Opinion: What does it mean to be Manchester United captain?

Old Trafford

The term captain doesn’t really have the same meaning within the footballing world as what it used to. I’ve always considered a great captain, as someone who can lead by example. Not to necessarily be the greatest player technically or physically within the club, but someone who would give you seven out of 10 every game at least. Someone who is consistent, someone who can be relied upon, someone who will give their absolute all for the good of the team, someone who is respected and looked up to within the dressing room. And when the chips are down, can inspire his team to come from 2-0 down against Juventus to book his team into the 1999 Champions League final, for example.

Of course I am talking about Roy Keane. A man who for eight years, gave Manchester United that extra psychological motivation to go out and win a game, for any failure to do so meant a firm ear bashing from the Irish international and the old hairdryer treatment from Fergie to add salt in the wounds. That fear factor that Keane had not only psyched out the opposition, but his no-nonsense mentality helped Cristiano Ronaldo become the player he is today, constantly kicking him at training to help toughen him up and stop the diving that he became notorious for in the early stages of his career.

Another important thing with Keane was he always seemed to step up at the biggest occasions. Like in that Juventus game we will always remember him for, but so too in his performance against Liverpool in the 1995/96 FA Cup final, or even before he gained captaincy when he scored the winner in the 1993/94 Manchester Derby at Maine Road.

Some would argue Keane gets too much credit for the work he did for the club, given the number of leaders and match winners he had around him in the squad. By 1999 the likes of Giggs, Scholes, Beckham and the rest of the Class of 92 were just as experienced as Keane, add in the presence of Sir Alex Ferguson and that’s a recipe for footballing success anyway. Also add in the fact that Keane suffered many injuries during his captaincy, not to mention his disciplinary record which led to him missing plenty of games. His infamous spat with Alf-Inge Håland is well documented and tarnished his reputation somewhat, plus his rivalry with Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira often made any United vs Arsenal game centred around the two captains as opposed to at the time the two greatest clubs in England. But without Keane the term “prawn sandwich brigade” would never have come about, so we can all thank him for that.

So since Keane we’ve had a few captains, not in the same bracket as the Irishman however. Gary Neville replaced Keane and held the armband for five years and was more than capable of leading United to further success, although through injury never contributed towards their 2007/08 Champions League winning side. After stepping down as captain in 2010, Nemanja Vidic officially became the club’s new captain at the beginning of the 2010/11 season, leading the side for three years before announcing his wish to leave at the end of his contract.

Following his, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra’s departures at the end of the 2013/14 season, United have been without a real leader. Louis van Gaal gave the captaincy to Wayne Rooney at the start of the season but the forward hasn’t shown any off the qualities that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, even the consistency has disappeared especially since the turn of the new year. Given that he’s been at the club since 2004, it made sense to appoint him as captain, but his lack of self-discipline and actual leadership skills would make me think twice about giving someone such a responsibility, especially given the rocky state the club were in following David Moyes departure and Louis van Gaal’s arrival. The captain needs to be a player that knows what it means to be a leader, and someone who knows the ins and outs of the club. And although he only left recently and I think it’s beyond doubt that he’s past his peak, Nemanja Vidic would be the perfect man for the job. Someone with Premier League experience and a guy whose very presence would inspire the team to improve.

The likelihood of the big Serb returning is quite low (although stranger things have happened) but to me, he is the kind of player we should be hoping can bring back the glory days to Old Trafford, not Rooney, who it would appear his idea of leadership is to shout at everyone else and drop deeper into midfield, and certainly not Louis van Gaal. I cannot think for a minute that a manager who refuses to leave his dugout as he clutches his notes tightly to his chest, is a man who can galvanise his squad, but each to their own I guess.

This article was researched and written by Dan Burnett. You can follow him on Twitter.

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