O Captain, My Captain

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With today’s announcement that Gianluca Havern has left AFC Telford United I am bidding farewell, in football terms at least, to someone who helped provide me with a terrific insight into the mind of a sportsman at close hand. Because of the relationship that developed between us, I am naturally sad to see him move on, and as the first club captain on whose programme notes I collaborated, he will always occupy a special place in my memories.

Having thrown my hat into the ring to write content for the club’s programme last summer, I was told that it was usual to assist the captain in writing his regular column. It wasn’t clear at the time who the captain would be; manager Rob Smith hadn’t yet made a decision, but it was strongly rumoured that Luca would be the man handed the armband. After the club’s final pre-season game, and with one week before the start of the National League North season, I took a seat in the Sir Stephen Roberts Stand to gather Luca’s thoughts on being named captain, along with his hopes for the season. We were both in unfamiliar roles, and my own learning curve in the first few weeks of the season was a steep one. Initially, I was interviewing Luca straight after games, but before long, and to allow him some time to wind down after matches, we would speak in midweek. Don’t be under any illusions that what appears on the page aren’t the captain’s own thoughts and opinions, because they are; my role is merely to give them some structure and flow.

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A few occurrences in early season helped me get some measure of Luca; ahead of a game with Stockport County, one of his former teams, I had been unable to speak to him, so drafted some notes to meet the deadline. It was only after they had been sent to the printers that Luca asked if I could remove a reference I had made to one of the County forwards. I let him know it wasn’t, and he didn’t seem to mind too much, but I realised my error. By mentioning the player’s name the notes could have suggested that Luca had the opponent on his mind, and he didn’t want to give him any psychological advantage. The penny dropped, and it made a metaphorical ‘clank’ as it hit the empty pit that was my stomach, in realisation of my error. I love sports, but I have little or no sporting ability, hence I’ve never been competitive at sport. Why would I be? My lack of ability would render it a waste of time. Luca was and is a different breed to me; he plays because he’s good, and because he likes to win, and that incident illustrated it to me in a way that I’ve never experienced before; it was genuinely eye-opening.

A couple of days after the Stockport game the Bucks took a point in a 1-1 draw on Bank Holiday Monday at Nuneaton Town. It wasn’t a great performance, but it meant the team were unbeaten in four matches. Luca and I spoke at pitchside, and I’ll be honest and say I knew what I was saying when I asked him if he was happy with the sequence of results. I can remember his answer almost word-for word:

“Not really, no. I’m quite a serious guy, and I like to win”.

That was never more evident when the Bucks went out of the FA Cup in September, Worcester City inflicting a 3-1 home defeat. I wanted to reflect the midweek game in the programme for our Saturday fixture, four days later. However, the defeat clearly hurt Luca and the team. I waited outside the dressing room; when he finally emerged, Luca’s long, dark hair was still wet from the post-game showers and he had his bag slung over his shoulder, head down. He looked up and I caught his eye, hoping to talk, but his disappointment was written large across his face as he said “Sorry, not tonight mate” in his distinctive Manchester accent. I understood completely; conducting a post-mortem was the last thing he needed, and with the journey back home to negotiate too I simply nodded, smiled and let him pass by. We did get his notes written the following day, but the evidence of those words about winning were never more obvious to me than on that night.

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As the season progressed I got to share in the highs and lows of the campaign, and no-one can really contest that there were more lows than highs. Luca was frank about the team’s failings, but always looked for positives. People in sport need to be able to draw a line under their disappointments and look ahead, to absorb the lessons from loss and move on, and I saw that very clearly from our regular conversations. He was quick to accept responsibility when two cautions earned him a dismissal against Gainsborough Trinity, turning the tide of a match which the Bucks led, but eventually only drew. He scored but a single goal for the club, heading the equaliser at Worcester City in November, and although his form did dip it would equally be as fair to say that if he played well then the team invariably did too. Standing out amongst his performances, he restricted AFC Fylde goal machine Danny Rowe to feeding off crumbs in a 1-1 draw in February, and also played terrifically in the 1-1 draw at Stockport County in April.

Later on in the season, for the visit of his former team Altrincham, we sat and talked at more length about his football career, his family and life away from football. It was one of my favourite player interviews of the season, and allowed me to find out more about him as a person than as a footballer, which is what I aim for with all of my programme interviews; to help people get a sense of the players as people.

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Luca collected the club management’s player of the season award, and manager Rob Smith summed his contribution up when, before announcing his name, he simply said “He’s been a man for me”. It was a tough season, of that there is no doubt, but when Luca issued a brief statement upon his departure, thanking the club’s management and fans, there was no doubt for me that he meant every word. I think he learnt a lot from this season, and I know that in helping Luca in some small way that I learned a lot from him too.

Thanks Luca.

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All photo credits: Tim Roberts https://www.flickr.com/photos/afctu/

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