Wednesday 17 January 2018

Stephen Hunt: Ranting and raving doesn't make you a good captain

Manchester United captain, Wayne Rooney. Photo: PA Wire
Manchester United captain, Wayne Rooney. Photo: PA Wire
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

The modern-day club captain no longer needs to be the old-fashioned, aggressive ranter and raver whose main method of leading by example was to go full force into battle and fly into every tackle.

The aggressive players who throw everything into their challenges are still needed but they no longer have to prove they are the leader by wearing the armband. Players need more now from their captain if they are going to look up to him and follow his example.

When Roy Keane was captain of the Republic of Ireland and Manchester United, he had a licence to fire into players. This was the era when he was competing with Patrick Vieira at Arsenal, who had similar instructions, and it was a given he'd play that way. We followed. I looked up to that, aspired to be like Roy - and he had the medals to back it up. He was the captain I needed at that stage of my international career, without a doubt.

Ireland's current captain, Seamus Coleman, is the opposite: he is the typical modern-day captain. He leads by example, through the way he conducts himself off the pitch and the way he plays on it and handles the games. When he does talk and instruct, people listen.

Seamus has not changed from the day he walked into the Ireland squad. As soon as he came into that environment he showed a good example of how to behave, how to do things and a desire to improve. You met Seamus and you had to be impressed.

He has grown progressively vocal and influential, which comes naturally with age and experience. You earn respect by playing with intensity and by being yourself off the pitch, and Seamus will always be like that.

Arsenal have no leader like Vieira, or Tony Adams, and they are struggling to keep up their record of Champions League qualification under Arsene Wenger this season, but Jamie Carragher's attack on Theo Walcott still seemed way over the top to me.

The former Liverpool defender has been picking fights all week, and judging by the sweat on him in the Sky studio on Monday night, perhaps he is under pressure as a pundit, or he has been under the weather and wasn't thinking straight. I can't see why else he would get involved in a Twitter debate with Richard Keys.

Carragher can't know Walcott's character and he can't have a full insight into the influence he has on other players at Arsenal and whether they look up to him or not.

He might not run around like a madman, kicking people and roaring in their faces, but he has scored 19 goals this season, and any manager in the world would love a player who scores that many from the right wing.

I met Walcott in the summer after he had missed out on the Euro finals with England and you could tell he was hurt by it and clearly determined to earn his place back in his country's squad. He did not look like a man who had thrown the towel in or didn't care.

At this time of the season, when the captain might be rested, the armband can given to a player who, it's felt, needs it to remind them of their importance and give them a boost. This happened to me when I was at Reading.

At the time, I was playing well and was one of the better players at the club, and Sunderland were sniffing around, looking to sign me. While they weren't going all out in the talks, of course it made sense for Reading to make me captain.

They knew I was never going to throw the towel in for the club and I would always give everything because it's in my blood, and in fact that sometimes worked against me. Being the captain made me feel special because there was a sense of pride and love for the club.

Giving me the armband increased that desire to perform at my best and demand the same from everyone else. I wanted to go out and show the manager was right to choose me as his captain on the field.

Mick McCarthy said recently that Luke Chambers is the best captain he's ever had. And I wouldn't disagree with my old boss. Chambers is the best skipper I played under. When I got to Ipswich, I'd played for my country and played five or six years in the Premier League - which is not being big-headed, it's a fact. This kid, who hadn't achieved anything like that - and still hasn't - was my captain. Yet from the moment I met him, I looked up to him.

He always had the best interests of the team at heart. He had a way of welcoming new players to the squad and a way of being nice but steely within that group. He was Mick's voice in the dressing-room and on the pitch and he just had an instinctive way of knowing what the manager needed. Like Mick's assistant, Terry Connor, he wasn't the boss's puppet and he was not a complete 'yes man', but he was good for Mick and the team.

Chambers never put himself first. He played out of position when I was there, and he is still playing out of position and he loves it. That is the sort of thing I respected and admired. He inspires his team-mates to do better for him, and for Ipswich. He kept the football real and never allowed anyone to get big-time.

A manager needs a player who can conduct his team for him, and be his man on the pitch. Kevin Nolan epitomised that under Sam Allardyce at Bolton. Nolan was sent out there to manipulate referees, manage the game and the opposition threat and play the game as Sam would have played it. And to go with that on-field responsibility came a good contract. Of course they always had each other's backs.

John Terry is another of the old-school brigade, but he has matured of course and is still the Chelsea captain, while Gary Cahill has taken the armband in games. Whatever he is contributing behind the scenes in that role is clearly working, because Antonio Conte wants to offer him a new contract. Forget that public image, that says a lot about his character.

Unlike Terry, John O'Shea has never craved attention and always handled himself impeccably on and off the pitch. I've known John for 25 years, and he has never changed. He has always just wanted to play, do his job and go home. From a very young age he guided players around him, with a little word here and there and a nod in the right direction. And always so politically correct when he did it.

Not many players make it at Manchester United. It didn't just happen for John because the club felt they hadn't signed a young Irishman for a while. He bloody earned it. And you just knew when you met up with him that, day in, day out, he was giving it everything to succeed. He was a captain even then.

It will be interesting to see how Tony Adams fares at Granada after taking over the Spanish club last week. To hear him go into a La Liga club and talk about "kicking players' arses" was interesting. With seven games to go and seven points from safety, what has he got to lose?

It's very much the rhetoric Arsenal players will have heard when he was Wenger's captain, but my own feeling is that this was just for show for the Spanish media. He could sit in that press conference and say he is Lazarus, it would not make any difference to the players. All that matters to those players is what he says and does in the dressing-room.

Managers find ways to keep their frustrations in check. Wenger never stops playing with his coat zips. Steve Coppell used to roll up a big ball of insulation tape for a match and squeeze the life out of it by the touchline as the game progressed.

Managers like Mick McCarthy, Martin O'Neill and Adams could not survive if they ranted and raved every second of every day. Captains are just the same.

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