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AFL captains: proven leaders and the quiet achievers

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Magpies ready for Kangas clash

Rohan Connolly previews round five of the AFL season, including Collingwood's clash with North Melbourne at the MCG on Saturday.

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There’s been a lot of talk about on-field leadership this week and, inevitably, it’s a topic that rears its head when a team is losing.

Unfortunately when you’re at one of the big clubs – say Carlton and Richmond – the scrutiny is always magnified. That has meant Marc Murphy and Trent Cotchin have worn a lot of heat in the recent times.

And this week, Kieren Jack and Jarrad McVeigh have also come in for some scrutiny after Sydney’s poor start.

<i>Photos: Pat Scala, Getty Images</i>

Photos: Pat Scala, Getty Images

The captaincy is a huge burden for all these young men to carry. Most of them have only been in the job for a short time and are learning the art of captaincy.

Murphy and Cotchin are their team’s best players; they’re out there doing their best on the field yet have to bear the brunt of the relentless criticism of their teams. That’s the brutal reality of football these days: the game is so over-analysed and scrutinised that a few unexpected defeats leads to a whole lot of pain via the media.

As a captain, you set the example by the way you prepare and play. But, more than that, you always have to think about the team before yourself. That means when you’re injured or out of form, you can’t afford to get too despondent or miserable.

Scott Pendlebury ... in the Quiet Achiever category.

Scott Pendlebury ... in the Quiet Achiever category. Photo: Pat Scala

You have to project a positive and confident image around the club all the time, which the other players can see. They can’t be allowed to see you wrestling with your own demons. And that doesn’t come naturally, it takes time.

Of course, most young players are worried about their form first and the team second.

I was given the captaincy at North Melbourne when I was 21 and, in the first season or two, I had no real idea about my responsibilities. I thought my role was setting an example on the field and playing well; I didn’t think too much about the other stuff.

When I did have a couple of bad ones early on, I found it difficult to think of anything but my own form.

But, as you learn the ropes and what’s required of you as captain, you improve as you go. You don’t necessarily play better footy but your value to the team improves because of the way you lead.

Some players who are given the responsibility of leadership thrive straight away – it sits well on their shoulders. Witness Jobe Watson’s form at Essendon, or Scott Pendlebury’s at Collingwood this year, or even Nathan Jones at Melbourne and Callan Ward at GWS. Their stats are way up since they became skipper.

Yet for other players, it becomes a burden and can be quite debilitating, physically and mentally.

Injury can be a great captain killer.

Andrew Swallow has been out for eight months with a serious Achilles injury; Adelaide’s Nathan van Berlo is suffering a similar problem, while Phil Davis at GWS copped a kidney injury earlier this year.

They will have spent a lot of time in rehab away from the rest of the group. That leads to a feeling of separation, of not being part of the action. So they need to stay in touch with their teammates as much as possible, keep giving voice and direction at training, and portray a type of confidence even though inside they’ll probably be feeling as vulnerable as anyone.

That’s what good captains do, they put on a brave face even when they’re feeling down and making no clear progress with their injury, or when they might be having personal problems, or when their club is in the middle of a big controversy.

When Essendon was hit by the supplements scandal last year, Jobe Watson – and others – saved the joint from falling apart by showing outstanding leadership. His form wasn’t affected and, more than that, he showed great calmness in the middle of a crisis that might have ruined a younger captain. Which is remarkable given Jobe’s only in his fourth year.

To me, these are some of the key points about leadership and captaincy:

• Winning the respect of your peers, and having the ability to galvanise the playing group.

• Not putting yourself above anyone and always being approachable.

• Standing up in a crisis – on and off the field.

• Leading by example. That might be in the way you train and prepare for games; it might be being a good listener, being tapped into the mood of the group.

• Making the team your No.1 priority.

I played under Mark Ricciuto when I moved to Adelaide and I thought he was a great captain – strong and decisive.

Whenever the Brisbane Lions needed a special effort, Michael Voss was the go-to man. He seemed to say to his players, get behind me and I’ll get you over the line. That was never more evident than the closing moments of the 2002 grand final when he willed his team to victory.

Paul Kelly and Gavin Brown were similar types of captains: not too loud or demonstrative but hugely effective in the way they led by example. Which of their teammates would ever think about taking a short step after seeing those two play so fearlessly?

As an outsider, who’s not privy to the inner sanctum at each club, here’s how I’d categorise the current crop of captains, in terms of their personality traits and style of leadership:

THE BIG SIX

The proven leaders

Joel Selwood (Geel), Luke Hodge (Haw), Gary Ablett (GC), Jobe Watson (Ess), Nick Riewoldt (St K), Matthew Pavlich (Frem)

THE QUIET ACHIEVERS

Actions speak louder than words

Trent Cotchin (Rich), Marc Murphy (Carl), Scott Pendlebury (Coll), Ryan Griffen (WB)

THE BLUE COLLAR BRIGADE

Captains who aren’t their club’s star players

Phil Davis (GWS), Jack Grimes (Melb), Darren Glass (WC), Andrew Swallow (NM), Jarrad McVeigh (Syd), Nathan van Berlo (Adel), Jed Adcock (BL)

THE IN-AND-UNDER MEN

Leading from the bottom of a pack

Travis Boak (PA), Nathan Jones (Melb), Kieren Jack (Syd), Callan Ward (GWS)

8 comments so far

  • I don't know, and have never met, Joel Selwood, but whatever he asked me to do, I'd do it. Without question. I watched him after the Collingwood game and he went up to all the young Cats and gave them a hug and a pat on the back as they walked down the race and you could tell they felt the same way I do. As hard as this is to say, maybe only Hodge comes close in terms of leadership

    Commenter
    Ade
    Date and time
    April 17, 2014, 8:52PM
    • "I don't know and have never met Joel Selwood but whatever he asked me to do I would do it. Without question." This gem could only be found in the sport section.

      Commenter
      Barry
      Date and time
      April 18, 2014, 7:19AM
      • Being a captain is not a burden. It's an honour. Football needs to get over itself, the so called 'burden' and struggle these players face pales in comparison to what some people face in the real world. Buy a dictionary and tell us what its really like.

        Commenter
        sue
        Date and time
        April 18, 2014, 9:21AM
        • How would assessing the nature of a dictionary contribute to your argument?

          Commenter
          Roosy
          Date and time
          April 18, 2014, 10:29AM
        • Not sure what you mean Sue, however, one can download a free dictionary app these days if that's any help.

          Commenter
          Barry
          Date and time
          April 20, 2014, 10:49AM
      • Unlike the author, many of these players are inspirational both on, and OFF, the field. I wouldn't go calling Pendlebury a quiet achiever though. He stands out every game he plays!

        Commenter
        Nick
        Date and time
        April 18, 2014, 9:25AM
        • Gary Ablett is a very brave man playing on in his condition.

          Commenter
          Barry
          Date and time
          April 18, 2014, 10:08AM
          • Joel Selwood speaking to the entire Geelong team in the race after 1/2 time in the 09 grand final stands out to me. Tom Harley was still captain, but you could tell this kid was a born leader. Inspirational stuff.

            Commenter
            RONOSON
            Date and time
            April 18, 2014, 2:13PM

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