Before departing on his fourth Lions tour last week, Brian O'Driscoll introduced a new term into the lexicon of sporting leadership. Sam Warburton, suggested O'Driscoll of the Welshman following in his footsteps as captain of the Lions, is a "followy" type of leader: one who sets a dynamic example to encourage others to match him.
O'Driscoll was discussing his role as the grand old man of the tour and outlining the importance in his sport of leaders emerging from all corners of the field, particularly when it is a foreign field and seven tons of Australian opprobrium is being hurled at them from all corners.
It was O'Driscoll's take that a captain should be the frontman of a corps of on-field leaders. In a team game, leadership comes from a team too. O'Driscoll said that when team-mates, rather than waiting to be led, offered their own take in accompaniment to his stewardship, it made his job easier. It also gave the captain more impact: he did not have to speak often and when he did his words were hung on.
Kevin Keegan recently bemoaned a lack of leaders across the England football team, a subject brought kicking and moaning into the spotlight when the Football Association got their briefs in a twist over Ashley Cole.
The leader's lot varies from sport to sport. Alastair Cook's role is infinitely more demanding than Warburton's or Chris Robshaw's, which in turn asks more than that requested of Cole/Frank Lampard/Steven Gerrard/AN Other/Somebody, anybody/Don't mention JT.
The captain's role across sport has diminished as the emphasis on the coach has produced intricate game plans, absolute instruction, immediate analysis and micro-management. Cook's much-lambasted decision not to enforce the follow-on against New Zealand and the timing of his declaration were by no means his calls alone, as they once would have been.
The cricket captain's task remains challenging and one still far above that of the football or rugby skipper, but he is no longer a dressing-room dictator as in the days of Douglas Jardine, Ray Illingworth, Clive Lloyd, Steve Waugh and Co. Certainly in England the coach pulls the strings.
It is a similar story in rugby, although as Robshaw painfully discovered last autumn there are still match-changing decisions to be made on the field. In football, with the particular hegemony of the coach, the captaincy of club or country matters less and less, with the armband being hurled around like a bride's bouquet.
The Australian cricket approach, back when they were a side to be reckoned with, was to pick their best XI and pluck a captain from there. In today's sporting world that appears ever more the best approach, and that requires a corresponding downgrading of the mythic status attached by too many to the England football captain.
"He's not much of a role model," spluttered one broadcaster about Cole last week. In some ways he is not, but when it comes to being "followy" – what he has achieved on the pitch and the consistent standards he has sustained over a long period – he probably is.
Being followy is what a modern-day captain today needs as his top trait. The best among them will always have more, and look for more. The impressive Dwayne Bravo, newly installed as West Indies one-day captain – a job akin to leading the coalition, given the disparate elements within Caribbean cricket – spoke admirably last week of his determination to ensure his team play with the swashbuckler's instinct with which they have long been accustomed, even if it has at times proved ruinous.
But Bravo's tenure will boom or bust by the support he receives from the senior players within the dressing room – how long will Gayle, Sarwan, Sammy and Co follow him? On-field leadership has become more communal than ever.
Warburton is fortunate that he has O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Roberts and more to muster the troops but then that is the joy of leading the Lions – the followers are hand-picked from an artfully widened pool. Cook has the likes of Graeme Swann, James Anderson and Matt Prior to rally loudly from the ranks.
Gerrard is followy, Lampard too, but England need more. There seem to be too many privates on parade within England's footballing ranks. Joe Hart has the appearance of, as they say in cricket, an FEC-er (Future England Captain), but Keegan is right: England need more leaders.
Too many athletes in this country are too rarely asked to think on their own; in football in particular they need to look up and see beyond their defined roles, stop following the herd and demand, or just take, on-field responsibility. It's time to rouse the rabble.
- More about:
- Alastair Cook
- Frank Lampard
- Kevin Keegan
- New Zealand
- Premier League
- Stephen Carter
- Steven Gerrard