“Easiest job in the world!” Such a description of the role of a football team captain could be justified by reference to the 2017/18 FIFA Laws of the Game. The introduction says that, ‘All those in authority, especially coaches and team captains, have a clear responsibility to the game to respect the match officials and their decisions.’ Law 03, s. 10 states that ‘The team captain has no special status or privileges but has a degree of responsibility for the behaviour of the team.’ National FA’s may vary some Laws (but only those specified) to suit local conditions.
The point I’m making is that the Laws do not require that a football captain must be involved any specified part of the game. It appears that it is only by custom and practice that captains participate in the procedure at the start of kick-off and penalty shoot-outs. ‘Participate in’ is an odd phrase. Until 1 July 2019, team captains didn’t actually have to do anything if they lost the toss. Now, if the opposing captain chooses to kick off, the losing captain chooses which end to face first. Oddly, the FIFA rule says that it is the team which wins or loses the toss, not the ‘captain’ (FIFA Law 08, s. 1.) It’s certainly a far cry from games before 1881 when there was no referee, and captains had to ensure that their players stuck to the rules, and an umpire was called in to settle disputes!
This reticence in the rules concerning the toss up leaves it open for any club to offer that function as a reward for a player being honoured, or congratulated, without the need to make him captain.
To prevent the referee being drowned in a sea of angry players, there was some talk of limiting direct access to captains only. Contrary to popular belief, however, they do not have the right to speak to officials, though that has not prevented many from doing so!
This minimal role in the formal rules of the game can easily undervalue the position in the eyes of spectators, commentators, reporters, and even the odd manager. Newspaper reports normally provide team lists at the end of the piece, but few have a confirming ‘(c)’ after the names of captains. The names of many LFC captains for individual games cannot be found in club records before the 1960s, and three are even missing from the 1985-86 season. (See Appendix)
An excellent, insider’s view of captaincy was written by Tommy Morrison, LFC vice-captain, was published in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 10 January, 1931, explaining the unwritten but very important role of the position. "Ideal captains are born not made" are very wise words.
Captains are usually older and/or more experienced than the rest of the squad and are judged by the manager to be a good influence, both on and off the pitch. They may be regarded as the voice of the manager during a game, as well as the voice of the players off the pitch, and it is very rare indeed that a manager and captain have disagreements during a match. They have led their teams off the pitch during racial and other disturbances when normal football had been suspended by the referee. On the whole, those of a potentially volatile temperament have been avoided, though LFC’s Frank Becton in 1898 had been guilty of insubordination earlier, and our original ‘hard man’, centre-half Walter Wadsworth, was captain in 1920 when regulars Donald Mackinlay and Ephraim Longworth were engaged in an England v Scotland match. To have a player sent off is bad enough – to have a captain sent off would be a double whammy.
Having a good general view of the game is essential and explains why managers tend to choose players from a particular area of the pitch. In Liverpool’s case, of the forty-four club captains identified, 35 have been defenders or midfielders (and only one goalkeeper, Harry Storer). John Barnes started as a winger but moved to the centre of midfield. Goalkeepers have appeared occasionally when an appointed captain was unavailable, however – Arthur Riley skippered four matches in 1937/38 for example, Ray Clemence in 1978 and 1981 and Jerzy Dudek had four League Cup appearances wearing the captain’s armband, once with club captain Gerrard watching from the bench.
Mention of the armband raises the interesting question of when the practice began. It was, it seems, relatively recently. Articles about the history of the game might use the phrase ‘wearing the armband’ (meaning ‘to be captain’) but that does not mean one was actually worn. Search engines reveal some very beautiful examples and suggest that it became common practice in England in the mid-1980s, but it had originated on the continent earlier; Tommy Smith can be seen wearing one in the UEFA Cup final in 1973 against Gladbach.
There has also been a marked tendency to rest players, including captains, when the opponents are perceived to be of inferior quality, or in lower priority cup competitions. Captains are chosen by the manager – it would not make any sense for it to be otherwise.
Little interest has been taken in the appointment of team captains. Amid the red euphoria of Liverpool’s 4-1 win at the London Stadium on 4 November 2017, none of twelve match reports mentioned the fact that it was Simon Mignolet’s first outing as captain. There is little doubt, however, that being made captain, even for a day, is seen as a great honour by the players concerned. The pride in the event can be seen on Phil Thompson’s first appearance, when the rest of the team allowed him to celebrate, and be celebrated, by giving an appropriate pause before following him out onto the pitch. (Alas, it was a rather cruel joke on their part!) Steven Gerrard records the honour he felt at being made captain, tinged with some regret that Hyypia had to step down. (Autobiography, p. 260)
Appointment as captain has not always been because the recipient is the most suited for the job, and a wide variety of background explanations lie behind temporary, ad-hoc decisions to give a player the honour of representing the club as captain. Sam Hardy (1911) and Tommy Lucas (1927) were captains for the day as part of their benefit (a form of testimonial). Elisha Scott was on his 400th appearance for the club in 1932. Gordon Hodgson led the team out as a reward for his record of 36 league goals in 1930/31. Ian Rush’s departure for Juventus was similarly marked at the end of the 1986/87 season, his black armband carrying a double significance. In the absence of Henderson and Milner, Mamadou Sakho captained back in his native France, his first game of the season in 2015. Similarly, Ray Kennedy was given the honour in 1977 when LFC played his former club at Highbury.
The more relaxed approached to football during friendly games has allowed many other players to experience the captaincy – Tommy Younger (for Hibs, 10 September 1956) and Daniel Agger (for Brondby, 17 July 2014) were selected when LFC were playing their former club. Lallana (2018) and Origi (2019) have been used against Tranmere.
Absence through injury is the most common reason for captains to be replaced, though personal difficulties may also intervene – Phil Neal had his chance after the death of Graeme Souness’s mother. Most poignant, perhaps, was the captain’s armband on Lucas Leiva following an air crash in Colombia in which some of his friends died.
Suspension of the normal captain also gives others a chance to shine in the job – Steve Nicol stepped in when Ronnie Whelan was suspended, and Chris Lawler replaced Ron Yeats. It was surprising that Lawler was preferred to vice captain Gordon Milne but probably Shankly wanted to inspire the youngster - and so he did, as he was fantastic in the three games Yeats was absent. We have the rare privilege of being able to read Yeats’ own thoughts on the matter in his record of attending the match in Bolton on 20 March 1964.
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Does a newly-appointed manager immediately change the captain chosen by his predecessor as another way of putting his imprint on the team? The overall conclusion from Liverpool’s experience is no. Our norm has been continuity. The captains inherited by new managers since the first change, in 1895, have normally remained in post until other circumstances force a change.
Jimmy Ross survived a second managerial change during his stay for another year and a half. David Ashworth, appointed 17 December 1919, saw no reason to disturb the captaincy, in practice shared by club captain Ephraim Longworth and Donald Mackinlay in his absence, and the latter continued his remarkable run for over five years under his former team-mate and now manager, Matt McQueen.
Tommy Lucas was regarded as the natural successor to Mackinlay, but George Patterson gave Tom Bromilow the captaincy because Lucas could not hold down a regular place in the team, but then replaced him with left-back James (‘Parson’) Jackson after only eleven matches. It was the latter’s ecclesiastical career development outside football, as well as the strong language coming from the mouth of Elisha Scott immediately behind him on the field, which led to Jackson’s departure.
Tiny Bradshaw took up the reins in the summer of 1931, immediately becoming only the fourth player to appear as captain in every competitive match for a whole season. His successor, Ernie Blenkinsop, proved to be accident-prone, and replacement captains (including Tiny Bradshaw) had to be appointed thirty-five times during the next two seasons (1934/35 and 1935/36). By the end of September, the new manager George Kay replaced him with another former stand-in, Tom Cooper and finally with a third, Matt Busby, before Hitler torpedoed the appointment.
Willie Fagan and Jack Balmer shared the responsibilities of captain after the war until age overtook the former’s career, to be replaced by Phil Taylor, who was kept on when Don Welsh became manager in 1951. Taylor himself took over as manager in May 1956, retaining Billy Liddell as captain for two seasons. Liddell’s successor in 1958/59, Johnny Wheeler, lost his team place and (only as a consequence) the captaincy, which was offered to Ronnie Moran.
Captain Phil Taylor
Once more, a new manager, even with Bill Shankly’s eagerness for team changes, retained Moran, who could then become the fifth captain to serve for a whole season without any replacement. Dick White then lasted a season and a half until the key arrival of Ron Yeats began the rise and rise of Liverpool FC from the ignominy of Division 2. Yeats was captain for eight seasons until Tommy Smith took over for the next three. As before, there is a strong suspicion that Shanks had made a new appointment with the captaincy at the back, if not the front, of his mind, and Emlyn Hughes had been installed before Bob Paisley’s tenure started. Bob had to deal with a simmering Tommy Smith in consequence, but Hughes provided the club with no fewer than three seasons in which needed no stand-in for any competitive match.
Captain Ronnie Moran
Phil Thompson and Graeme Souness were each captain for three years until the departure of the latter for Sampdoria, and the retirement of Bob Paisley. Phil Neal had been a deputy captain six times before Joe Fagan made his appointment permanent; Alan Hansen took over when Neal left the club, resenting the manager’s job having been given to Kenny Dalglish. Chronic knee injury (Hansen missed the whole of 1988/89 recovering from surgery) led to Ronnie Whelan becoming captain.
The turbulence of Souness’s period as manager disturbed the normally smooth flow-path of Liverpool’s captaincy, which now changed each year he was manager. Ronnie Whelan, Mark Wright, Steve Nicol, John Barnes and Ian Rush led the teams out with Steve McMahon as stand-in. Until Rush left the club, he kept the captaincy after Roy Evans became manager, as did Paul Ince when Houllier was solely in charge.
A rare piece of managerial interference as a result of poor performances was Houllier’s replacement of Hyypia by Steven Gerard in October 2003, which began the longest captaincy in Liverpool’s history. It ended only with Gerrard’s retirement at the end of 2014/15, and the most recent name in the long line of succession, Jordan Henderson, was added by the soon-to-be departing Brendan Rodgers. The usual continuity was applied when Jurgen Klopp took over on 8 October 2015.
Alex Raisbeck was one of the greatest skippers of all but a reluctant one as he asked to be relieved of the responsibility a few times.
Steven Gerrard on being the captain of Liverpool - from Ragnhild Lund Ansnes insightful book on LFC captains
. “On good days you’ll feel on top of the world. On bad days you’ll feel sad and lonely. If you can’t handle the low days, when the s*** hits the fan and everyone’s out to get you, if you can’t handle those days mentally, don’t take the job. Every single day, even when I wasn’t playing badly, I felt that pressure. I dreamed about wearing the captain’s armband from when I was about 10. So when I got it, I wanted to enjoy it, even on bad days.”
Normally, records have listed captains by the number of times they have served in that honourable position. Until now, the normal practice has been for a player to be appointed as club captain, and for that person to be captain of the team when he is on the pitch – the armbands changing to him if he comes on as a substitute. (Mackinlay and Longworth shared much of the first three seasons after World War 1, but then there was no bench, as substitutes were not allowed.) However, if those appearances are arranged in chronological order, an intriguing picture emerges which is unique to the present manager. His predecessors have usually assumed that, if a captain was fit and willing to play, he would be chosen to do so. Jurgen Klopp appears to have tweaked that system.
For the remainder of the season after Rodgers left, he asked no fewer than eight players to act as captain in the absence of Jordan Henderson. Six of them (Kolo Toure, Christian Benteke, Jose Enrique, Joe Allan, Jon Flanagan and Martin Skrtel) did so each on only one occasion; Lucas Leiva wore the armband eight times, and James Milner eighteen. Yet on seven of those thirty-two occasions, Henderson was deemed fit enough to be on the bench. During 2016/17, only Lucas Leiva (4 times, including the one as a mark of respect for those who had died in the Colombia air crash) and James Milner (15 times) were given the captaincy, with Henderson on the bench once for the special Lucas appearance.
In 2017/18 the pattern developed, and we see what, prima facie, looks like a rotation policy which, if true, would question Klopp’s statement on the subject. Henderson remains club captain, but the choice of team captain on the pitch is clearly subject to a deliberate and rapid change from game to game, the only other explanation being resting, or having rotating injuries to, Henderson. Four other players wore the armband; Milner (9), Simon Mignolet, Philippe Coutinho and Emre can (3 each), and Dejan Lovren (1).
One season on, with Virgil van Dijk sufficiently ‘bedded in’, the system is seen at its purest. There is a pecking order only in the sense that Henderson is captain if he plays, Milner if he doesn’t, and VvD when neither play; but within the match squad there is no order - any of the three may be captain even if one or both of the others are available. This system continued in 2019/20, though for separate, unique reasons, teams were also skippered by Pedro Chirivella (1), Dejan Lovren (1) and Curtis Jones (1).
Numbers which follow are those provided by the season entries in lfchistory.net.
2018/19 pattern (* denotes that Jordan Henderson was on the bench)
Jordan Henderson 4, 6-7, 9, 11-12, 18-19 ,21, 23, 25-26, 28, 30-32, 35-36, 38, 40, 42, 44-45, 47-48, 50-53
James Milner 1*, 2*, 3*, 5*, 8*, 10*, 15-16, 22*, 29, 33-34*, 37*, 46*, 49*
Virgil van Dijk (b 1991) 13, 14, 17*, 20, 24*, 27*, 39*, 41, 43* (Milner on bench in games 13, 14, 17, 20, 41, 43)
So far in 2020/21, the same pattern was used until the fateful Goodison game, when the loss of the talisman VvD has had a consequence for the captaincy unremarked at the time. His first replacement, Trent Alexander-Arnold has long been predicted to fill the role one day, but in Denmark on 9 December 2020 he made his early debut watched by Henderson on the bench. “To lead the team out was incredibly proud, it was something that was different, new to me. It was special, it felt special out there.” Mo Salah was reported to be disappointed that he had not been chosen to lead the team out, but maybe he did not know the disadvantages of a forward being captain, and it was this controversy which brought clarification from the manager.
"I was captain for a long time in my career, and what a heck of a job it is because there are not a lot of benefits you get, just a lot of work with all the things around.
"I didn't feel or do feel the importance of being captain.
"Yes, we have a captain like Hendo and that is important, but to be a captain for one game, I didn't realise how important that can be to players because in this world now, everything is a big story.
"I didn't realise it was that big a story for Trent. The rule here is there is a players' committee and it is Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Virgil van Dijk and Gini Wijnaldum [the last of whom had, at that time, never been captain of an LFC team].’
"There are pretty much the four captains. You don't need four but if Hendo is not playing then Milly, if both are not playing then Virgil or Gini.
"If they all cannot play then it is usually the guy the longest at the club.
"That was, in my understanding and how I saw it, was Trent. I don't mean the youth career, the professional career.
"Someone told me after it should have been Divock Origi [given he had been at the club for the longest in the team that took to the field in Denmark 20 December 2020] and that was my fault because of being out on loans and stuff like that. [Origi had captained a friendly game against Tranmere on 11 July 2019.]
"So, I didn't make it that complicated, I just gave Trent the armband.
"And I spoke to Mo about it after the game and when I realised it didn't work out that well, I clarified that and he said it again in the interview, so not a problem for me.
"He said he was disappointed, and I didn't do it on purpose, I just did what I did. If I made a mistake, then it was that Divock Origi was not the captain."
Klopp’s use of the word ‘committee’ is curious, but as the German for committee is ‘das Kommitee’ it is unlikely to have been an error! Back in the Premiership, the routine has been further disrupted by the injury to Milner until game 30 (24 Jan 2021, MUFC). It remains to be seen if Klopp ‘plays safe’ and keeps Henderson on the pitch during what looks to be a difficult period for the club. Much has been made of Henderson’s development, especially in the light of the team’s performances when he is not available. In coming to a judgment on the subject, it is not easy to separate his function as a captain from that as a player, but we seem to be very lucky to have him in either capacity. In Virgil van Dijk’s words in 2019: “Henderson has been putting the team before himself for years. What I like is that he uses everything he has experienced – the lows, the criticism, the trouble with injuries – to help others through similar situations. If any young player wants to follow an example, it should be him.”
Written by Colin Rogers for LFChistory.net
Appendix 1 – Unidentified captains for competitive games since World War 2, game numbers as given in the season review pages on lfchistory.net.
|2-5, 11-12, 14-19, 23-28, 35, 37-39
|7-9, 11-12, 29
|17, 28, 45
Here is also a comprehensive list
over Liverpool captains that LFChistory.net has compiled, a list that reveals how the captaincy has been handed from one great player to the next in vivid detail.
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