Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Weight of United's Armband

In Issue 9 of the football quarterly TheBlizzard, Joel Richards  interviews Alejandro (Alex) Sabella. The former Blades and Leeds striker is now coach of the Argentine national team and much of the article "The Weight of the Armband" makes reference to his decision to give Lionel Messi the national team captaincy. Sabella describes captaincy and leadership thus;
"There are different types of leaders. You have the ones who lead by sheer ability and others who lead because of their personality. In rare cases you have someone who brings together both of those. You could say that is absolute leadership."
At Bramall Lane over the years we have had some of the former, plenty of the latter and a few times we have been lucky enough to have the holy grail of the two factors combined. Sadly, at the moment we have a leader with neither ability or personality. The problem we have was crystalized in last Tuesday's Johnstone Paint Trophy defeat to Hartlepool United, which culminated in David Weir losing his job. It was prominently on display that night, but the rot has been visible for some time. When the going got tough, many hid and there was a distinct lack of leadership on the pitch including the man with the weight of the armband - Michael Doyle.
Those who stick up for the captain point to his running and commitment. Exactly the same traits many were quick to dismiss Nick Montgomery for, both during and after his lengthy spell at the Lane. Whilst this observed commitment perhaps points to a captain who leads by example, I think the observation is misguided. How often do the running and chasing have an end product? Rarely for me. He is clever about how and when he does it; making the tireless run to a lost cause tackle he will never make, yet not winning the loose ball that is close enough to be won. For a player that has a reputation for his disciplinary record the fact he picked up his first yellow card against Coventry on Sunday says much about his lack of fight.
Over the course of David Weir's short managerial reign, there have been increasingly loud rumours of a divided dressing room. Talk of disruptive players pre-dates his appointment, but on top of this there were reportedly players at odds with his tactics, his coaching staff and his man-management. Nothing points to it more than what we saw on the pitch against Hartlepool. A team barely playing for each other; never mind their manager, or the fans. When the going gets  role of a captain all the more important. Looking back at the previous match against Crawley, United find themselves behind early and the crowd are understandably restless. Where was our captain? Rarely visibly encouraging his team-mates, all fist pumps and geeing up the fans when we equalise, not when we are trying to get back in the game. Then it was all head down, looking at feet.
Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm - The Latin writer Publilius Syrus
The same can be said of Doyle. When things were good and United were flying in the first season under Wilson you didn't notice, but when times are tougher and the team is struggling for results, you again notice what we are missing.
During the Hartlepool game Doyle actually seemed to be ignoring certain team-mates. Simon Lappin does not seem to be up to much as a left back, no better than what we have already got, but with such a narrow diamond shape in midfield the need for over-lapping full backs was vital. I counted at least three times when Lappin assumed attacking positions in space on the left, clearly within Doyle's peripheral vision, yet Doyle never once looked to him for the pass; instead prodding the ball inside where players were crowded out and United's attack was neutered. Maybe he didn't see him? But not three times. Another sign of a captain not at one with his colleagues?
I have observed him berating of players for missing chances. Chris Porter, headed over against Crawley (towards the end of last season) and was the recipient of spittle flecked, eye popping aggression, with arms flailing around. An effective captain should also take the individual player's character into consideration. Some players respond well if you talk calmly to them privately, but will go to pieces if confronted in an aggressive, public manner. Porter - a confidence player if ever there was one, looked even more devastated than the missed chance had left him.
In tough times there is rightly a claim that you need to have leaders all over the pitch and it should not all fall on one man. Yet the fact is, it is the captain who the fans look to; a leader by example. If he is incapable and others are unwilling or unable to step into the breach the team has significant problems. Players can draw so much strength from their captain, but it can be the opposite if they get the wrong message.
Players rarely give incisive comment in post-match interviews, but on Tuesday night Doyle took this to new levels of earnest banality;
"Collectively we have to take responsibility and react positively to what is expected when playing for Sheffield United. We can't afford to feel sorry for ourselves; we have to pump our chests out and stand up and be counted."
This is just mere lip-service to the fans and media. How can I believe that will change, that we will have players who raise their chests and fight, when the chests caved in and most looked limply at the floor when the fight was required against Pools. Talk is cheap and while it is good he faced the press, you need to have some confidence in what you are being told.
Sunday's performance showed little to change my view. Limp, lifeless and beaten for an hour, it took the introduction of two substitutes to change our game and bring the Blades back to within a whisker of an unexpected point. McGinn and Taylor showed a bit of confidence and belief that provided a spark and ideas that up until that point were missing presumed dead. 
Oh for a Chris Morgan, a Paul Stancliffe or a Rob Page. All good captains in my lifetime and all led the side in their own way. Back at the time of our relegation to League One in May 2011 I said that I felt that it wasn't just Chris Morgan the defender we had missed through injury, but the on pitch leadership. In fact you can probably trace the origins of United's eventual relegation and current predicament to the cruciate ligament injury against Coventry in November, that ended Morgan's career. We have never replaced that leadership and successive managers have placed their faith in Doyle, when a foray into the transfer market might have delivered a more apt candidate. I for one hope that David Weir's replacement acknowledges the problem.
Any good captain for me lays himself on the line for the team and the fans and has a strong will to win. Morgan reminded me of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who, when losing his leg, claims "tis but a scratch…..had worse". The knight suffers further blows; "tis but a flesh wound" and continues to lose other limbs, yet he still believes he is invincible and stands his ground; only claiming a draw when he is left limbless.
That backbone, fight and indefatigability has been sadly lacking both on the pitch and on the touchline this season and has been missing on the pitch for a couple of seasons. A conceded goal is not a scratch or a flesh wound, it is a fatal blow and you can see from the captain and players' demeanour that they believe it.

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