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.