By William Hill
Last Updated: 7th January 2020
A lot is made of leadership in football. You often hear pundits decrying a lack of leaders on the pitch or a shortage of big characters in the dressing room. In the past, England have boasted players with big reputations who have captained club and country with authority. Recently, they’ve had to callon players like Jordan Henderson, Harry Kane and Eric Dier.
David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Alan Shearer have all led England out in the last 20 years, and a host of others including Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand have stepped in when needed. These are stellar names in the world of football but do England have such leaders available today? And if not, does it really matter?
Despite having such generals on the pitch, England have consistently underperformed in recent years. In fact, the national team’s performances at major tournaments have declined significantly since David Beckham left the role in 2006. Since then, they failed to qualify for Euro 2008, got eliminated from the 2010 World Cup and 2016 Euros at the Round of 16 and failed to escape the group stage of the 2014 World Cup. The only highlight was making the quarter-final of Euro 2012.
The golden generation
Under Beckham (and boss Sven-Goran Eriksson), England progressed to the quarter-finals of three consecutive tournaments but the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ were still marked down as underachievers. It just goes to show the high expectations that have been placed on the Three Lions over the years.
The habit of placing high expectations on the England team ahead of major tournaments seems to have subsided since 2012, which marked the beginning of Roy Hodgson’s reign. New players were brought into the team and much of the old guard was phased out. However, a string of uninspiring performances, culminating in a dismal display at the 2014 World Cup, brought an end to the era of optimism.
With expectations at an all-time low, England’s new generation might just benefit. With the pressure lifted, Gareth Southgate and his men can go to Russia safe in the knowledge that just getting out of the group stage will be an improvement for the national team.
But if they are going to make it to the latter stages of the tournament who of the current crop has the leadership skills to guide them?
The current captain
Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson is rather understated as a player and as a captain, but his calm and calculated approach is highly valued by both his club manager, Jurgen Klopp, and Gareth Southgate. He is the type of captain who does not try and take hold of the game and do everything himself but allows others to play their game. He acts a point of focus but does not intimidate other players with his presence. In many ways, his captaincy is more like David Beckham’s than John Terry’s, Steven Gerrard’s and Wayne Rooney’s. And, for England, that could be a good thing.
Overbearing captains can disrupt the rhythm and flow of the play by always demanding the ball, drifting into other’s space and trying to be the hero. Of course, when there was a free-kick to be taken, David Beckham would step up to the plate, but during play, he allowed others to dictate the play and was never greedy for the ball.
Other potential leaders
Having a leader like Henderson also offer the opportunity for other members of the team to express their leadership skills when needed. And England have a few candidates in that area. Perhaps the most obvious is Harry Kane. But while the Spurs’ man seems to possess all the qualities required to captain the squad, he seems destined to be second in line behind Henderson. However, that is not to say he cannot provide some leadership and inspiration should he recover from injury in time to make the plane to Russia.
One player who can add presence and authority to the defensive line is Harry Maguire. He has taken to international football with ease and looks set to represent his country for many years to come. His organisation and distribution skills could see him play a key role this summer.
Jordan Henderson may be the answer
It could be argued that England have placed too much importance on the captaincy over the years. The current understated approach could actually produce better results. Gareth Southgate even went as far as to say it wasn’t high on his list or priorities. Over the years, England have elevated the importance of the captaincy more than any other international team. While our media, fans and players have been caught in the debate of who should be captain, other teams have concentrated on more important matters such as winning tournaments. The England captaincy has perhaps been more important to the player involved than the team itself. It is a badge of honour, another box ticked in the list of career goals and a sign that you have reached the pinnacle of the game in your country.
That is another reason that Jordan Henderson could make the perfect England captain. Southgate is not thinking about honouring the player or putting extra responsibility on his shoulders; he is just putting all the right pieces in place on the field of play.