Fresh evidence of England’s demise is not required after the World Cup but there it was, writ large, in the aftermath of Steven Gerrard’s retirement from international football on Monday – the online poll as to who should succeed him as captain. One could imagine another frantic bout of head-rubbing from Roy Hodgson as he scrolled through the proposed candidates.
In fairness, the England manager would not have been alone. The various polls since Gerrard’s departure have a common thread; namely that whoever compiled them immediately came up with Wayne Rooney and struggled for credible alternatives. Joe Hart and Gary Cahill are there to suggest there is some competition for the armband, while even Jordan Henderson, Leighton Baines and Jack Wilshere have been thrown in to make up the numbers, despite not yet establishing themselves as international regulars.
There is no outstanding candidate for the job, as the lists confirm, only a shortage of leaders to add to England’s problems before the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign commences against Switzerland in September. England failing on the international stage is nothing new but its managers have rarely been confronted with such a lack of genuine captaincy material before. In 2006, following David Beckham’s tearful farewell in Baden-Baden, a heated debate ensued in the bars of the German spa town over whether John Terry or Gerrard should take over. Whatever the merits of the argument, at least there was one to be had.
Rooney is the clear frontrunner to replace the Liverpool captain and has made no secret of his wish to lead England. He has the advantage of experience, an established place in the team and a history of success at club level. Yet in many respects, should he be selected captain in time for England’s friendly against Norway on 3 September, it would be by default. He represents the last man standing.
A captain does not have to be demonstrative, chest-beating authority with blood dripping through bandages, a point reinforced by the man who lifted the World Cup for Germany in Brazil, Philipp Lahm. He can lead by example or, as Sweden, Portugal and Argentina have demonstrated with their choices of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the armband can simply reflect an individual world-class talent.
England, Rooney included, do not have a player who meets any of the above criteria. Not one member of Hodgson’s squad reproduced their club form in Brazil, save for Raheem Sterling against Italy, which, as well as providing a damning indictment of the England manager’s methods, suggests responsibility is a problem for many on the international stage.
The inquest into England’s lack of leaders can stray into sociological territory or further analysis of a youth academy system that stifles individuality. It could also find answers in the straightforward fact that Hodgson took a fresh, younger England squad to Brazil and established figureheads are inevitably thin on the ground with Gerrard retiring and his vice-captain, Frank Lampard, possibly following suit. Plus, of course, the declining numbers of British talent available in the Premier League.
Of the 20 Premier League club captains last season eight were English and, with Terry in self-imposed international retirement, only three made the World Cup squad, Gerrard, Phil Jagielka and Adam Lallana. Jagielka has been a fine captain for Everton and Sheffield United but, while meriting his first-team place in Brazil over Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, he was unable to display the same authority for England, even while taking his international career to 28 caps. Football is cyclical, of course, and a benefit of entering the Euro campaign with a young side is that players such as Lallana and Ross Barkley could revive a debate over the captaincy in the near future.
For now, the evidence points to Rooney. Once England’s quickest World Cup exit had been confirmed in Brazil, the Football Association asked the 28-year-old and Hart to face the media and, having been overly defensive about his form earlier in the campaign, Rooney gave a measured performance for the cameras. Hodgson also rated the striker as England’s best operator at the World Cup. Fans, however, were not convinced and Rooney received a frosty reception from some in Belo Horizonte when appearing for the final group game against Costa Rica. The forward must learn the diplomatic skills required of an England captain, as well as countering Paul Scholes’ theory that his best days are behind him, to bring everyone onside at a desperate time for the national team and the FA.