By Ernie Fox
A few months ago it looked a formality, with Gerrard announcing his departure Jordan Henderson seemed to have successfully stepped into the position as vice captain. He was the ideal replacement for our Captain Fantastic, running things from the middle of the park, his enthusiasm and work rate were perfect examples for the younger generation. Results from January were going our way and there was even discussion as to whether Gerrard would regain his position when he returned from injury.
If a week is a long time in football, so five months is almost equivalent to an eternity. Results and performances trailed off following a decent unbeaten run in the league and Henderson’s claim as natural successor to the throne of Steven Gerrard doesn’t appear so clear cut as it once was.
Let’s put it into facts; Brendan Rodgers’ position was under much scrutiny come the end of the season especially after the humiliating defeat to Stoke, but it would seem that following his end of season review, FSG have stuck with the Northern Irishman. That surely raises the question of who succeeds Gerrard. Maybe I’m just being impatient but it seems to me that Rodgers has had a significant amount of time to choose a replacement to take over the captain’s armband, I would have thought he would only too keen to put the last couple of months behind him by looking to the future. Announcing a new club captain would surely do that, ushering in a new era of the club and as most expect Henderson to take on that mantle it would surely be appropriate for that announcement to be made sooner rather than later.
And yet there is delay. Liverpool have already begun to invest into the transfer market, albeit a month before it officially opens, so there can be no suggestion that such a delay is owing to the club taking stock of their situation before moving forwards. Decisions such as these are often critical in declaring the club’s intentions for the future, so when there is an unexplained delay you can’t help but wonder whether there is a reason behind it.
There are currently a lack of natural leaders in the Liverpool squad, and when you start to delve amongst those who may fit the bill it becomes even harder to find one suitable of being named Liverpool captain. To my mind the most obvious challengers to Henderson’s claim would be Emre Can, Adam Lallana or Martin Skrtel, however there are issues on all fronts. Although Can looks very likely to be a Reds captain for the future, he is going and inexperienced in the Premier League as all as leaving in understanding of the club and it’s traditions. He has also demonstrated incredible versatility in his first season in England but this versatility means he has been played out of position a lot and so is still establishing himself as a regular member of the starting eleven let alone taking on the responsibility of leading the side out to battle.
Likewise Lallana has had a mixed first season at Anfield, he has proven his ability to lead having done so effectively with Southampton the year before but this is a very different prospect. His performances improved over the course of the season but with the arrival of new faces in the summer, I’m not sure whether he has a long term future at the club. After all, in amongst all the young members of the squad, Lallana was one of those players that had the opportunity to stand up and prove his worth when the team needed a leader, but he failed to achieve that with a number of inconsistent performances throughout the season that were nowhere near to the standard we were hoping for from an established Premier League play maker.
That leaves us with Skrtel or Henderson. Initially I would have felt quite confident in Skrtel’s credentials, his history with the club and strength of character would be great to lead Rodgers’ young squad forwards but the recent breakdown in contract negotiations seem to quash that theory. At 29 he has reportedly been offered a contract with pay based on appearances, I can understand his annoyance at such an offer as that is usually the kind of thing a club offers a player coming to the end of his career, not one who has reached his peak years of 27-30. The fact is that if Rodgers was planning to offer the prestigious role of Liverpool captain to the defender, you would imagine a slightly more complimentary offer would be made as part of the contract negotiations. Therefore I suspect that Skrtel is unlikely to be handed the armband.
With those other suggestions dismissed, Henderson would seem to be the only remaining choice. James Milner would be a possible outside bet, although having just joined the club I fail to see how he would be in a position to lead out the side and represent us in the way the captain needs to. It’s not a complete impossibility, but if Milner has a chance then theoretically any new signing could give the role a go. We could be up guessing right until the transfer window closes.
Returning to Henderson, it’s not just the delay in his appointment that causes me to question whether he will become the long term successor to Stevie G. There is a question as to whether he is up to the challenge, much like the rest of the team his performance levels declined dramatically as the season drew to a close, he certainly couldn’t be credited with putting in the type of Captain performances that that would drag our struggling team through the difficult times, the type of performances that made Gerrard a legend.
There is also the matter of whether Henderson fits into Rodgers’ plans at all. Henderson is a central midfielder, although he was played out of position as a right sided wing back on a number of occasions it was out of necessity and could hardly be described as a huge success. Added to that is the signing of James Milner and likely addition of Mateo Kovacic from Inter. Milner made it quite clear that he wanted to leave Man City to play in his favoured central midfield position, he even took a pay cut from what City offered him to join Liverpool, therefore I suspect part of the negotiation involved him being offered the opportunity to play in the centre of the park, I hardly think he will be too receptive to the idea of being thrown back out onto the wing to make way for Jordan Henderson whether he is named captain or not.
Milner and Henderson could play alongside one another, but what about Kovacic? Perhaps as a youngster Kovacic will be sidelined until he is ready to take over in the middle of the pitch. It is possible that Milner and Kovacic are a combined replacement for Gerrard covering both short term and long term, but with the reported fee for Kovacic likely to be in the region of 18 million, it is hard to imagine that FSG would sanction such a signing to sit on the bench as a squad player, especially having spent so much last summer on a host of squad players in that situation and reaping very little reward for the effort.
Therefore Rodgers (or FSG) appear to see the midfield as a priority for repair. If Henderson was pivitol to Rodgers’ plans we wouldn’t be talking about Milner and Kovacic so early in the proceedings.
The trouble in selecting a Captain is that the last one left such an incredible void to fill; let’s make no mistake filling the shoes of Steven Gerrard was never going to be easy for any player, and with Liverpool’s squad averaging out as the second youngest in the entire Premier League the challenge is that much harder. But this delay in appointing Henderson surely demonstrates that there is doubt in his ability to lead despite the lack of alternatives.
There is one other possibility. FSG have already exercised their muscle over Rodgers in dismissing Pascoe and Marsh from the coaching staff, who’s to say they will not have some input on who they believe should lead the club as captain. It is a scary thought to my mind, but there is a strong possibility that the likes of FSG would rather the captain be more marketable, a ready made superstar who will help to sell the Liverpool brand name on the global market as opposed to one who will necessarily lead the players on the pitch.
I have no internal sources, so perhaps I am doing FSG an injustice to suggest they are only interested in the financial turnover of the club, but so far they have failed to disprove that theory as far as I’m concerned. All the rumours of new signings is all very positive about the direction of the club, that next season we might return to the kind of performance levels we saw last year, but surely the first thing the club needs is stability, leadership and direction which comes internally. Sure let’s bring in some great new players when the window opens, but I can’t help but feel suspicious of FSG’s intentions and even a little nervous at the direction we are heading highlighted by the club’s failure to appoint a new captain. I hope I’m wrong.
Written by Ernie Fox