Captains Contagious

Published as ‘Who leads the many captains?’ in The Sunday Age Sport, 9/12/12 

It’s fair to say Clive Palmer’s A-League foray curried little favour with Australia’s football fraternity.  One of the billionaire’s more audacious directives – Gold Coast teenager Mitch Cooper wearing the armband on his senior debut – typified his contrary sporting ideology.  It also highlighted how team captaincy appears to be suffering an honourable loss in prestige.

Nevermind Palmer’s own unique brand of leadership, the Cooper blooper capped a confounding trend for skippers and would-be skippers in Australian sport where too many appointments appear to be as much about rhetoric and a back page headline.

Cricket Australia’s promotion of batting wunderkind Dave Warner to vice captain of the national ODI outfit caused nary a ripple in the ocean of world cricket, but it did expose the folly of faux leadership roles when Michael Clarke injured himself, leaving the green and not so old Warner next in line.  Sure, it wasn’t exactly Sarah Palin in the Oval Office had John McCain won the 2008 US election and been hit by a bus, although it did prompt a back-track on the fast-track by chief selector John Inveriarity.  The reinstated Ricky Ponting ‘could do the job blindfolded’ observed Steve Waugh, but why make Warner vice captain in the first place?  To top it off, when Punter was punted, Shane Watson hobbled into the driver’s seat.

Then there’s the curious case of George Bailey.  Tasmania’s astute Shield winning skipper was not only a surprise elevation to international T20 ranks last summer, he became the first player since Dave Gregory (in the first ever test match) to captain Australia without previous international experience.  Ian Chappell has since been another authoritative critic perplexed by Cricket Australia’s rationale.

Of course a cricket captain exerts greater influence on proceedings than most football equivalents, whose charges are more heavily regulated by a lengthening convoy of coaches.  And yet somehow on-field leadership groups have swelled to as many as half the team (Carlton’s eleven-man 2007 leadership squad included then no-gamer Bryce Gibbs and problem gamer Brendon Fevola).

Cynics would suggest the inclination to install ‘tribal committees’ is as much a navel gazing response to managing behavioural indiscretions, however the strategy of appointing co-captains isn’t without anecdotal support.  How much of Sydney’s 2005 glory can be apportioned to a then groundbreaking triumvirate of Barry Hall, Brett Kirk and Stuart Maxfield (replaced by Leo Barry in 2006) is hard to quantify, however coach Paul Roos kick started a trend which has filtered through to the NRL. This year Souths appointed five captains; Michael Crocker, Roy Asotasi, Sam Burgess, Matt King and John Sutton. The Rabbitohs’ enjoyed their best season in decades.  Was there any correlation?

Notwithstanding, in light of such ample support crews, just how much influence can the or a captain exert?

In certain circumstances, lumping for a few good men in lieu of one great one is somewhat understandable when Alpha males and standouts of the Lockyer, Eales, Voss or Keane ilk haven’t emerged.

GWS and Melbourne found themselves in such a pickle in 2012, the latter ballsing it up royally.  Though Brad Green’s demotion was anticipated (not so his removal from any official capacity), appointing 20 years olds Jack Trengrove and Jack Grimes as co-captains was a huge leap of faith which consequently put senior teammates off their tucker.  Instructively, ultimate clubman Green swallowed his pride and faced the media over the Liam Jurrah episode.

Whilst the Giants similarly lumped for 21 year olds Callum Ward and Phil Davis (after just three appearances in 2011 and 18 games in total), at least they were joined by Luke Power as a mentor.  It’s also worth noting just one of ten players with League experience were not in GWS’ leadership assembly.

Meanwhile, in lieu of their entire leadership group missing a game this year Port Adelaide didn’t bother naming any official replacements (seven 100+ game players were made nominal ‘leaders’).

It could be argued that with 18 players on the field split into forwards, backmen and midfielders that AFL lends itself to embracing more lieutenants. But a net effect of this increasingly confusing captaincy merry-go-round must surely be a dilution in responsibility and power of the primary on-field leader(s).  A paradox if you like which in some ways contradicts the original intention of these expanded leadership groups.  And if the coach’s box isn’t already a pressure cooker environment, does the off-field brains trust assume more responsibility for steering the ship, or less?

Leadership is a 21st Century buzzword and one that commands enormous credit (and blame) for a team’s performance.  Indeed an inordinate amount of column space in footy’s January snoozing season is afforded every press release. But isn’t using a title as a means to articulate a fresh way forward and a sunny future for frustrated fans, or, in some cases, the steak knives to a new contract or a last ditch attempt at modifying wayward behaviour, actually doing team culture a disservice?

Inevitably sport moves in cycles, and at some point a club will determine they have too many chiefs and not enough Indians.  And they will revert back to a captain and vice captain.  A flag will be won and the rest will follow…the leader.

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