Bill On... Why We Hate Wales

As we build up to another Hiberno-Welsh Six Nations clash this coming weekend, it’s worth exploring just why the animosity seems to run so deep between these two nations. The mugging in the 2011 Rugby World Cup Quarter Final. Warren Gatland’s dropping of Brian O’Driscoll on the 2013 Lions Tour of Australia. Neil Taylor’s horror tackle on Seamus Coleman. Brexit. These are just some of the recent incidents in the narrative of Ireland’s simmering rivalry with the Pricipality of Wales.

In the Six Nations era, Ireland have arguably been the tournaments most consistent team. Certainly, since the year 2000, Ireland’s lows have not been nearly as low as those of Wales. In total Ireland have won 10 more games, have a healthier aggregate points difference to the tune of 422, have scored 38 more tries and have never finished bottom of the table. (Wales received the wooden spoon in 2003). The provincial professional game is the picture of stability relative to our welsh neighbours, whose regions seem to have, for most of their existence, lurched from crisis to crisis off the pitch and underperformance to underperformance on it.

So why does it feel like three titles (2009, 2014, 2015), one grand slam (2009) and four triple crowns is a poor return when compared to the Welsh haul over the same period. Four times champions since the turn of the century (2005, 2008, 2012, 2013), Wales crucially recorded three clean sweeps over that period. They have been the masters of seizing their opportunities.

Ultimately, if Irish rugby fans are to be truly honest with themselves, they may conclude that this feeling of hatred towards Wales comes down to a mixture of jealousy (at the Welsh ability to take their chances) and self-loathing, directed at Ireland’s relative inability to convert our consistency into something more than our current unfounded feeling of superiority.

The real narrative from the Six Nations era is that it is not ok that it took the Irish “golden generation” until 2009 to win a Grand Slam. And in accepting that point, the real question to be asked is how exactly a country who’s professional game has been in tatters almost from its inception still managed to replicate the grand slam haul of the famed Welsh sides of the 1970s?

We hate them because this paradox co-exists happily in the Welsh psyche. They are both weighted down by the burden of expectation, yet in the carrying of it, seem to be freed to achieve. They are equal parts pragmatic and adventurous, tough and touchy, metronomic yet balletic. We hate them because they have a rugby culture that allows them access to a gear Irish teams don’t seem to posesss. And that makes them easy to hate.

Bill On... The Case for Conservative Selection

In the aftermath of Ireland’s dramatic feat of escapology in their 6 nations opener in Paris last Saturday, I made the point to my father that, surely now, Ireland full back Rob Kearney had run his last race as an international rugby player.

Kearney’s performance featured a number of errors both under high balls and in defence. The very features of his game that his supporters point to as mitigants to the fact that he long ago ceased being an effective attacking force. It’s fairly self-evident that when a player starts failing at the things they’re supposedly good at, then they are on borrowed time. If Leinster selection is anything to go by, Leo Cullen seems to see this point. Joe Schmidt? Not so much.

Joe is not alone, as at the very least, my Dad seems to agree with him. “You can count on one hand the amount of mistakes Rob Kearney has made in a green shirt” was the essence of his argument. A fairly reasonable point. It might even be a factually accurate point (novel in this day and age). But It’s not the assertion itself I have an issue with, it’s what it signifies that is the problem. It’s what it says about the general attitude and approach to the game. Not making mistakes doesn’t translate to points on the board and the last time I checked this is still the measure by which games are won and lost.

And so, when it comes to the team selection of the Ireland national rugby union team, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am very much a populist. I always seem to want the form players picked, regardless of whether they’ve been through what might be objectively considered an appropriate period of test match preparation. Continuing in this vein of self-reflection, I will also admit that this viewpoint is primarily selfish in that I want the team to be as exciting as possible when in possession of the ball and if tries are to be scored, let them be beautiful swashbuckling tries, filled with intelligence, invention, trickery and guile. After 5 years of Joe Schmidt’s coaching tenure, I am only too painfully aware that this view is not shared by the man from Manuwatu.

Now the state of Italian rugby is such that it may provide Joe Schmidt with the opportunity, once a year in a Six Nations season, to throw a few bones to the masses in terms of team selection. It’s a small gesture that gives the supporter base the illusion that the coach values their collective opinion. We roll over and have our bellies tickled. But we’d be wrong to think it is any kind of signal that Joe Schmidt has a change in team philosophy in mind.

Italy scored three second half tries yesterday in what was otherwise a thumping Ireland win. Were it not for Keith Earls 60+ yard tracking defensive effort the home side may have embarrassingly conceded a try bonus to a team that has won one 6 nations game in 4 seasons. Two of those tries came from young, inexperienced and wildly popular selections making defensive mistakes. Dan Leavy (6 caps) got absolutely roasted in midfield and, the 2017/18 populist selection cause celebre, Jordan Larmour, was all at sea in defending an Italian counter attack.

From his own perspective, it was surely a win-win-win for Joe Schmidt. His team have won the game, he has given the people what they want (Jordan Larmour has an international cap after all) but he’s also had his own worldview reconfirmed. Mistake free play may not win games, but mistakes do have a cost. Conceding junk time tries against Italy is costly when you’re trying to build an aura of invincibility, trying to intimidate teams coming to Dublin, trying to recapture a Six Nations title, trying to win a world cup.

The issue remains one not of selection, but of the manner in which these ambitions can and will be fulfilled. For this coach knows but one way, the mistake-free way.

Bill On... Brady's Back-ups

During the 1990s, Quarterback Drew Bledsoe was the face of the New England Patriots franchise. The first pick in the 1993 NFL draft, a class that featured future hall of famers Michael Strahan and Jerome Bettis, Bledsoe helped revive the hapless Patriots and brought them to their 2nd SuperBowl appearance in 1996. Today, the NFL shop still sells a New England throwback jersey of Bledsoe’s and when he retired in 2007 he was fifth all time in pass attempts and completions and seventh in passing yards.

Unfortunately for Drew, his most famous game occurred on the night of 23rd September 2001. With 4’48’’ remaining on the 4th quarter game clock and trailing 10-3 to the Jets, he was replaced under centre by the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, Tom Brady. He had suffered internal bleeding from a gruesome collision with Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. He would never recover the starting job in New England.

What does this have to do with Tom Brady and who will replace him in New England? Well, firstly, Bledsoe deserves to be more than just a footnote in the Tom Brady story. But secondly, and more to the point at hand, the quality of Brady as a backup to Bledsoe may have given us false expectations as to the gems that Bill Belichick might uncover in his search for continuity when the Brady era inevitably ends in Foxboro.

In the last ten years, the question of who will inherit the position of signal-caller in New England has been asked many times. By my count, there have been 13 backups to Brady since the 2002 season. There have been draft picks, established veterans and undrafted free agents.

Damon Huard (2001-03) was famed for his impersonation of Peyton Manning in preparation for crucial games against the Indianapolis Colts. Rohan Davey (2002-04) won a “WorldBowl” with the Berlin Thunder (the title game for the short lived development league, NFL Europe) during his 4 years behind Brady. Veteran Doug Flutie (2005) memorably scored a drop goal in a cameo appearance in 2005. It is Matt Cassel’s (2005-08) term that stands apart as the only backup to have any reasonable amount of playing time throughout Brady’s 17 years in the league. Filling in for virtually the entirety of the 2008 campaign after Brady’s season ending ACL injury, Cassel has gone on to see action in every NFL season since, albeit not wearing Patriot blue.

As time passes the question has become more pressing, and, meticulously healthy lifestyle or no, at 39 years old, Brady’s time at the top will inevitably end sooner rather than later. And so the spotlight has fallen on the backup class of 2016, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. An accomplished road win in Arizona for Garoppolo and a run heavy, yet error free, second half performance against Miami for Brissett haven’t provided the evidence for New England fans to be confident that their post-Brady success is assured. However, while drafting Garoppolo 62nd overall in 2014 and Brissett 91st overall in 2015 doesn’t compare to the 1st round picks expended by the Rams (Jared Goff), the Eagles (Carson Wentz), Colts (Andrew Luck) or countless others in recent years, for the Patriots, Bill Belichick and the 199th pick they spent on Brady, it might just signal that the future is already here.

Bill On... Rebooting the Olympics

It’s dusk on a Thursday and Geoff, Andy and I are at 35,000 feet flying over Syria en route from Amman to Beirut. It’s been the sportsbeef summer hiatus and our minds, and indeed time, have been occupied by anything but sport. The nightlife of Beirut and the Lebanese beach towns of Byblos and Batroun, the sheer scale of Wadi Rum and Petra and particularly our flight over Syria has made the Olympics feel like they are happening on another planet. In attempting to imagine or understand the horrors that were playing out below, my mind turned briefly to the events in Rio and in comparison it seemed ludicrous that these two situations could be occurring at the same time.

We spoke several weeks ago (Episode 37) about the need to stop the Olympics, in their current bloated form at least. Too many concessions have been made to the core Olympic ideals over the years and far too many hardships and hypocrisies have been visited on the people of Rio. The fundamental societal issues in Brazil should not be viewed through the Olympic lens or the country’s performance hosting the games measured against some artificial gold standard that the IOC and the indoctrinated viewing public have developed from Olympic cycle to Olympic cycle.

The writing has been on the wall for a while now. The white elephants remaining after the Athens Games now look like the entire Greek economy in microcosm. The sheer extravagance of Beijing and even the lo-fi nature of the London Games have not come without their hangovers in the form of the sweetheart deal taxpayers are eating for West Ham’s occupancy of the Olympic Stadium and the raft of post facto positive drug tests that have emerged in the wake of the IAAF and Russian doping scandals.

In attempting to reboot the Olympics, it’s worth iterating some fundamental truths. Sport is important exactly because of the situation in Syria. It is a wonderful triviality that reminds us that our nobler pursuits far outnumber, if not outweigh, those who would seek to peddle death, anarchy and corruption. The Olympics are important because they showcase small sports and provide moments in the spotlight for otherwise unheralded athletes from all corners of the world.

So in order to preserve the fortnight long smorgasbord of athletic competition we must unhook it from the factors that have diverted it from the movements’ true path. It needs a permanent home, as was the case for the original games. The opaque nature of the bidding process, the financial and political strain on host cities and the swing towards authoritarian regimes hosting major sporting competitions supports the idea that the current model has a limited remaining lifespan. And it needs to get serious about its approach to countries and athletes proven to be cheating so that when we look at Syria and Rio we don’t see two sides of the same coin but rather the distraction one should provide from the other.

Bill On... England at Major Tournaments

And so there we have it. Monday evening’s 2-1 loss to Iceland marked the saddest chapter yet in the soap opera that is the England national football team at major tournaments. On some level it was inevitable, such has been the decline of a proud footballing nation since the 1966 World Cup victory. Since that day in Wembley 50 years ago, England have won 6 knock out matches at major tournaments against Paraguay (1986 World Cup), Belgium (1990 World Cup), Cameroon (1990 World Cup), Spain (1996 Euros), Denmark (2002 World Cup) and Ecuador (2006 World Cup). Hardly the CV of a pretender to a World or European title.

Fans, media and the football establishment alike can’t reconcile the money in the Premier League with the performance of the national side. And, in my view, this is why a solution hasn’t been reached in the last 30 years. It’s an easy mistake to make, the conflation of the cost of player (or their weekly wage packet) with the value of a player to a team’s objectives. Put more simply, the same beer might cost you £5 in London and £1 in Prague. The value derived is the same, the cost wildly different, driven solely by the market it’s being sold in and with scant regard for the virtues of the product itself. The simple fact is that the Premier League is not the richest League in the world because of English players. It’s richer because of the influence of foreign players and coaches, billionaire (and mainly foreign) owners and benefactors, it’s well-oiled global marketing machine and its more action packed play when compared with other top leagues. English players benefit from this financially, but the national side does not because the quality of home grown talent has not kept pace with the football factories of South America and the big European powers. Illustrated by the ever shrinking percentage of English qualified players appearing in the league.

On ITVs post-match analysis of the Iceland game, Peter Crouch asserted, perhaps simply, that the pressure had gotten to the players. This was roundly rebuked by Alan Shearer on BBC’s Match of the Day, who himself was cut off before delving too deeply into why he thought the Premier League was at the heart of the issues being experienced at international level. But why is the percentage of English qualified players starting in the premier league a big concern when there are leagues all over the continent in which they are free to market their wares? At least until the UKs exit from the EU is formalised.

An anomaly in the last 60 years of English international football is Owen Hargreaves, and specifically his performance in England’s World Cup 2006 quarter final loss to Portugal. He was man of the match that day and was head and shoulders the most influential player on the pitch. Even deep into extra time, he belied his usual deep lying position to continue to drive forward showing the intestinal fortitude and guile to pursue a winner before the penalty shootout. The performance stands out to this day, and in my footballing experience, is one of the greatest by a player on a losing side in a World Cup. When the penalties did arrive, Hargreaves was the only successful England player from the spot. Perhaps it stands out as a performance by an England player for the simple reason that there are few such performances with which to compare. As small a sample size as it is, let’s see what we can learn from it.

Born in Canada, Hargreaves footballing apprenticeship was served in Germany, spending 7 years with Bayern Munich, winning four Bundesliga titles and a Champions League. His modus operandi forged at the biggest club in the country whose football traditions the English most envy and fear. Hargreaves was not the first, British players have done it before, illustrated by the reverence with which Chris Waddle is held in Marseille to this day, the transformation of David Platt after his years in Italy and, though part of an unfancied Welsh side, Gareth Bale’s time in Spain has turned him into a winning machine. He never gives a hint, not even a flicker, that deep down he thinks his team won’t win.

The issue is the insular culture of English football and the insular nature of English footballers. Financial gain is seemingly pursued at the expense of the completion of a footballing education. Players need to broaden their horizons, experience other footballing environments and spend time with players and coaches who consistently win on the international stage. Only by acknowledging this deficit, and working to rectify it, can we expect to see the soap opera ending differently in future tournaments.


Bill On... Being Cristiano Ronaldo

Is there really never an “I” in team? Good teams can be something of an abstract concept, difficult to define, but we think we know one when you see it. However, are we too quick to label a team as bad based on some preconceived notions that a team cannot be good without a mutual respect between its members, underpinned by a certain amount of equality, in order to function correctly?

However, what if there was a situation when teammates weren’t equal? What if there was a situation where teammates were so unequal that what each expects from the other is vastly different from a “usual” team. Couldn’t that inequality actually erode the expectation of the “usual” respect displayed to teammates. To judge such a team by some preconceived norm is not fair. From the outside, we cannot know the dynamic in that dressing room, in the hotel, strategy and tactical meetings.

This week saw Cristiano Ronaldo score twice for Portugal in a 3-3 draw with Hungary. The result ensures both teams progression to the knockout stages of Euro 2016. Portugal will play Croatia at 8pm tonight in the Round of 16. However, much of the post-match punditry was focussed on a couple of his highly visible displays of frustration at the play of his teammates. “Disrespectful”, “Toxic for the team environment”, “Poor from a player of his calibre” were the types of comments in the aftermath of the most entertaining game of the tournament so far. But, what do we really know about this man?

He has been portrayed as something of a Terminator. A driven, unstoppable force haring towards victory. This, I think, misses the point. He cares. He feels. He cares so much and so honestly that he actually cannot stop himself acting out. He feels the pressure of carrying this team to victory so much that he literally loses the run of himself and behaves in a way that is unacceptable in almost every other situation.

Ronaldo’s goals against Hungary may well ultimately be seen as his signature on this tournament. Often cast as the robotic, gym bunny to Lionel Messi’s natural genius, his first goal showed that his skill and invention is very much the equal of his pace and power. The second was all determination and guile. A powerful, unstoppable header that has become one of his trademarks. However, let's not confuse likeability or popularity with effectiveness. Ronaldo scored his 59th and 60th international goals on Wednesday, a total that sees him rise to 17th all-time of international goal scorers and 3rd of currently active players. His effectiveness is not up for debate. 

Would he be even more effective were he more deferential to his teammates? Or maybe if he sacrificed personal glory to play a deeper, more creative role? For me, the answer is no and this is because of the type of athlete that he is. At 31, the time is surely ticking on his strength, his speed and his all action play. Maybe he could reinvent himself as a deeper lying player in the latter stages of his career but one suspects this may be beyond him. This may well be his final tournament at the peak of his powers.

Of course he gets frustrated when those around can't see what he sees, react to what he does or perform as accurately as he can. I would argue that his reactions, rather than make them perform worse, actually drive them to be better. These are professionals we are taking about. Professionals involved at the top international level of competition playing with high stakes. So before we jump to judge Ronaldo too harshly for a perceived diss of one of his teammates, let's remember that he's a man who feels the pressure of trying to achieve greatness. And greatness cannot be measured by the ordinary.


Bill On... Puerto Common Sense

In many ways, the sporting public owes Lance Armstrong a debt of gratitude. Were it not for the scale of the doping operation which supported him and his subsequent voracity in the defence of his innocence, the size of his sporting fraud may never have been brought to light. It is ironic to think that in many ways it was Lance’s own personality that sparked the doggedness of those that would bring him down. The investigative work of David Walsh, Pierre Ballester, Paul Kimmage and Jeff Nowitski, as well as the testimony of many, culminating in the USADA Reasoned Decision and Lance’s own confession to Oprah Winfrey. And so for the first time in the social media age, the curtain was pulled back on the sporting world and we all saw in excruciating detail just who the wizard really was.

It was a watershed moment for sport. A vindication for all those who simply did not believe what they were seeing. A victory for people who had been labelled cynics by those in states of wilful delusion or blissful ignorance. The innocence of the sporting public was eroded significantly.

I say we owe Lance a debt for helping open our eyes, as since his downfall, we have had the FIFA corruption scandal, the ARD investigations into Russian athletics and IAAF cover-ups, positive retests of athletes from the Olympics in London 2012, FSB involvement in test manipulation in Sochi. Heck, we’ve gotten so cynical that Jamie Vardy pictured at Euro 2016 with a can of red bull and some chewing tobacco sparked front page news about the utilisation of substances that aren’t currently banned.

That is why, in this enlightened and less believing age, the behaviour of the Spanish courts has been a major cause for concern. The decision in 2013 to order the destruction of the 200+ blood bags that remained from the Operation Puerto investigation into the doping activities of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes without identifying to whom the bags belonged has never sat comfortably. Andy Murray went as far as to call it “beyond a joke” and questioned whether it was the “biggest cover-up in sports history?” At the time in 2006, only professional road cyclists were named in the investigation. From the outside it could be viewed that, if a cover up was at play, then an obvious tactic might be to use cycling as a scapegoat to downplay the seriousness, scope and impact that could be caused by a full reveal of the Fuentes doping machine. Cycling having already endured several doping scandals and blotted it’s copybook in the eyes of the public.

However, both Fuentes himself and star witness, cyclist Jesus Manzano both heavily indicated that both professional tennis players and champions league footballers were part of the scheme too. And so this week’s reversal of that destruction order marks the application of some common sense in the case at last. What must the owners of those bags be thinking this week? The law just rode into a wild western outpost in the doping world.

After USADA and Oprah, the most damage done to Lance Armstrong was to his reputation and, as a bi-product, to his future ability to earn. The anti-doping movement may be at a disadvantage in terms of detecting dopers in a faster and more comprehensive way, but shame is a powerful tool. And nothing stains like being labelled a cheat. That’s why the decision in Puerto is so important. If we believe in clean sport, and are serious about protecting what integrity might remain, then we cannot miss any opportunity, no matter how late in the day, to identify and name these individuals. The statute of limitations may have passed for any kind of sporting punishment, but reputations can be tarnished, future earnings impaired and a modicum of fairness provided for those who competed against them clean. And for fans of sports who haven’t been impacted by this growing trend of scandalous revelations, time to extract heads from sand. It’s open season.


Bill On... Making Rugby Safe

Can we ever make rugby completely safe? Perhaps it is a stupid question, but CJ Stander’s red card at Newlands brings this conundrum to the forefront once again. Should there always be someone to blame when there is a dangerous situation or an injury on a rugby field?

While I don’t wish ill on anyone who plays the sport, nor do I take any pleasure in the sight of a completely prone and unconscious Pat Lambie reeling from an impact which he had no time to react to or prepare for, my answer is no. There is not always blame. People will get hurt playing rugby. Physical collisions will occur and sometimes the physical forces in legal or inadvertent contact will result in injuries. It is an unfortunate fact of the sport.

However, referee Mathieu Raynal clearly disagrees. One of his primary responsibilities is to the safety of the players under his charge and the process and time spent reviewing the incident with the TMO can only have been influenced by the sight of Lambie, clearly seriously injured, being fastened to a stretcher, surrounded by the South African medical team. However, does that do an injustice to the player whose conduct is under review? The ratio of slow motion replays versus those in real time, exaggerates the amount of time Stander had to consider his actions and make the timing of his jump appear far more cynical than it actually was. I support the use of the TMO in its aim of making the right decision more of the time, but the circumstances like we saw on Saturday actually creates a situation where we counterproductively come to the wrong decision in an instance where if there wasn’t a TMO we would have had the correct outcome.

CJ Stander was essentially punished for not being able to transform his 114kg frame into a pillow as soon as it became clear that impact with a defenceless Pat Lambie was imminent. And so in a strange kind of way, the disgrace that comes with a red card for CJ Stander on a personal level only heightens the impact of a famous Irish win. They did it at a disadvantage, and an unfair one at that. How we love to operate with a chip on our shoulder. And if there was a team in world rugby who you’d chose to play against with 14 men, it would be these paltry Springboks.

For the longest time, they have been one of the least flexible and least tactically aware teams. Plan A is to run through you. Plan B is to try Plan A even harder. And it became very clear in the second half that they knew not how to make their numerical advantage count. From overuse of the short side to Willie Le Roux overplaying the ball at every opportunity (clearly feeling the pressure of being the primary playmaker) to the strange selections of Lionel Mapoe and Frans Malherbe, neither of whom look like anything near Tests standard players, South Africa were found wanting in nearly every department.  

However, famous victory or no, let us not lose the opportunity to actually have the debate about safety in the sport. And in my humble view, the only way we can move forward in a sensible way is to admit that 100% safety is not going to be achievable and there need not necessarily always be someone to blame. Let’s hope that on mature reflection, the result of CJ Standers disciplinary hearing will reflect that conclusion.


Bill On... Pep & Jose

In reality, when things are going badly they're never really quite as bad as they seem. Joy cometh in the morning and all that. I found myself curiously affected when Pep Guardiola left Barcelona. Having been royally entertained by the Cruyffian team he had moulded, it felt like football would never be quite as good, quite as emotive or quite as watchable again. Of course, I was wrong. Since then we've had Gareth Bale and the Decima, James Rodrigues' wonder goal at the World Cup and the Leicester City fairytale of this season. The football world continued to turn, bigger, bolder and brasher than ever.

"Who writes the scripts?!" was a question asked by Sky Sports Miles Harrison in commentary as Munster's Barry Murphy skulked away from Jason Robinson to score in a 2006 Heineken Cup pool match in Thomond Park in Limerick. Just one more in a seemingly never ending parade of do or die games for the Irish provincial juggernaut of the early noughties. The answer to Harrison’s question? Perhaps a team of sporting scriptwriters seemingly intent on providing only the most dramatic of story-lines to the mighty men in red. And so we might be able to say the same for the red and blue sides of the football divide in Manchester.

"You can forget the last three years" says newly appointed Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. And so we shall, as the second longest session of managerial foreplay comes to an end for the Old Trafford faithful on the western side of the city. The longest, if we are to believe the mumbling and mythmaking of the blue half, belongs to them. The brains trust and the money man at the Etihad, Txiki Begiristain and Sheikh Mansour, having apparently committed to making Pep the Manchester City manager before he had even left his post at the Camp Nou in 2012.

And leaving that post, citing tiredness as the primary factor, he looked a haggard, jaded version of himself, bearing all the hallmarks of the intensity that he brought to, and the price exacted from, building and marshalling the greatest football team of all time. No small part of that cost was paid to Mourinho, who’s tenure at Real Madrid provided the stylistic juxtaposition which enabled us all to appreciate the beauty of what Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Co were producing. In the fullness of time, these years in the Real-Barca rivalry will not be looked upon fondly. The red cards, the media bickering (mostly by Mourinho but culminating in Pep’s famous 45 minute monologue ahead of the 2011 Champions  League semi-final) and the truly bizarre sight of Mourinho poking Barcelona assistant manager Tito Villanova in the eye during a massive side line schmozzle. The emotional toll on both men, but Guardiola in particular, was too intense to endure for long.

There are 621km between Madrid and Barcelona, next season the gap will be 7km. Our sporting script writers clearly feel that, the missing ingredient to getting some real drama from these two was to increase the likelihood of an altercation in the local supermarket. However, if proximity is an exacerbating factor, the quality and coherency of the squads being inherited may just be the fire extinguisher on those expecting the quality of the media hype to be matched by some blazing action on the pitch. In racing terms, the Ferraris of Real and Barcelona have been replaced by a donkey derby, which may actually offer us the truest examination of each managers merits as a footballing architect.

Of course portraying Pep as the protagonist and Mourinho the antagonist does somewhat miss the point. Pep has served a not-so-oft discussed doping ban (quashed in 2009 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport) and the largesse bestowed by Mourinho on a Mexican American kit man after a chance meeting outside Real’s training ground has done little to dent the prevailing narratives for both men. Like all things, when the lens of perspective is applied, neither man is as bad or as good as portrayed. But with these two, who wants reality. Let’s enjoy the show as scripted.