Manchester United’s list of captains over the past couple of decades reads like the footballing version of Mount Rushmore. The likes of Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney to name but a few. True club legends who will go down in folklore as being some of the greatest players that have ever donned the famous red shirt.
And then you get to the present day. October 2019. The most successful side in Premier League history has 34-year-old Ashley Young wearing the armband. If you were living under a rock and you didn’t know that, you would be forgiven for spitting out your drink or doing a massive double-take. The 20-time league champions, and three-time Champions League winners have a man who is infamously remembered for that pigeon incident.
But in all seriousness, the club’s recent decline since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson back in the summer of 2013 is perfectly encapsulated by the state of the captaincy. In the glory years under their iconic Scottish manager, United had leaders of men who dominated on the pitch, and in the dressing room too. And when we take a deeper look at the Red Devils’ recent history, it really shines a painful light on the direction the side have gone.
A decade that included the famous treble-winning side of 1999, United boasted some serious leaders – and Cantona. Robson, Steve Bruce and Keane all had a will to win that was unmatched, and it’s precisely the quality the current United team are lacking. Last season alone, the Red Devils contrived to lose ten Premier League games. Having a captain who detests the taste of defeat and ensures that every player feels the same is exactly what’s needed.
Too often in recent years, the side have lacked that presence and subsequently just melted away.
Another period of United dominance, this era highlights more than any other that a captain doesn’t necessarily have to be the best player on the pitch.
An ageing Keane and Gary Neville wore the armband for the entirety of the 2000s, and you would be hard pressed to find someone who would have suggested that either of them were ever the side’s greatest player. But even with their more limited technical abilities in mind, the duo commanded the respect of the dressing room. Perhaps just as importantly, they had won the respect of the fans too.
Young may have the admiration of his teammates, but he certainly isn’t flavour of the month with the Old Trafford faithful. The veteran was booed on the club’s pre-season tour earlier this summer, and has been slammed for his below-par performances. How does a club rally around its figurehead when it’s main man gets a roasting on a weekly basis.
A picture is worth a thousand words, and the one above just says it all, doesn’t it? The current captain of United, being consoled by a manager who got Cardiff relegated. Of course, it is absolutely unfair to scapegoat Young for the Red Devils’ problems, but he is the perfect symbol of it. Not good enough to be in the squad, let alone the first-team, and yet apparently the most influential man. The 2010s have seen six separate players wear the armband, and the previous three campaigns have seen a new captain each season. In 2017/2018, it was Michael Carrick. Last season it was Antonio Valencia. And now, it’s Young.
The sheer turnover in quick succession proves the club don’t appear to have a long-term plan in place and are simply making things up as they go along.
In a truly damning indictment of how far things have fallen, Solskjaer’s timid explanation about Young taking the role of captain following the departure of Antonio Valencia spoke volumes.
“You can probably call it that. David’s obviously in contention, (but) Ash, when he’s on the pitch, will carry the armband. When Ash starts, he’ll be carrying the armband”
Doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence now, does it? The captaincy – whether it still means a great deal now or not – should be essentially unanimous. No debate. No questions. No room for concern. But such is the lack of leadership that has festered into the United squad and hierarchy, Solskjaer couldn’t even be steadfast in his confirmation.
In the 26 glorious years he was in charge, did Ferguson at any point hesitate about the man he would call skipper?
Sure he may have had falling outs or personal disagreements with some of them, but there was no doubting who he wanted to lead the side. But just as United stumble around on-the-pitch, the complete disarray the captaincy has become is a painful eye-opener into just how far things have fallen.