What is the captain’s job in the football codes?

Date: February 2, 2014 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

It’s that time of the year when AFL, NRL and Super Rugby clubs announce their captains for season 2014.

In a few months’ time we will hear just who will be named skipper of our Socceroos as they head to the World Cup in Brazil.

Most of those announcements – especially if there is a change of captain – will be met with significant media coverage depending what part of Australia you live in.

Already this week we have seen several media conferences to announce changes at the helm in AFL ranks.

The beleaguered Melbourne Football Club trotted out two skippers ahead of the new season – Jack Grimes and new co-captain Nathan Jones.

Down the road at Collingwood, the Magpies announced that Scott Pendlebury was succeeding Nick Maxwell as skipper of arguably the most famous football club in the country.

But do these appointments really mean all that much?

Sport is often a stronghold of conservatism and in many ways the importance placed on captaincy in a lot of sports is an example of it.

Fans and media pundits often speculate on who will be the next skipper or who is potentially being groomed for the role further down the track.

In the four major football codes in this country in all honesty the role of captain is in many ways overblown.

On match days they toss the coin and are also the conduit between officials and their team.

It was Hockeyroos’ dual gold medal-winning coach Ric Charlesworth who put a cat among the conservative pigeons in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics when he decided that his team would be better off without having a designated captain.

Rechelle Hawkes, the most decorated female player in the history of women’s hockey, led the Hockeyroos to the Atlanta Olympics.

Following their gold medal success, Charlesworth began to broaden the leadership with first four and then six co-captains appointed.

Some AFL clubs in particular have appointed co-captains in the last 15 years.

But having expanded the number of appointed captains, Charlesworth decided to shrink the number – to zero.

Even though Hawkes was regularly referred to in the media as the captain of the Hockeyroos both heading into and during the Sydney Olympics she no longer officially held that title.

Instead, Charlesworth had done away with an ongoing captaincy appointment and in essence every member of the 16-strong Olympic squad became a leader with one on any given day named ‘captain’ as the rules of the sport require.

Charlesworth dubbed the practice a “leaderful team”.

As he argues sports like hockey and the football codes do not really require an ongoing, nominated captain.

All the main decision making, tactical changes and positional adjustments are either pre-determined in pre-match meetings or are invoked on game day by the coach – the captain does not really have any specific duty above and beyond any other senior player on match day other than tossing the coin.

Charlesworth played first-class cricket for Western Australia as well as being chosen to represent the country in hockey at five Olympics.

In making the move to a ‘captainless’ team he compared the stark difference between skippers in the football codes and cricket.

In cricket, the on-field captain is pretty much a playing coach when you compare his role to the other codes.

A cricket captain pretty much runs the team during play – he picks the bowlers, places the field and chooses the batting order.

No such duties are levelled at the feet of football captains on match day.

Yet there is still a very large focus placed on the role of captain in those codes.

Charlesworth cites examples of where having a designated captain can cause issues within a club structure when the player in question is failing to deliver on the field or is falling foul of the club’s ethos away from the ground.

He argued that often when there is a singular appointed on-field leader and he or she goes down with injury mid-game or on the eve of a big encounter the players feel a greater sense of loss than had he or she merely been one of the group.

Charlesworth also believes that with the increased media and corporate responsibilities in modern-day sport that it is best to spread the load as widely as possible rather than encumbering just one individual with such tasks.

He also feels that players who have a strong desire to be a team captain are not necessarily the right people for the job and are eyeing the role often as a result of what it may do for them rather than what they can do for the team.

Over time, AFL clubs have followed the path of the NFL by naming numerous co-captains – in 2007 the Brisbane Lions had five designated co-captains (Jonathan Brown. Simon Black, Chris Johnson, Nigel Lappin and Luke Power), before reducing the number to four in 2008 and then appointing Brown alone for the next four seasons.

At St Kilda, under coach Grant Thomas, the Saints had a different captain appointed in each of his five years at the helm between 2002 and 2006.

Some highly successful AFL clubs have had one appointed skipper during glory periods, such as Brisbane’s Michael Voss when the club played in four consecutive grand finals between 2001 and 2004, while West Coast played in eight consecutive finals campaigns and won two premierships with John Worsfold as skipper between 1991 and 1998.

But would the performances of those two clubs have been any different if, for example, Guy McKenna or Dean Kemp was skipper at the Eagles, or Simon Black or Justin Leppitsch at the Lions?

Not always is the skipper the most experienced member of the team – that was certainly the case with Worsfold and Voss who were both appointed captain at 22.

Surely in those formative years of their leadership much of the pre-game and on-field leadership role would have fallen to other far more experienced teammates.

One wonders if one of our four football codes will ever follow the Charlesworth example and simply say that the entire playing list should be leaders with one chosen each week to be game day captain.

Nowadays, without fail, AFL clubs all have what is termed a ‘leadership group’, which includes the captain, vice-captain (or plurals of both) and several senior players.

That group is often charged with the responsibility of handing out penalties to teammates who have fallen foul of the club’s ethos and expected practices.

Perhaps in time a club will simply appoint a leadership group of eight or so players and name one of them captain on a weekly basis rather than nominating just one or two skippers at the start of a season.

In the meantime though there will no doubt be continued speculation about who should be a club’s captain or indeed whether they should be retained in the job.

For what it’s worth, the Hockeyroos suffered no deterioration in performance at the Sydney Olympics when they decided to go with Charlesworth’s ‘leaderful’ policy as they won their second consecutive gold medal.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 1 February 2014