Professional captains: Men who were better leaders than players

Tom Clarke Roar Pro

By Tom Clarke, Tom Clarke is a Roar Pro

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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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    The Crowd Says (12)

    • Roar Guru

      July 14th 2017 @ 9:33am
      Penster said | July 14th 2017 @ 9:33am | ! Report

      Jarrod McVeigh, very good player, won a grand final as captain of the Swans, but he’s never struck me as an inspirational leader of any note. His pathetic performance in the 2014 grand final put paid to such claims. Not a captain, but I’d have Adam Goodes well ahead of McVeigh for standing up when it mattered.

      • July 14th 2017 @ 10:04am
        jacques of Lilydale said | July 14th 2017 @ 10:04am | ! Report

        Hodge had unbelievable skills, a laser like left foot kick, an ability to turn the game at clutch moments and an on field leadership skill set every team would die for. McVeigh name shouldn’t even be in the same article.

        • Roar Pro

          July 14th 2017 @ 10:41am
          Tom Clarke said | July 14th 2017 @ 10:41am | ! Report

          Hodge is undoubtedly the most talented athlete on this list, but I maintain he was a better captain than he was a player and that leadership and toughness were his most important attributes on the field.

          Realistically, there were times when Hodge wouldn’t have been a top 5 player at his club, let alone in the league, but he’ll still be remembered as a legend because of his success as a captain.

      • July 14th 2017 @ 11:33am
        Birdman said | July 14th 2017 @ 11:33am | ! Report

        Nah, I understand the desire to frame a convenient narrative for this article, but McVeigh and Maxwell are not in Hodge’s weight division as either a player or leader.

        • July 14th 2017 @ 1:21pm
          Jim said | July 14th 2017 @ 1:21pm | ! Report

          Agree with that Birdman – Brett Kirk would be a more obvious choice in my opinion than Jarred McVeigh.

    • July 14th 2017 @ 10:12am
      Tony Tea said | July 14th 2017 @ 10:12am | ! Report

      Where’s Mike Brearley, the captain of the professional captains?

      • Roar Pro

        July 14th 2017 @ 10:37am
        Tom Clarke said | July 14th 2017 @ 10:37am | ! Report

        Brearley certainly fits the mould of a “professional captain”, but I had to limit the list somewhere – Australians from the past decade is where I ended up

    • July 14th 2017 @ 10:18am
      Bassgumby25 said | July 14th 2017 @ 10:18am | ! Report

      Whilst outside of time parameters – John Eales.

      Concur with other comments – Hodgey is without doubt in my mind one of the best skippers ever, but to suggest that his ‘Field Marshall’ role is not closely backed by his skill, tenacity and toughness to be compared to NM is ludicrous. His career vindicates his #1 ahead of the other two superstars.

    • July 14th 2017 @ 2:06pm
      Stewie said | July 14th 2017 @ 2:06pm | ! Report

      Would’ve had Brett Kirk ahead of *Jarrad McVeigh. “Captain Kirk” wasn’t a particularly good player when he started, having been plucked off the rookie draft, but became his best as a tagger. He wasn’t the best tackler in the team (Hey Jude Bolton), wasn’t an accumulator, wasn’t especially accurate with disposal, didn’t overly affect the goalkicking table, but always gave 130%, and was generally well liked by every AFL fan while he was playing. Classic of the Bloods culture.

    • July 14th 2017 @ 6:09pm
      Matt said | July 14th 2017 @ 6:09pm | ! Report

      George Bailey was an exceptional talent in the short form games and one of the most devastating hitters period. All the AFL players you mentioned were very talented players. Hodge is often in Hawthorn’s best, even now. Better player overall than Ball and Judd (though Judd at his very best was better), but not a shadow on Ablett Jr.

    • Roar Pro

      July 14th 2017 @ 8:12pm
      Andrew Macdougall said | July 14th 2017 @ 8:12pm | ! Report

      From an AFL perspective I would probably throw Tom Harley into the conversation. While not necessarily a great player – he was very good – he was probably much better as a leader.

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