“HE must be a f***ing winner. We expect those qualities in a player but he must be a winner.”
I was told years ago that the above was a response from Joe Fagan to a young scout when he asked what Liverpool looked for in a player. Fagan responded saying, “What do you think?” The scout reeled off a long list of attributes. Fagan’s response was clear, straight to the point and spot on — as you would expect from a man who gave 27 years’ service to the Reds as coach, assistant manager and manager.
Debates over who the captain of 2015-16 should be raged from the moment it became clear Steven Gerrard was departing from the club, but once upon a time I’m not sure Liverpool were ever that bothered who the captain was. From 1970 to 1990 Liverpool averaged a different captain every two years when you look at those who held the armband for more than just the odd game a season. And we didn’t do too bad in that period did we (25 major trophies if you’re counting)?
Despite the significance some give it, I’ve never quite understood the fascination with a captain. Maybe it’s because I grew up when Liverpool handed the captains armband round a lot. Maybe, if I’d grown up in the early 1980s with Graeme Souness as captain, my views would be different. As it was, I saw Alan Hansen, Ronnie Whelan, Steve Nicol, Bruce Grobbelaar, Mark Wright and Ian Rush wear the armband all within a relatively short period of time.
Is it an English thing, I don’t know — perhaps our history and pride in the armed forces or maybe the influence of captains in cricket and other sports, where the role has a lot more power, clouds many people’s thinking.
I’m not the only one slightly perplexed by the fascination with who the captain of a football team is.
Fabio Capello used to give the captaincy to the most capped or most senior player in the England camp. The captaincy was of no relevance to him, and he was stunned at how much focus the England captaincy received as he wanted his players to be leaders, telling Steven Gerrard he “expected him to lead with or without an armband”. Nothing to worry about there, Fabio.
Football is about winning games and getting the most out of your players. I’m not bothered, as a fan or coach, who the captain is. The focus has to be on getting the maximum out of each individual and putting together the ingredients for a successful team.
Unsuitable captains (Paul Ince, for example) or players who struggle under the captaincy would cause far greater concern. Famously, Sami Hyypia had the captaincy taken off him in order for Steven Gerrard to take over at the tender age of 23.
An interesting parallel was when Phil Thompson lost the armband to Souness in 1981 with Liverpool struggling in 12th place in the league. Bob Paisley stated: “It may have come as something of a surprise when I decided to take the captaincy off Phil Thompson for the FA Cup tie at Swansea. It was a difficult decision to take because Phil has been a first-class captain for the club.
“My reason for the decision was that I felt Phil had been going through a rough patch playing-wise and I thought the extra responsibility of leading the team was having an effect.”
Not only did both decisions improve the form of the outgoing skipper — struggling under the weight of responsibility to maintain form — but it took the new skipper to a whole new level.
I would argue the improvement in form under the additional responsibility for Souness and Gerrard was worth far more points over the years than the mere fact they happened to be captain.
As a coach and a manager, I’ve been in many different situations regarding the selection of a captain. We’ve appointed a captain in the past who didn’t stand out as a typical captain but we felt the midfielder would raise his game to a whole new level and that the pride in becoming captain would bring out the best in him. There were others in the squad who were natural leaders but would the captain’s armband improve their ability to lead? We felt not and it worked a treat.
Use Jamie Carragher, Pepe Reina or Javier Mascherano as reference points. Would handing any of them the captain’s armband have changed their leadership qualities or fantastic mentality in the Liverpool dressing room?
Alex Ferguson famously said he was worried if he felt his dressing room wasn’t a nightmare to manage, if it didn’t feel like it was going to kick off at any second. Think of his first title winning side — Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Ince, Eric Cantona.
My back room staff and I down the years have picked captains who would be good role models — players whose game we thought the armband would raise considerably. This year we let the dressing room vote on the captaincy and the vice captaincy. That worked really well and it was great to see so many players receive a vote. It highlighted what we thought — that we had a lot of leaders in the squad.
At any level give me a team of winners, leaders if you will, over anything else. Those that never give in. When it’s not your day they won’t stop until they make it your day. Successful sides are built on that and it’s the kind of spirit we’ve seen already on display from James Milner in his short time at the club.
Fagan had it right. Winners. He must be a winner. That should be the main focus of every Liverpool scout. If you want a reason why Liverpool haven’t competed for the league title often enough since 1990 that’s your answer. Good players alone aren’t enough. Top players who are winners is the key.
So where does that leave the current Liverpool squad and skipper?
So much focus was put on who would be Liverpool captain this summer and the doubters raised serious questions over Henderson’s ability to captain Liverpool. Personally, I think he was the ideal selection. A regular starter, a great role model and a player who seems to have thrived on additional responsibility throughout his time at Anfield.
Many have said we saw a different Jordan Henderson at times when Gerrard wasn’t on the pitch and I think there is something in that. I think we will see a better Jordan Henderson as times goes on while we know he will represent the club well on and off the pitch. Rodgers clearly feels exactly the same. He said: “I wanted to look at someone who would be a great ambassador on and off the field because it’s not just about captaining Liverpool, you have a huge responsibility for the players and the supporters on a worldwide basis.
“So it was going to take somebody who is going to be strong-willed and has a strong mentality, but is also a wonderful role model. Obviously Jordan was one of the players that I thought about, but once I saw him grow and develop as the vice-captain then I felt pretty sure that this would be the season he could be the captain.”
Of course when Liverpool lose a few games — sorry, if they ever lose a game again — the issue of the captaincy may well rise again.
Don’t be distracted by that. The key is how many good players we have who, alongside the skipper, also happen to be winners.
Judging by this summer’s business, and the gritty start to the season, we have a lot more than 2014-15. That will do for me and I’d bet that would do for Joe Fagan.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo