So, many thanks to Pep Guardiola for — rather in keeping with his team’s defence, as it happens — thoughtfully presenting me with the gift of an open goal this week, a chance to indulge once more, but this time relatively guilt-free, in the one about the long ago time when I sat down for a memorable chat with Mick Byrne, the Irish team’s physio, father figure, court jester and Mr Motivator in the era of Jack Charlton.
Among many other revelations, Mick informed me it fell to him to choose the movies which, in an established ritual under the manager’s watch, Jack would take the squad and the backroom staff to see in the week running up to a game in Dublin. Not only that but, Mick happily informed me, the players liked to mark his choices out of ten.
The antiquity of this yarn may be judged by the fact that, at the time, the most recent film they’d been to see was ‘The Hunt For Red October’, the Cold War submarine thriller, starring Sean Connery, which went on to become one of the blockbuster movies of 1990.
So how had that one gone down with the lads, I asked Mick. “Ah, not too bad actually,” came the satisfied response. “I got a couple of nines. Of course, that’d be the intellectuals. The rough and tumble gave it three.”
For a long time afterwards, when I should have been meeting deadlines, I passed many pleasant hours staring out of windows, mentally dividing up the Irish team of the day into “intellectuals” and “rough and tumble” and pondering who’d prevail in a game of five-a-side. But, out of deference to all concerned, it might be for the better if I leave such deliberations to the privacy of my own mind.
And so, by a circuitous route, to Pep and his decision to bring his Manchester City players to see the award- winning ‘La La Land’ this week as a team bonding exercise to coincide with the manager’s 46th birthday.
All fine and dandy and perfectly well intended, of course, but the goals are so open here it seems almost cruel to apply the finishing touch. Suffice to say it’s hardly the most original observation to note the most urgent bonding at City needs to be done at the back where, as Everton showed last week, Guardiola’s attack-is-the-best-form-of-defence philosophy is proving rather less successful in Manchester than it did with the admittedly much superior assets he had at his disposal in Barcelona, when he built a team for the ages around Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, and Munich, where he inherited an already all-conquering Bayern side.
Yet City, even if their squad is ageing, are hardly short of quality attacking players themselves; the big problem is when confidence is low and they’re not putting away their chances at one end, their dreadful defensive frailties mean they are ripe to be taken apart at the other. And, no, turning to Jesus is unlikely to provide salvation on that front.
While under fire Claudio Bravo — the man Guardiola favoured over Joe Hart — is widely accorded the role of fall guy, the chaos which is always prone to erupt in front of the ‘keeper serves as a constant reminder of how much City could do with having the luckless Vincent Kompany accompanying his team-mates on to the pitch rather than on trips to the cinema.
Amid all the gloom at the Etihad, not helped by Guardiola’s doom-laden demeanour on the bench and still less by his admission that his team’s title race is already run — he may well be right but did his players really need to hear him shout it from the rooftops? — it can be easy to forget that City actually got their season off to a flyer under the Spaniard.
But the memory of Autumn’s false dawn will feel distinctly bittersweet later today when Guardiola’s men face the very team which derailed their perfect start to the Premier League back in October, Spurs ending City’s six-game winning streak at the time with a convincing 2-0 win at White Hart Lane.
Unhappily for City, as they have gone into reverse, the north Londoners — under an admirably clear-sighted manager in Mauricio Pochettino — have taken things to a new level and, with a top goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris behind a well-organised defence (although the injured Jan Vertonghen will be missed), force and energy in the middle from Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele, the likes of Deli Alli and Christian Eriksen in creative overdrive and Harry Kane back to his potent best, the visitors arrive in Manchester today as, arguably, Chelsea’s most credible title rivals.
Right now, a settled Spurs are exuding the kind of drive, quality and unity of purpose which, despite — or, perhaps, because of — all the megabucks the club’s owners have thrown at what still has the whiff of a project about it, Man City have found maddeningly elusive under the leadership of their own version of the chosen one.
Yet, for all the talk of crisis, the table shows that City go into this big test still only three points behind today’s opponents who are joint second with Liverpool, hardly a yawning chasm even if Chelsea remain firm favourites to go all the way. And in the likes of Aguero, de Bruyne and Silva, today’s hosts still have players who can buck form and turn any game in an instant.
But, whatever about the direction they’re getting, if Manchester City’s Hollywood stars can’t rouse themselves upfront today — while eliminating those increasingly costly errors at the back — they can probably forget about being among the winners and, worse, maybe even the supporting cast, when football’s Oscars are being handed out in May.