Professional captains: Men who were better leaders than players

Tom Clarke Roar Rookie

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    Luke Hodge is perhaps the most celebrated AFL captain of the past decade. This week he announced his retirement from the game after 16 years in the AFL and seven years as captain of Hawthorn Hawks.

    Despite being the number one pick in the 2001 ‘SuperDraft’, ahead of legends such as Chris Judd and Gary Ablett Jr, Hodge’s legacy will not be his footballing ability but rather his inspirational leadership.

    Where Judd and Ablett will be remembered as brilliant footballers and multiple Brownlow winners, it was as a club captain that Hodge truly made his mark on the game.

    Hodge is a member of a fascinating category of sportsperson: those who will be remembered as greats not for their athletic ability or incredible skill, but for their achievements as captains and leaders. This article is a celebration of Hodge and other ‘professional captains’ in Australian sports over the past decade.

    Luke Hodge – Hawthorn Hawks
    Luke Hodge was a talented footballer, and he will be remembered as a Hawthorn legend and a champion of the modern era. But his reputation was forged not as a supreme athlete or footballing genius, but rather as the inspirational captain of the three-peat Hawks. Between 2011 and 2016, Hodge captained the Hawks for over 120 games.

    He was renowned for his toughness and his ability to rise to an occasion. Perhaps the best indicator of Hodge’s legacy is the fact that he was never a contender for the Brownlow, but won two Norm Smith Medals for best on ground in grand finals.

    Nick Maxwell – Collingwood Magpies
    Nick Maxwell was perhaps the ultimate professional captain. Maxwell was not a special footballer. He didn’t possess elite talent, exceptional speed or a brilliant kick. But he captained the Magpies from 2009 until handing the reigns to Scott Pendlebury in 2013.

    He will always be remembered as the man who captained Collingwood to their historic premiership in 2010, leading the side to victory following the controversial drawn grand final a week earlier. Since retirement he has served as a leadership consultant to the Melbourne Storm and now the GWS Giants.

    George Bailey – Australian cricket team
    Bailey was a highly controversial selection when he was chosen for his debut Twenty/20 match in 2012. Not because he didn’t deserve selection – Bailey was a talented batsman for Tasmania – but because he became the first Australian to captain team in his debut international match.

    Bailey remained in the role of designated captain in limited overs matches until 2015, Bailey often seemingly chosen for his leadership and tactical nous rather than his cricket ability (very rare in a sport where the captain is usually just the best batsman).

    George Bailey of Australia

    (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

    Ben Hornby – St George Illawarra Dragons
    Hornby came into the NRL as a reliable but unspectacular fullback. However, under Wayne Bennett’s coaching he flourished, as captain and halfback of a team defined by reliability and toughness.

    Ben Hornby didn’t make mistakes, and neither did his team, as they followed his example all the way to a premiership and World Club Challenge win. The St George Illawarra Dragons of 2010 were not a spectacular team, but they ground their way to victory on the back of classy, no-nonsense, mistake-free football.

    Hornby is the personification of this team: unmemorable, perhaps even boring, but highly effective.

    Jarrod McVeigh – Sydney Swans
    Jarrod McVeigh has a been a key member of the Sydney Swans since his debut in 2004, but has often been overlooked in front of more his high profile teammates such as Adam Goodes, Brett Kirk, Lance Franklin, Josh Kennedy and many others.

    He has only been All Australian once and is rarely in the conversation come awards season. Rather, McVeigh made his mark on the AFL as a leader, captaining the Swans from 2011 to 2016, lifting the trophy in 2012 after a fantastic individual performance.

    Kurt Gidley – Newcastle Knights, New South Wales Blues
    Kurt Gidley was an incredibly versatile player, capable of all over the park without ever being the best at one position – very much a “jack of all trades, master of none” type football player.

    However, he made his mark as a club legend of the Newcastle Knights, captaining the club for 123 games between 2008 and 2015, including a spirited run to the semi-finals in 2013.

    Gidley also captained the NSW Blues in five State of Origin games. Famously, Gidley was such a good leader that he was retained as captain of the Blues despite coming off the reserve bench – the only player in Origin history to achieve such a feat.

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