A new breed of captain is emerging at AFL clubs – not necessarily the best player in the team, but the one best equipped to lead and inspire.
Like just about everything else in football, the role of the captain has evolved enormously.
For a long time, captaincy was relatively simple. The team’s best player was the skipper. He led the team out on match-days, tossed the coin and, since 1959, one lucky captain each season has hoisted the premiership cup at the MCG in the minutes after the Grand Final.
Ron Barassi, Darrel Baldock, Alex Jesaulenko, Royce Hart, Leigh Matthews, Stephen Kernahan, Wayne Carey, James Hird, Michael Voss – all icons of the game and all premiership captains.
But the model has changed. Not entirely, because in 2011 there are still captains who are the best players in their team. Jonathan Brown at the Brisbane Lions is one. Chris Judd is another.
Judd was Carlton’s unofficial captain from the day in late 2007 he signed the contract to cross over from West Coast and the story is told that not long after he joined the Blues, a group of players went out for lunch. When Judd didn’t touch any of the chips that came with his meal, neither did any of those with him.
Within a few weeks, Judd was formally appointed captain of the Blues.
Like Judd, Gary Ablett wasn’t immediately named captain of Gold Coast on that momentous September afternoon when he swapped the blue and white hoops for the blazing red and gold. But was there ever any doubt it would eventually happen?
As part of last week’s season launch, the AFL got the captains together for a series of marketing and promotional activities. In between the briefings and the photo shoots, there was time for the 17 captains to share lunch and have a chat about the new season.
The gathering also allowed the veterans of the caper to share a word of advice with the rookie skippers – there are six in 2011 – on how to go about it.
One thing the new captains agreed with is that there is no manual on how to be an AFL captain. Nobody handed them a dusty manual from the club archives that explains what needs to be done.
There are lots of opinions on how the job should be done, but – as Ablett noted last week – not much else.
“People outside always have expectations about what you should be like as a captain but I’m not going to let that affect me too much,” he said.
“I’m going to lead in the way I think helps these boys and the club and that’s all that matters to me.”
Ablett has done a bit of reading but reckons he learned more from watching former Geelong captain Tom Harley than from anything in a book.
“You learn from getting out there and experiencing it. There’s nothing written down about how to captain an AFL club which is something I’m not sure the public understands,” he said.
When Ablett leads the Suns on to the Gabba next week against Carlton in the club’s first AFL match, it will be his first game of any description for the year.
Often lost when discussing captains is that they are players, too. Hand-in-hand with their duties as captain and part of a leadership group is their core responsibility as footballers and the weekly regimen around preparing to play.
“You have to look after yourself,” said Brown, whose last few seasons have been punctuated by prolonged absences from the side because of injury.
“Your preparation and approach to game-day is critical because, if you can’t get that right, then you’re not much good as a skipper.”
Brown said juggling playing and captaincy could be tough during form slumps and injury lay-offs. “Sometimes you need to commit a bit more time for yourself and that’s very challenging.”
New Adelaide skipper Nathan van Berlo has a firm idea on how to manage the
dual responsibilities. “When I look at the captaincy, it’s about influence and the best way to influence is to set the example around the footy club with my preparation, the way I train and the way I play.
“It’s best to look after my own backyard and set the example with the way I go about my footy. That’s leadership,” he said.
Van Berlo used the word “influence”, a buzzword among the AFL captains. “It can mean many things but it’s about having influence on the people around you week in and week out,” he said.
The Crows are an even unit. So much so that not one Adelaide player featured in Mike Sheahan’s pre-season Top 50 list that appeared in the Herald Sun last week. Van Berlo was awarded the captaincy at West Lakes, but there were several others just as suited to the role.
It is increasingly the way. The leadership group concept has been part of the AFL scene for the best part of the past decade and has spawned a new breed of AFL captain.
Not necessarily the best player at the club, but the player best suited to inspire, to lead and to play good football.
Hawthorn’s Richie Vandenberg was one of the first of this new breed of leader. When he got the job at Hawthorn in 2005, there were better players at the club, but none ready to lead.
He proved to be an outstanding choice until the time Sam Mitchell and then Luke Hodge were ready to take over.
Several clubs have adopted a similar philosophy with their choice of captains, including the Western Bulldogs in 2011.
New Bulldogs skipper Matthew Boyd, to be absolutely clear, is a better player at his club than Vandenberg was at his. At the Bulldogs, Adam Cooney and Ryan Griffen are probably the best two players, but Boyd is an accomplished midfielder who is tough and durable. Boyd’s time in the Bulldogs’ leadership group in the past few years gave him the belief he could lead formally if tapped on the shoulder.
“I definitely have some confidence about what I can bring to the table and the
attributes to be a good leader, but in saying that, I know there are things I’ll have to learn and I’ll be taking advice from people along the way.”
Which goes back to the point Ablett made about advice. It’s footy, after all, so there will be no shortage of those offering advice – good and otherwise.
Indeed, those who have walked in his shoes offer basic and homespun philosophies for the first-timers.
“Don’t change much,” said Matthew Pavlich, who enters his fifth season as captain of Fremantle. “It’s only a title and you’ve been given the job because of how you go about it in the first place.”
It’s the same advice given to Hodge by Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson. “One
thing ‘Clarko’ said was not to change what I do on or off the field. I was given the job for a reason, so if I change the way I do things, then the other blokes
And it's the same philosophy that has worked at Sydney for many years.
Former coach Paul Roos was among the first to introduce co-captains to the AFL and it remains a core element at the Swans after being tried and discarded by other clubs.
Adam Goodes continues in the role this year, joined by Jarrad McVeigh.
"The one bit of advice I gave Jarrad was not to change," said Goodes. "You’ve got the role because of the type of person you are, so don’t go changing now you’re captain. All we expect of you is to keep doing what you’re doing."
Goodes isn’t sure why the co-captains model hasn’t become more widespread
through the AFL, but knows it has worked a treat with the Swans.
"It works at our club when you share the responsibilities," he said.
"It's not the captains who are the complete faces of our footy club, it's the leadership group and that’s where a lot of clubs have gone. They drive it, the captains are the ones who toss the coin and make a few speeches, but the
leadership group is what drives the club to where it wants to be."
By Ashley Browne