drug running and gang violence are down to football? No. So what meaningful message with a tangible effect does censuring an unfaithful player have in the real world? Fewer kids cheating on their wives 20 years down the line? Do me a favour.
Obviously, JT can expect to suffer the consequences of his actions, and rightly so, but let’s not kid anyone that dropping him will solve the world’s ills. Equally, why impose one set of moral judgements on footballers, when it isn’t the norm in any other workplace? In factories, shops, newspaper offices, wherever, most people’s messy, complicated, error-strewn lives continue as normal in the wake of mistakes.
It doesn’t excuse it, but we have to keep everything in perspective. I want to stress, emphatically, that I don’t condone any indiscretion by Terry – and he’s had a few over the years. He’s upset people, and it would appear nobody has been hurt in this latest episode more than his own wife, which I can only guess he is ashamed of. None of us revel in our mistakes and JT will have cursed himself for his own behaviour.
Terry is rightly getting flak, and he’s brought it on himself. But to argue that he should be stripped of the England captaincy, or the same role at Chelsea, or thrown out of the England camp altogether is too simplistic, and reactionary, and quite possibly pointless. The situation is far too complex to be handled with a PR gesture, even though that would placate the loudest critics.
Remember all the good work, too
Too rarely do we hear about the good work footballers do: loads of it. And I’m delighted that a charity golf day I’m hosting on 26 May at The Grove in Hertfordshire, with all proceeds to the Prince’s Trust, will be supported by many players. The England squad will be staying at The Grove that evening, and departing for the World Cup from there the next day. I don’t know yet whether some of them will be allowed to get involved with the golf day; that’s a straight call for Mr Capello. But I know that a good number of well-known football figures and those close to the game will be there.
The fee for Andy Cole’s column is donated to Alder Hey hospital and sickle cell anaemia research. He works on charitable projects with the sport and media team at law firm Thomas Eggar
A version of this column also appears in The Independent.