[dropcap]A[/dropcap] few years ago, The Blizzard’s Scott Murray had an interesting take on the influence Melchester Rovers’ Roy Race had on the English game. It was bluntly titled “How Roy Race Ruined English Football.” For the uninitiated, Roy Race is the protagonist of the comic Roy of the Rovers, a footballer who could always be relied upon to bail his team out of trouble with last gasp show stopping strikes.
Amongst the number of flaws listed in Murray’s piece about the fictional footballing icon, the author highlighted the culture of dependence that Race unwittingly encouraged; the necessity of a talisman. “In the big games,” Murray noted “Rovers were perfectly happy to wing it, knowing Racey would amble along to the rescue at some point.”
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]United fans have enjoyed a fair share of legendary captains, from Bryan Robson to Roy Keane. With Rooney’s imminent departure, talk has shifted to who will be given the armband.[/blockquote]
One can take Murray’s story at face value, or with several pinches of salt, but the issue about relying on a leader to carry a team is an interesting observation. Let’s face it, Manchester United fans have enjoyed a fair share of legendary captains over the years, from Bryan Robson to Roy Keane. With Wayne Rooney’s imminent departure, talk has shifted once again to who will be given the armband.
Andy Mitten has argued convincingly that Paul Pogba should be made United captain, while Ander Hererra, David de Gea, Antonio Valencia and Michael Carrick have also been mentioned as potential successors.
Naturally, the thought of a talismanic leader taking United back to the summit of English football is enticing, but the real question is whether United needs one at all? It is, perhaps, more pertinent that this group of players needs to grow a collective sense of responsibility rather than looking to another “Captain Marvel” to rescue them from tight spots.
José Mourinho confidante Duncan Castles revealed on The Transfer Window podcast that United’s Portuguese boss believed that there weren’t enough players who felt “hurt” after a defeat or even a draw. Could a leader, in the dynamic, demonstrative mould, could lift the group to another level?
Last season, the captain’s armband was passed around with Rooney on the bench. Juan Mata, Chris Smalling, Valencia and even Marouane Fellaini took on the responsibility, yet there was never any doubt that United’s true leader was Zlatan Ibrahimović. The Swede’s character was the antidote that Mourinho wanted to lift the squad out of the malaise Castles describes. The flipside of the argument is that Ibrahimović’s mere presence demands that he has the responsibility and, arguably, a sanguine group of players who aren’t “hurt” after draws and losses were all too ready to pass the buck.
In fairness there were players who fought to prove their worth and in doing so demonstrated a steeliness that a club of United’s stature demands. Marcos Rojo turned from laughing stock to a key player over the course of the season. Henrikh Mkhitaryan refused to let his head drop despite his manager’s harsh motivational methods. Daley Blind stepped up towards the end of the campaign. Even Matteo Darmian finished the campaign strongly to produce his best performance in a United jersey in the Europa League final.
Now it is time for the squad to grow once more, and for the players to believe that they can win the biggest prizes. The platform is undoubtedly there. Hoping that the next captain can become a talisman may not be in the squad’s best interest.
The best United sides were always packed with big personalities and leaders anyway. Keane was an inspirational skipper, but he played with Peter Schmeichel, Jaap Stam, David Beckham, the Neville brothers, Paul Scholes, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Not a shrinking violet among them; footballers with insatiable appetites for victory.
The Nevilles, Scholes, Beckham, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs had to find their own solutions at the beginning of the 1995/6 season when Eric Cantona was suspended for the first seven league matches. For the record, United won five of those league games before the Frenchman’s return. In that season Steve Bruce was the captain, while Cantona was the de facto leader. It didn’t matter – United’s youngsters accepted the responsibility to step up in the Frenchman’s absence. It was an experience that no doubt positively shaped their footballing education.
Rumours that Carrick and Ander Herrera will be made captain and vice captain respectively is a sensible move if they are indeed given the roles. The pair knows what is required of a United player on and off the pitch, but at the same time neither is a larger than life personality either. It might be that Carrick and Herrera could be the right duo to help players in this squad to grow into leaders in their own right.
Pogba could make a very good captain too, but he must not shoulder all the pressure either. The Frenchman already possesses the mentality of a winner, which is crucial for the role, but rather than leading from the front Pogba may find that this squad will respond better and possibly thrive if given room to grow. Pogba is a difference maker and he should be free to play in that way unencumbered. Captaincy may take the Frenchman to another level, but he and Mourinho should be careful that Pogba’s teammates don’t unconsciously hand over responsibility to the midfielder.
The romantic notion of an all-action captain is no doubt appealing. After all inspiration is an intangible quality that can make surrounding players lift their games accordingly. United has seen its fair share of defining performances, from Robson’s titanic effort against Barcelona, Keane’s selfless display versus Juventus, and Bruce’s last gasp winner against Sheffield Wednesday.
Indeed, United has been blessed with many real life Roy of the Rovers over the course of the club’s history, but maybe at this moment in time this is a squad that requires not just a dynamic leader, but a cajoler too. A captain who is not just looking to lift the team on their own, but ensures that the rest of his teammates are capable of doing the same when the situation demands.
Come next season, United’s captain should be more than just a regular Roy Race.