The curtain has fallen on Steven Gerrard’s career as England captain, but nobody appears ready to take centre stage in his place. That’s how it appears from outside St George’s Park as Roy Hodgson decides who will be next to wear the armband – post-Golden Generation, natural leaders in the England squad are few and far between.
It wasn’t always like this. England fans are known for their red-and-white-tinted spectacles, but past squads have given their managers far less of a headache than the one Hodgson must be nursing. When a tearful David Beckham resigned as England captain following the 2006 World Cup defeat to Portugal, the natural successor was John Terry, captain of the domestic champions and an outstanding centre-half with fine long-term international prospects.
And, distracting though it was, Fabio Capello’s pass-the-armband routine at least highlighted the number of leaders England had at their disposal. Terry. Frank Lampard, his Chelsea vice-captain. Rio Ferdinand. And, of course, Steven Gerrard.
Stuart Pearce and Scott Parker might have something to say about the legitimacy of Gerrard’s original claim to the captaincy, but while other England veterans – Terry, Ashley Cole – fell by the wayside, Gerrard trudged onwards to Brazil 2014, the grizzled warhorse amid the coltish young guns on whom Hodgson’s hopes now rest.
And who will succeed him is anyone’s guess. Lampard may not yet have retired from England duty, but a 36-year-old winding down his career in the United States is not a realistic option. Nor is Jack Wilshere, whose fragile ankles have prevented him from nailing down his place in England’s midfield, despite his obvious ability.
Joe Hart must be a contender – the Man City number one has now racked up 43 caps, and at 27, has his best years ahead of him. But he’s second fiddle to Vincent Kompany at his club, and after last season’s wobbles, ought to be casting nervous glances over his shoulder at the hulking figure of Fraser Forster, underappreciated outside Scotland but a potential threat to Hart’s England place.
Wayne Rooney, with 95 caps, 40 goals and five international tournaments to his name, is likely to be in the frame. His coveting of the Manchester United captaincy is no secret, although he looks set to be passed up in favour of Robin van Persie by new manager Louis van Gaal. But doubts remain over the Merseysider’s maturity. In dancing to the tune of belligerent agent Paul Stretford, Rooney may have secured two vast contracts with United, but lost much respect in the game. After the foul-mouthed outburst at England fans at the 0-0 draw with Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, Rooney cannot draw on enormous reserves of fan support either, although questions over his temperament seem to be resolved.
Gary Cahill and Jordan Henderson have also been posited as potential England captains. Cahill, 28, will be the bedrock of England’s defence for the foreseeable future, perhaps alongside Everton’s John Stones, but hasn’t been in the squad for long, and is not in a position of leadership at Chelsea. Henderson has captained England under-21s, but, again, has few caps for the senior side, and despite dramatic improvements over the last twelve months, may not find himself in Hodgson’s starting XI come October.
Why is there this dearth of leaders? It’s partly a natural consequence of the completion of a cycle, with the disappearance of players like Gerrard and Lampard creating a vacuum of experience. The lack of English players at top clubs is another factor. There are few English winners of the Champions League still in the frame, with all due respect to Ryan Bertrand, and few with the experience of representing a top club for more than a couple of years.
The best option? Perhaps Joe Hart, for now, the City keeper providing a safe pair of hands in more ways than one. But an opportunity beckons for this young England side – to become leaders together. Wilshere can stake his claim to the Arsenal captaincy over the next few years if he does his talent justice. The winding-down of Gerrard’s Liverpool career offers Henderson the chance to run the Kop’s midfield. Gary Cahill will continue his steady performances at the back for Chelsea and England. If it’s true that the focus on the man wearing the armband is frivolous, then it’s up to the rest of the team to show why.