What does it take to wear the captain's armband?
The role of the captain has always been a contentious one in English football. Depending on who you talk to, the captain is either the beating heart of the club, or an unnecessarily inflated role in what is – after all – a team game.
With old-fashioned leaders like Wayne Rooney and John Terry seemingly in permanent decline and on their way out of their clubs, Glory wanted to know what the fans think it takes to wear the captain's armband. We caught up with a few Glory contributors, and asked them to name their club's greatest ever on-pitch leader – the player that embodied their team in word and deed. Here's what they said...
✏️️ Robert O'Connor
My Captain: Darren Fletcher, West Bromwich Albion
Even a blind pig finds a truffle every now and then. And every so often, a footballer of unbridled European calibre turns up in the middle reaches of the Premier League, swapping the trappings of European football for the unedifying pursuit of a good, stable finish somewhere between 10th and 17th in the league table.
Every doleful, lower mid-table club will have its turn to be led by a champion, even if the harsh facts of life for that club means they're necessarily being led nowhere much. This, right now, is our time: West Bromwich Albion. So thank you, Manchester United, and Darren Fletcher. The greatest praise that can be heaped upon Fletcher in the context of his West Brom career is that he clearly and categorically doesn’t belong here. The gastric illness that ended his United career and brought his life to a debilitating halt was the closest to tragedy that football, with all its grandiose hyperbole, ever gets, but that is behind him now, and every time the Scotland captain takes to the Hawthorns pitch it beggars the belief of most fans that he is here, leading us in our giddy quest to cling on to the tailcoats of mediocrity.
Fletcher has that match intelligence that marks out the very, very best from the rest. His mind works faster than anyone else’s in blue and white, bestowing upon him wilful control over the team’s rhythms. He exercises this control masterfully, consistently and responsibly. And yet, whether it's because of how close he came to dropping out of the game entirely or merely down to his sheer, dogged professionalism (my money says it's the latter) he executes his duties with a readiness and a willingness that it would defy most footballers playing so obviously beneath their level to summon. Fletcher is the beating heart of West Brom – a blessing disguised as a traction engine, wrapped in a dream. The truffle devoured in our slobbering, grateful mouth.
– Robert O'Connor is a football journalist currently working on his first book – an exploration of football in modern European warzones. Rob contributed to our Kosovo issue, and you can read more of his work at Vice Sports.
✏️️ Jack Stevens
My Captain: Gabriel Batistuta, Fiorentina
One word: Batigol. Not only was Gabriel Batistuta regarded as one of the deadliest strikers of his generation, he was also a beloved Fiorentina captain, record-breaker and legend.
Batistuta defined Fiorentina during the turbulent years of 1991-2000. This topsy-turvy decade saw Batigol stick with the Curva Fiesole faithful despite relegation to Serie B in 1993, reaping the rewards of Fiorentina's promotion and subsequent title challenge in 1998-'99 – all while topping the club scoring charts for nine years straight.
Never were Fiorentina more reliant on the magic of Batistuata than in that 1998-99 campaign. After a storming start to the year, an injury sustained against Milan ruled the Argentine out for over a month, and saw La Viola slump to a 3rd place finish – unable to sustain their charge without their enigmatic talisman. Despite this setback, Batistuta still managed to finish top of the Fiorentina scoring charts with 26 goals, and finish one behind Marćio Amoroso in the race for the capocannoniere – a true testament to his enduring class.
Batistuta's symbiotic relationship with Fiorentina means he's held in the highest regard amongst the club's supporters. Batistuta transcended his incredible goalscoring feats through his undying support and loyalty for both Fiorentina and Florence – a club and a city he made his own. Adored by fans to this day, the greatest player Fiorentina ever saw was one who would love them back in equal amounts.
Batistuta moved to Roma for the 2000-01 season in search of a Scudetto that appeared unattainable with La Viola. The usual hostility that accompanies a transfer to a title rival was quickly overlooked by Fiorentina fans – they knew Batigol deserved the kind of glory their club could not deliver.
Batistuta's love for La Viola was summed up when an interviewer asked whether he regretted not signing for Manchester United during his peak years. He replied: "I would have rather won one title with a team like Fiorentina, than ten titles with a team like Manchester United".
– Jack Stevens is a football writer and contributor to English language Fiorentina supporters' website Viola Nation.
✏️️ Louis Rossi
My Captain: Patrick Vieira, Arsenal
At a time when Arsenal are facing criticism for a lack of leadership on and off the pitch (and really, when aren’t they?), what we wouldn’t do for a player like Patrick Vieira back in our midst.
More than any other, Vieira was the player that bridged the gap between the functional, robust, George Graham-era Arsenal and the free-scoring, slick passing teams of the early Wenger years. Here was a footballer of both steel and silk – at once a midfield destroyer in the true English mould and a cultured passer who helped to usher in a new, distinctly francophile Arsenal template. He wasn’t quite the iron fist in our velvet glove – he was both the fist and the glove itself. More than anyone else, Vieria was the player who embodied the very best attributes of the greatest Arsenal side yet assembled.
Vieira became Arsenal captain in 2002, six years after joining the club and already a serial winner with Wenger’s men. The following year he led the Gunners through their momentous unbeaten season, and was typically indomitable in the middle of the park as Bergkamp, Pires, Henry and Ljungberg provided the craft up top to match his midfield industry. Vieira would have made more than his 44 appearances that campaign had he not spent so much of the season suspended – a sign of his volatile temperament, perhaps, but also of the competitiveness that led Roy Keane to describe the Frenchman as ‘immense’ and ‘one of the very best I’ve ever played with or against’.
Vieira’s playing career coincided with a prolonged winning streak for Arsenal. He lifted the Premier League trophy three times and the FA Cup four times, but left for Juventus at the start of the 2005-06 season. That meant Vieira missed one of the great nearly moments of Wenger’s tenure – the 2006 Champions League final, when the 10-man Gunners were pipped 2-1 by the Barcelona of Ronaldinho and Eto’o. The result probably wouldn’t have been any different with Vieira on the pitch. Probably not. But the Catalans would have known they were in for a game, all the same. Man, is he missed in these parts.
– Louis Rossi is Co-Founder and Head of Copy at Glory Magazine.
✏️️ Jack Reeve
My Captain: Grant Holt, Norwich City
For me, the importance of the captain has been played down over the last few seasons. Maybe it's because we've seen the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard retire, but for me it's clear that having an influential captain in your side can be the difference between winning and losing.
Since Grant Holt left Norwich City, the decline of a once upwardly mobile football club has been agonisingly evident. Grant Holt was the man the Canaries looked to in times of struggle, and the player at the forefront of everything good that happened during the brief but exponential rise of my club.
Holt had everything a leader needs: an important role in the squad, an experienced head, and the fire in his belly that got fans riled up. Holt's roaring commands could be heard from all around Carrow Road, and he got in the faces of his opponents, too. Before he even stepped onto the pitch, we all knew he had one up on any defender unfortunate enough to be marking him that day.
Norwich haven't had a captain like Holt since, and we haven't come close to equalling the heights we reached under his leadership. Without a strong leader, it's hard for a team to continue in the right direction once the going gets tough. It's easy to be a leader when your club's doing well – not so much when it's struggling.
What I wouldn't give for another like Grant Holt to grace Carrow Road week in, week out.
– Jack Reeve is the Founder of TalkNorwichCity – the number one Norwich City fan channel and a leading light of the YouTube football fan community.
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