Raich Carter, Charlie Hurley, Bobby Kerr, Kevin Ball. Sunderland supporters have often admired men of a certain ilk. Men who can play. Men who can work. Men who can lead and if necessary men who can embrace the fire of confrontation.
There will undoubtedly be other captains from our past who you prefer. This article is not diverting into a popularity contest, but delving into the world that circumnavigates the evolving role of captain.
This season has been somewhat unorthodox in terms of captaincy and the consequent debate surrounding an individual’s effectiveness to lead continues to fuel the conversations of hardy Sunderland fans across the region.
George Honeyman’s role and effectiveness in this capacity has been part of a sporting equation that has provided ample dispute among some sections of the Sunderland faithful for a number of weeks. Some argue his talent is not sufficient. Some question his pedigree, others puzzle over the dilemma of a captain not necessarily being able to maintain a starting place, in the very team he is called upon to captain.
All are reasonable topics for debate.
Its fair to add that Honeyman is not helped by several factors that don’t always include his personal ability to manipulate a football.
He’s a north-eastern boy, Prudhoe born and as football tradition unofficially declares, local lads are usually the first to feel the ire of their own support if individual performances or team results don’t match the expectations of the crowd.
Second to that, the gladly welcomed re-emergence of Lee Cattermole - a man who many feel maintains more natural symbols of leadership - has perhaps for some only further highlighted Honeyman’s alleged deficiencies. When Ross named Honeyman as captain, it was highly probable that Cattermole would never kick a ball for us again. Cattermole’s resurrection and sudden invaluable presence has cast a wider magnifying glass over George Honeyman’s Saturday afternoons.
He’s also captain in an era of time, where performance scrutiny is not solely carried out by a local reporter with a clipboard and biro. Every supporter is a pundit. Every fan a highly opinionated analyst and every social media outlet a forum of judgement. Of course, I’m not advocating that a critique of Honeyman’s performances is not justified or that we’re not entitled to do so. Of course we are.
I’m merely highlighting the added pressure felt by players in a period of time where the lights are never switched off. Perhaps, even our much heralded and razor-jawed captain of folklore Charlie Hurley may have struggled at the genesis of his career if at every turn, everyone he met was a critic and his last average performance was now a meme trending on twitter.
However, aside from those obstacles, regardless of how fair or unfair you feel they may be, there is also the mountainous and unavoidable challenge of genuinely performing on the pitch.
Is it justified, equitable or logical for a manager to maintain a captain who may not be a mainstay of his first eleven? This conundrum sires broader questions such as ‘can a captain be droppable?’, and ‘is there a wider role or function for a captain that we the regular punter simply cannot see, regardless of how intensely we scrutinise one particular players worth during 90 minutes?’
Firstly, this season - the status of ‘on-field’ captain indicated that a permanent, perpetual place in the team, forged in the dressing room of favouritism, cannot and should not be possible. For any competitive team to move forward there must be an overall and clear reward-based merit system. If a player can’t earn the reward of a first team start, despite his potential work rate or improved performances, because the place belongs to the current incumbent no matter how terrible he plays, then the potential for discord and destructive squad harmony is obvious.
Un-droppable players can’t work in any successful team or indeed any team who foresees success within its future. It unhealthy, unbalanced and unworkable.
But, Jack Ross knows this. Yet Honeyman remains.
It’s therefore reasonable to question why Ross has not changed tack and relegated the responsibility from the shoulders of young George, as the pressure and audible criticism mounts.
Is it possible that there are more characteristics of a captain than just what he delivers come match day? Is it worth considering the overall emblematic and wider role of captaincy in general and how the execution of this duty is crucial to the club moving forward, regardless of the skill level or limitations of that player,deemed worthy of the role?
For Ross, Honeyman is obviously more than what a captain can or can’t physically do while he’s on the pitch in any given match. And its these important emblems that should allow George a little grace from his fiercest critics.
George is a symbol. He’s 5”7 wet through and local born. He’s a hardworking grafter, who has shown both grit and humility during trying times and has never shirked responsibility. Being captain during a game is not the whole sum of his parts - certainly not to Jack Ross at least.
His very person is a symbol of North-Eastern determination. Sunderland is not a glamour city or an international hotspot. We’re not the largest city, we don’t have the biggest population. We’ve never sat at the high table of the footballing Gods in the modern era and really felt comfortable. We’ve fought, kicked and forced our way through the barriers of our so called limitations to have our glorious days in the sporting sun.
I think when Ross met Honeyman he assessed those very attributes and recognised, after the darkest of footballing times when the club was lost and floating out to the sea of sporting oblivion, that a change was necessary.
We’d forgotten who we were. Our roots were almost cut from the very mackem soil from which they grew. Ross, Donald and Methven have spoken of a return to a recognisable working class brand, a relatable relationship between the club and the very hard working, hardy, down to earth fans that the club itself is meant to represent.
It is no wonder, then, that the first club captain under this regime is himself a symbol of the very community that our owners and manager are desperate to fully reconnect with.
Honeyman’s appointment is also emblematic of the cultural shift we can hope to embrace in the future. He’s an academy product, costing very little in terms of output but gives all he can in terms input. He’s the allegorical image of this significant movie toward self-sustainability and the perfect example - at least in Jack Ross’s opinion - to the rest of the aspiring academy players, of what can be achieved with dedication, commitment and humble leadership.
They can with all seriousness look up to George and be first hand witnesses of his hard work and professionalism and fully believe that they too can lead the club that has given birth to the infancy of their career.
Upon offering Honeyman the captaincy, Jack Ross explained the appointment:
Displaying grit, determination and leadership every single time he crosses the white line, George is a natural fit for the role. George’s attitude towards training on a daily basis is absolutely fantastic.
He’s a mature and intelligent young man, and his energy levels and application in games will be a major asset for us, so I’m delighted he’s wanted to take on the responsibility.
George may not be a screamer. He may not be grabbing teammates by the neck and threatening harm if their performances don’t improve. His assets as a captain are maturity and intelligence, grit and determination. His humble approach to accepting the responsibility is also key.
Not all leaders have to be brooding menaces or fiery lunatics with bulging eyes and throbbing veins on their foreheads. Some leaders use their innate humility to create a positive environment. This is where Ross may feel he has the right captain at the very right time of our footballing evolution.
In a study by the Harvard Business review into multi-level leadership they found the following:
Humble leaders improve the performance of a company or team in the long run because they create more collaborative environments. They have a balanced view of themselves – both their virtues and shortcomings – and a strong appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, while being open to new ideas and feedback.
These ‘unsung heroes’ help their followers to build their self-esteem, go beyond their expectations, and create a community that channels individual efforts into an organized group that works for the good of the collective.
After researching successful sports teams as well as fortune 500 companies, the famed business school concluded:
When leaders behave humbly, followers emulate their modest attitude and behaviour.
A study of 161 elite level sports and business teams found that players and employees following humble leaders were themselves more likely to admit their mistakes and limitations, share the spotlight by deflecting praise to others, and be open to new ideas, advice, and feedback.
When Jack Ross appointed George Honeyman he was not appointing the most skillful player. He was not appointing the next Ronaldo, or the next Roy Keane. He was looking at the collective group and what Honeyman and this role could do to improve the collaborative approach to changing our sporting destiny that had in previous years been falling apart at the seams. Honeyman the man is far more important to the positive changes required of this club than Honeyman the player.
To that extent, his starting position is not as significant as his role and influence. Play every week? Debatable. Take away his captaincy? In this regard I’m with Jack Ross. Honeyman is a captain in more ways than one.