In his monthly column, SportSphere’s editor Tom Earnshaw looks at the key relationship between a manager and their captain
Whether we’re talking about Roy Keane, Martin Johnson or Bobby Moore, British sport has had its fair share of iconic leaders, with each of the ‘greats’ epitomising what it means to lead from the front by winning accolades at the highest level in each of their respective sports.
And it’s no easy task. Strong and successful leadership relies on the belief and confidence of those looking to a spearhead for guidance; for inspiration as a form of unity and camaraderie to guide them towards glory.
American scholar Warren Bennis put it nicely when he described leadership as “the capacity to translate vision into reality”. Plans are made by coaches, managers, and trainers, but they are entrusted to those participating in the action to be made successful. Managers look to and rely on the few individuals they know have the respect of their peers.
For Sir Alex Ferguson, Roy Keane was the personification of himself; a no-nonsense ruthless winner with true grit to inspire his teammates over the finishing line. Football fans throughout Europe will remember Keane’s one-man rescue mission in the 1999 Champions League semi-final against Juventus, where he single-handily dragged United to the final after being 2-nil down. The same applied to Sir Clive Woodward and Sir Alf Ramsey with Martin Johnson and Bobby Moore in their respectively world cup finals. They all possessed a character that shined through them in a natural, almost modest, way. These types of athletes were born with the characteristics to lead.
For the British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland, Sam Warburton is his go-to leader of men. The Welsh skipper captained the Lions on their 2017 tour of New Zealand having previously captained Gatland’s 2013 Lions tour in their 2-1 series win over Australia.
Gatland’s decision to reappoint him was not unanimously accepted. No one can deny Warburton’s world class ability but a captain’s ability to lead is questioned if they can’t keep their dominating presence on the field. Fitness issues have plagued Warburton throughout his career, so much so that in January 2017 Warburton gave up the Welsh captaincy installed on him by Gatland six years earlier, stating that he needed to focus on rehabilitation from a series of niggling injuries that were eating away at his ability to perform to the level that he is known for.
There were come calls for England’s vice-captain Owen Farrell to tour captain, with many believing the 25-year-old Wiganer has what it takes to be a successful leader at every level of the game. Farrell comes from a family rich in knowing what it takes to be a leader with his father, Lions coach assistant coach Andy Farrell, captaining both Wigan Warriors and the Lions in his rugby league playing days.
Ultimately, Gatland went with the man he has trusted with his on-field plans since throwing him in to the role ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Is Warburton the best Welsh or Lions player of the last six years? You will get people arguing both sides for more reasons than I could come up with, but leadership comes down to qualities that transcend 80 minutes of game time. Warburton is a man well-respected within world rugby, instilling a confidence and impetus within his teammates to ‘get the job done’.
During the deciding third test to New Zealand, Warburton shone along with Wales’ Jonathan Davies and England’s Maro Itoje. Davies, one of Wales’ most consistent performers under Gatland and Warburton’s leadership, was named player of the tournament. And Itoje, a diamond in the rough learning his trade at the highest level, did not looking one bit out of place against the back-to-back Rugby World Cup winners.
The Lions, who were predicted to comfortably lose the series 3-nil, ended up heroically fighting to draw the final test, leaving as equals to their Kiwi opponents. And Warburton is the first undefeated two-time Lions captain in the format’s rich history.
Managers and players are where the buck stops when it comes to beating opponents. Their job is to inspire the collective group to go to battle, or face the consequences of owning up to failure. Not everyone is up for the role. David Moyes’ turbulent time at Manchester United is an obvious example of a square peg in a round hole. No matter who his captain, he lost the confidence of his team. And Luis Suarez has previously spoke about his reluctant acceptance to be Liverpool captain on occasions when Steven Gerrard was absent. Both – whilst clearly very talented – failed at doing what they were meant to do.
Foundations are key to building something that is strong and lasting, whether that be a 30 story high-rise or a sports clubs. They can fall quickly without it.