England play the first competitive match of the post-Wayne Rooney era on Sunday, with a determination that the absence of their captain should not mean an absence of leadership across the whole squad.
Joe Hart will wear the armband at Wembley against Lithuania, an appropriate choice as the most experienced international player in the group. With Jordan Henderson injured and Gary Cahill suspended there was no other plausible choice.
But this does not mean that we are entering the era of the Hart captaincy. Gareth Southgate wants to dilute our national obsession with the England armband and understandably so. Southgate wants leadership from throughout his whole team and thinks that putting one chosen player on that pedestal can do more harm than good.
Hart threw himself behind Southgate’s new policy when he spoke on Friday afternoon, saying that “there are different ways to lead”, hoping that every player would lead in his own way against Lithuania.
“The manager has made it pretty clear it’s just an armband to him,” Hart said. “He wants the players, be it Marcus Rashford or myself, to lead. There are different ways to lead. Not just being vocal or having a certain amount of caps. There’s being brave, making decisions, there’s how you are in meetings. There are different ways of leading. The captain’s armband is important, but with or without it he expects the same of all of us.”
That attitude is certainly a departure from the old way of doing things, although not necessarily a bad one. It was the obsession with the captaincy, after all, that caused so many problems for Fabio Capello at the start of this decade. It was an argument about John Terry that eventually forced Capello’s resignation.
Hart grew up in that England environment but he pointed out the fact that in international football, captaincy matters even less than it does in club football, where there are more organisational duties incumbent upon the main man. Clubs need club captains far more than national sides do, and Hart hit upon an important distinction.
“I think it’s important [to see] that, when you look at clubs, sometimes the club captain isn’t necessarily involved [in the team],” Hart said, when asked about Rooney. “Maybe at clubs it is more important because it’s [about] organising and stuff like that.”
Hart knows that Jordan Henderson is likely to be England captain for the internationals against Scotland and France in June, if he recovers from injury and returns to the Liverpool side over the rest of the season. But ultimately it does not matter to Southgate whether it is Henderson, Hart or Cahill who leads his team out for the rest of the campaign or even in Russia. It is performances and results that matter and it might be that taking the armband off the pedestal, as Southgate intends, could have a positive impact on both.
“When we’re here, Wayne is our captain, the England captain,” Hart said. “And when he’s not here, you’d probably say Jordan and then it moves down from there. But like I say, the main thing is to win the games, qualify for the tournament and do well in the tournament.”