Handing the captaincy of a football team to a striker is always a big call. There are not too many of them. One exception has been the captain of England. And that continues to be controversial enough, even allowing for Wayne Rooney’s drift to a deeper role.
It can be a bit like handing your best player the role in cricket. The job is more important in that sport, of course, but the star player is often far from the best leader. Ian Botham? Kevin Pietersen?
Another flaw is that, apart from form being affected, the manager can be confronted occasionally with having to drop his top performer or match-winner.
If he also happens to be the captain, what then?
It’s why I was surprised and had initial reservations when Chris Wilder made Billy Sharp captain at the outset of his Sheffield United reign. This was symbolic of a new era, a move that acknowledged a popular and committed player. And naturally it went down well.
But what if Chris ever had to drop Billy? Would it make it harder to do so? That’s where I wondered whether the move might rebound. But Wilder is too experienced not to have factored that scenario into his thinking. And the conclusion has to be that he was prepared to be brave enough to make that decision if necessary.
Presumably, Sharp himself will have bought into this. Which is why I had slightly baited breath checking Wilder’s team selection for the home game with Oxford nearly a fortnight ago. Changes were in the air, especially up front. Sharp, in common with others, had yet to cover himself in glory amid a poor start to the season.
In the end, Wilder omitted his strike partner, Leon Clarke. Cop out? Not if you know the manager. And besides – this is important – Sharp duly scored in overturning a deficit as United finally put their first win on the board to immense relief and elation all round. And he was on the mark again, albeit with a penalty, after spearheading the excellent 2-1 victory at Gillingham that gives United further impetus.
What if Billy hadn’t netted? What if the Blades had lost that first game? Both irrelevant questions in the circumstances, even if worth considering. Wilder’s selection worked. Another time he might decide differently, which is where the question of the captaincy being an unnecessary risk would probably be raised.
But let’s not forget Sharp has been dropped before and responded vigorously, as per last season under Nigel Adkins. He is more than a bustling, effective striker; also a team man and club man.
Having thought the whole thing through, from that early raising of an eyebrow, I’m wondering if the gamble can prove a masterstroke.
At 30 and with two quicker players (Matt Done and now Caolan Lavery) pushing for the place alongside, plus Leon Clarke in competition, Sharp will be pushed to be an automatic starter throughout the season.
As former Blades defender and Star columnist Kevin Gage points out: “Nothing lasts forever. Billy’s not going to get any fitter or quicker. It’s about impact players and, sometimes, impact substitutes.
“There may be times when Billy doesn’t start and instead comes on to be his lively self to make an impact that way. But, either way, Billy’s always going to get goals.”
And, with three to his name already, it’s clearly a matter of pride for the skipper to keep leading from the front.