Mark PitmanComment

Wales and the curse of the Captain

Mark PitmanComment

Mark Pitman on what England could learn from their upcoming opponents about dealing with the captaincy. 

Wales welcome England to the Millennium Stadium this month for a European Championship Qualifier with pride worth far more than points to Gary Speed’s young dragons; as he uses an already failed campaign to build for the next. England would gladly take the pride of a Home International victory (although points will be of significant value to Fabio Capello) but the headlines in the build-up to the game have centred on the age-old issues of captaincy to fuel the latest controversy in the England camp. If recent football history is to be repeated however, Wales should welcome this well-documented unrest, as focusing on the subject of who wears the armband over the actual game itself has not brought the desired result for either national team in recent years.

With Cardiff the venue for the upcoming qualifier, it is only fair that we start this retrospective look at the problems of letting the issue of captaincy dominate the pre-match build-up with Wales. The year was 1996 and the venue was Eindhoven, Holland. Bobby Gould was in charge of Wales and was preparing his already depleted squad for the difficult challenge of taking on a Dutch side featuring high-profile names such as Edwin Van der Sar, Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Dennis Bergkamp and the de Boer brothers. Wales had suffered a 3-1 home defeat to the Dutch in Cardiff the month before, but for this return match, Gould added a surprise new twist. The players would elect the team captain.

With regular captain Barry Horne unavailable, Gould would also take on the Dutch without established stars such as Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes, Chris Coleman and Nathan Blake. Wales needed a return of at least a point in Eindhoven and in a desperate effort to revitalise the confidence and belief amongst his squad, Gould handed them the responsibility of deciding who should lead them into this crucial match. Experienced striker Dean Saunders had scored three goals in the previous two Internationals and received a small percentage of votes, but the majority backed a player who was not even part of the squad that lost to the Dutch in Cardiff – none other than Vinnie Jones.

Gould of course had a memorable past with Jones. In 1988 Wimbledon lifted the FA Cup, having defeated Liverpool in one of the most famous upsets in the history of the competition. Bobby Gould had taken charge of the club the year before and had in Jones inherited a footballer already earning himself a bad-boy reputation for his physical approach to the game. When Gould took charge of Wales in 1995, Jones had already completed his rise from non-league footballer and part-time hod-carrier to full international and FA Cup winning midfielder, but his most significant match for Wales was about to come. Jones was now in his second-spell at Wimbledon, having spent time making new enemies on the field at Leeds, Sheffield United and Chelsea before his return to Selhurst Park, but qualifying for Wales through his grandmother had now put him firmly in the national spotlight as Wales travelled to Holland.

Jones, sporting a Welsh dragon tattoo on his chest, led out his adopted country in Eindhoven and sung the powerful national anthem with a pride that would put the majority of today’s stars to shame. His temporary ownership of the armband had made the headlines on the day of the game, but as the Dutch went onto score seven (with only Neville Southall preventing double figures) the attentions quickly turned to Gould and his decision to let his side pick and choose their leader. The result was a significant one for Wales and signalled the beginning of the international end for both Gould and his new captain. The headlining risk had backfired.

Of course the focus of International captaincy has traditionally been a British-only pastime. Other countries accept there are far more pressing issues, Italy for example offer the position to the teams most-capped player or an individual achieving a significant milestone in that particular game. Fabio Capello found the concept of the captaincy debate amusing on his arrival in England but quickly accepted the public importance of the role and currently suffers his latest controversy in the column inches in the national press as the debate over the once-demoted John Terry and his possible reinstatement rages.

Craig Bellamy correctly relinquished his captaincy of Wales when it become apparent his fitness problems would rule him out of the majority of international fixtures, and as a result new manager Gary Speed’s first task was to appoint a new captain; with Aston Villa defender James Collins handed the role in Speed’s opening game against the Republic of Ireland. Before the appointment the merits and credentials of Collins and others to take over the armband were debated in the press, and with Collins now facing a club disciplinary charge, the potential for the international focus to once again revolve around who should lead the team has reared its head.

Of course, the focus and debate of international captaincy is not necessarily all for negative reasons. In 1993, then-England manager Graham Taylor made a significant appointment by making Paul Ince the first black captain of the national team. The decision was a welcome boost for the growing anti-racism campaign against the racial problems that had darkened football in the country during the 1970's and 1980's. With regular leaders David Platt and Tony Adams unavailable for the summer tour of the United States, the Manchester United midfielder made history in a match that was expected to offer the under-pressure Taylor some temporary relief.

The United States were slowly emerging as a creditable national side but were not expected to offer any real competition to England and their squad of Premier League stars currently enjoying the new wave of optimism in the domestic game. Unfamiliar names lined-up for the hosts against England’s household stars in the Foxboro Stadium, but goals from Thomas Dooley and Alexi Lalas subjected England to one of their most embarrassing defeats since the 1950 World Cup group match in Belo Horizonte. That day an unknown Joe Gaetjens scored the only goal of the game as England suffered a 1-0 defeat, again to the United States.

Vinnie Jones only captained Wales once. Paul Ince only captained England once. Both appointments dominated the pre-match press for two very different reasons. Bobby Gould was questioned for his decision to let the players choose their captain while their eventual choice brought further controversy and only highlighted the 7-1 defeat further. Paul Ince represented a changing culture to the racial problems that had dogged British football and the decision was celebrated and became the main focus in the press, although this was also due to the lack of competition expected from the opponents he would lead his country out onto the field against. The United States claimed their most memorable victory of the modern football era, and Ince’s moment of pride was tarnished in an embarrassing reverse.

The two sides now meet in Cardiff but the pre-match debate again centres on the issue of who should lead England. Wales manager Gary Speed can take charge of his country in Cardiff for the first time with a degree of confidence, as established Internationals and Premier League stars such as Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Craig Bellamy have confirmed their availability for this significant match in what could potentially precipitate a new era for Welsh football.

Speed will have spent the majority of his brief time in charge of Wales thinking of England, but if the curse of focusing on the captaincy over the match should again strike, Speed should perhaps turn his mind to another England. Former Wales manager Mike England masterminded a 4-1 win over his namesakes in his first home match back in 1980, and while the back pages of the national press focus on the merits of John Terry and the limited communication skills of Capello alongside the growing list of withdrawals, Speed will hope that this could just be another case of history repeating itself.

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