Watching Didi Hamann and the RTÉ football panel in recent weeks question Pep Guardiola’s standing as a coach for remaining stuck on just the two Champions League titles in a career that’s barely a decade old, we were reminded of the opening scene in March to Madness, the esteemed John Feinstein’s season-long study of about the only championship in world team sport that’s as hard to win as football’s famous cup with the big ears.
The morning of the 1997 NCAA national championship final, Feinstein is sitting in an Indianapolis coffee shop when he’s approached by an elderly basketball fan wanting his take on a game 36 hours earlier.
“You’ve been around. Don’t you think Dean got outcoached on Saturday?” Feinstein instinctively bursts out laughing.
Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina had won more games than any coach in college basketball history.
Michael Jordan, the greatest player in the history of the game, worshipped him, crediting him as easily the biggest influence on his career.
He’d guided North Carolina to two national championships and now, with this campaign, an 11th Final Four in a competition that started out with over 350 teams.
And this fan felt he was overrated, maybe no longer the man for the job?
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” smiled Feinstein. “After all, he only won 28 games this year and got to the Final Four. And he’d only won 16 straight games before Saturday. Sir, with all due respect, if you think Dean Smith not coaching Carolina is what’s best for the Tar Heels, then you don’t know anything about basketball.”
The reason why Feinstein chose to start his book with this encounter was because it was a vivid reminder of just how coaching is never as easy or as glamorous as it appears to be.
“If the winningest coach ever can be a target for disgruntled fans,” he pondered, “after losing a Final Four game, who isn’t a target?
“There’s nothing wrong with criticising coaches. They make mistakes like the rest of us, and for the money they are paid, they should answer to the public to some degree. It is the rush to judgment that I find amazing. Dean Smith loses one game and he’s over the hill? And this sort of hysteria isn’t limited to fans. It’s media. When it comes to hysteria, there’s no place like [Smith’s conference] during basketball season.”
Feinstein obviously wasn’t aware of the Champions League or the RTÉ panel at the time of writing because the parallels between the criticisms of Guardiola and Smith are stunning.
Guardiola had only won 42 out of 51 competitive games before that quarter-final second leg. His team were on course to break every desirable record for a Premier League season.
His sport’s greatest ever player, one Lionel Messi, revered him along similar lines as Jordan did Smith. Like Smith, he’d won the sport’s ultimate prize not once but twice.
And yeah, he was outcoached by Jurgen Klopp over two legs, but just because he failed to reach the Final Four for only the second time in his managerial career, he’s now not the man for City if they seriously intend to give themselves the best chance of winning a Champions League?
Hamann was certainly suggesting as much.
“You have to look at the manager,” he’d declare with the sort of call-it-as-it-is punditry RTÉ crave and like to think they champion.
“The manager was brought in to win the Champions League. He didn’t manage to get past the semi-final in three seasons in Munich and I think it’s been seven years since he’s gone past that stage. They lost to an unfancied team last year in Monaco. It happens this year then to a team who are 20 points behind them in the league.
“There is a lot of myth about Guardiola. In this day and age, if you look at all the great managers of the last two decades, they all won with at least two different teams. If you don’t win the Champions League with two or more teams, I don’t think we can talk about a manager who has reformed the game.”
In his rush to judgment, Hamann missed a point implied by Damien Duff a week earlier after the first City-Liverpool clash in Anfield.
Alex Ferguson, the Dean Smith of football, won ‘only’ the two Champions Leagues in 20 years of United qualifying for that stage, so why give Guardiola grief for winning just as many when he’s only been around for half as long? Just as it was obviously lost on Feinstein’s cafe acquaintance how hard it is to even reach a Final Four, let alone win it outright, it seems to have been lost on Didi, Dunphy, and Brady just how hard it is to win the Champions League.
Just as the US is spellbound every March by the drama of the NCAA tournament, the Champions League knockout stages make such compelling and wonderful viewing all around Europe and the rest of the world because of its do-or-die nature.
It’s not like a 38-game season or even a seven-game series where a bad day at the office can be summarised and dismissed as such and everyone moves on to the next day and game at that office. Lose and you go home. Lose and you’re out.
And more so than any other sport or competition, in Champions League football, so much can hinge on a bit of luck, misfortune, and a questionable refereeing decision.
What makes it so dramatic is also what makes it so cruel.
Unlike a domestic league, a bad call or two won’t balance itself out over the course of the season. It’ll cost you that season. The best you can hope for is that it balances itself out over the seasons.
Look at the history of the Champions League the past 10 years. While this season’s campaign could have turned out so differently had Leroy Sane’s goal stood last week, in 2009, Guardiola was the recipient of good luck in the semi-final tie with Chelsea where the English team had four decent penalty claims dismissed at Stamford Bridge; had any of those been awarded and Iniesta’s last-minute top-corner effort would have been academic.
The following year, Guardiola was on the wrong side of a questionable call when in the second leg of Barca’s semi-final against Inter Milan, a Bojan Krkic injury-time strike was ruled out for offside.
In 2012, Chelsea’s unforgettable final against Bayern Munich would never even have happened had the two best players in the world not each fluffed a penalty in their respective semi-finals — what were the chances of Ronaldo and Messi doing that?
In 2013, it took a last-minute Arjen Robben goal for Bayern Munich to foil Dortmund in the final.
In 2014, an injury-time Sergio Ramos header denied Atletico Madrid the title. In 2016, Diego Simeone’s men were again agonisingly denied by Real in the final, surviving extra-time only to lose on penalties.
It wasn’t like Real were vastly superior to everyone they met in either of those campaigns; in fact in the 2014 campaign they trailed the hardly mighty Wolfsburg 2-0 after the first leg. They got a bit of luck and made their own luck, the recipe virtually all teams need, no matter how much spending power or managerial brilliance they have at their disposal.
All top sports people appreciate that, even if quite a number of commentators and followers don’t, which is why the former routinely talk about the process and the latter roll their eyes at such talk — because as often as they’ve heard it, they still don’t get it.
That is what most concerns the likes of Guardiola or Klopp who may soon be reminded of his poor record in finals rather than his remarkable record and achievement in reaching so many of them.
“Success without playing the way you like to play means nothing to me,” Guardiola said at the start of last season.
“Like life, football’s a journey, not just about the destination.”
Hamann, Dunphy, and Brady may well be right, that Guardiola’s process has to get even better. As Gary Neville outlined brilliantly last Monday on Sky Sports, Guardiola drastically overhauled the personnel and playing style of his goalkeeper and full-backs this season. Maybe next season that extends to his centre-halves. But even then there’s no guarantees.
When Alex Ferguson was recruiting Roy Keane 25 years ago next month, he outlined his vision to him over a game of snooker in his Manchester house.
“Roy, United are going to dominate the domestic game with or without you. With you, we can win in Europe.”
Keane would only win the one European Cup, and even then he was missing for the final. If you were to take Ferguson’s snooker-table line at face value, Keane’s signing was hardly an overwhelming success.
But as we all know, it was. He was central to United dominating the domestic game — and making so many elite eights and Final Fours in Europe; 1999 just happened to be the year they got over the line. The secret, like Pádraig Harrington has pointed out about winning majors, was to continuously be in contention.
One year Ernie Els shoots a great final round but someone else won the Open. Another year Adam Scott bogeyed on the last and Els won it. The trick was to be within reach.
Signing Guardiola similarly didn’t guarantee City the Champions League.
He just guarantees them their best chance — and the rest of us a thrilling spectacle following one of the most engrossing and cruellest dramas in all of sport.
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