Gareth Southgate has assembled a squad that, alongside Harry Kane (front, centre), is packed with captains
It was a mark of just how seriously Gareth Southgate regarded his choice of England captain that it took him almost a year to decide. He even read a book on the subject, The Captain Class, which asserts that the right dressing-room leadership is actually the single most identifiable trait in the greatest sports teams. That is ahead of talent, resources, coaching and yes, even the manager.
Unfailingly polite, Southgate later wrote to the book’s author, Sam Walker, to say that the research had “certainly provoked more considerations in my thinking” and specifically noted that “the qualities required to be an outstanding captain” were not necessarily the traits that people most often expect. In that, the caricature of a tub-thumping leader or superstar player is downplayed.
It was perhaps surprising, then, having experimented with various options, that Southgate should ultimately settle on Harry Kane. He is the team’s single most recognisable and important player although hardly a David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo in seeking personal limelight.
And Walker, whose work has also influenced Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea, as well as a series of sports franchises in the United States, stresses that it is actually more introverted personalities who often make the best leaders.
Kane also embodies the most important trait of all, “extreme doggedness”, in the way he maximised his talents after spending his early career on loan in the lower leagues and provides a daily example to all around him.
Beyond that and, in also studying the England football team during Euro 2020, Walker has been especially struck by two facets.
The first is how Southgate has assembled a squad that, alongside Kane, is packed with captains. Harry Maguire (Manchester United), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Jack Grealish (Aston Villa), Declan Rice (West Ham United) and Conor Coady (Wolverhampton Wanderers) have all regularly led their Premier League clubs, while Kieran Trippier, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Mason Mount, Aaron Ramsdale, Tyrone Mings and Kyle Walker also have recent captaincy experience for club or country.
Sam Walker: 'Kane is not the prototype because he is the star player, but he is such a team-orientated superstar'
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Walker stressed a parallel with the great Brazilian national teams between 1958 and 1970. “They had six captains of their old club teams,” says Walker, who highlights how the armband passed between Hideraldo Bellini, Mauro Ramos de Colibeira and Carlos Alberto Torres rather than to Pele, who was “a team-orientated star player like Harry Kane”.
Southgate’s construction of a team jammed with selfless characters is clearly also no accident. In appointing Kane prior to the 2018 World Cup, Southgate noted the “standards” that Kane set daily but also the importance of a wider leadership culture. “It’s so cool how he has stitched that together,” Walker added. “This stuff matters – and the team culture and chemistry is even more important on a national team because of the lack of time together. To have such a young team with so much character and leadership is pretty remarkable.
“Kane is not the prototype because he is the star player, but he is such a team-orientated superstar. And his profile is perfect in the way that he struggled and wasn’t a prodigy early in his career. This is such a powerful message and I don’t think you can have a tournament-winning team without someone with that personality. He overcame that, is completely committed and always does whatever is best for the team. But nobody can do everything and he is surrounded by people who can do a lot of the other leadership jobs.”
England’s team of skippers
The second striking characteristic is Southgate himself, who ticks just about every trait that Walker has identified in his great captains. As well as doggedness, these include a willingness to thanklessly graft in the shadows, a practical and democratic communication style, motivating others with non-verbal displays, strong convictions, courage, and emotional control. For Walker, a deputy editor at the Wall Street Journal, the most striking moment of all was Southgate’s press conference after England’s 4-0 quarter-final win against Ukraine.
“The first thing he said was, ‘I want to talk about all the great guys who did not play’,” he says. “That showed you everything.
“Coaches are often so worried about how the team is perceived externally, but he is inwardly focused. He is worried about communicating with the group in ways the public will never see. He is talking to the players, not the world, and making cultural decisions without working out how the outside world will interpret it.
“The players know he cares and it kills division. It also encourages wider contributions to the collective. A lot of managers think, ‘I need to be in command and have control’ but what they are actually talking about is the public’s perception.
“The best thing you can actually have is players who want to play for you and don’t want to disappoint you. And Southgate has players who know that it is all about the collective, not his ego and next job. He is not trying to uphold some image.
“I think being that type of leader actually provides more control than a disciplinarian because the players don’t want to let him down and want him to feel proud of them. He’s a fascinating dude.”