Things were hot and heavy in the Vincente Calderon on Wednesday night and, for a time, threatened to get even hotter and even heavier in the Montrose cauldron, as Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady clashed on the merits, or otherwise, of Atletico Madrid’s 2-0 victory over Barcelona in the Champions League.
Like so many of the great head-to-heads in the RTÉ studio, it went from nought to 100 in about 10 seconds flat.
“I’m sad that Barcelona have gone out,” Brady began. “The way they play football and the way Atletico play football, I’d rather have Barcelona 10 out of 10 all the time.”
“I don’t agree with that. They’re not cynical.”
And, like that, they were off. The edited highlights:
“You’re celebrating. There isn’t anything to celebrate.”
“I think there’s something to celebrate… the best player on the pitch in the two games was Godin.”
(derisive laughter): “Totally cynical!”
“He’s aggressive. They’re street fighters. There’s a difference between cynicism and aggression, in my view.”
Then, as Brady continued to make his pitch, it briefly threatened to get personal.
“Hold on. Will you let me talk? If you don’t want to discuss it... Let me explain, I see a lot more of them than you do.
“Why do you see a lot more?”
“’Cos they’re on the TV every Saturday”
“And I don’t have a television?
“You’ve got a social life!” (uproarious laughter all ‘round).
Vintage stuff. From light to heat to hilarity and back again. Where else would you get it? At least the panel found common cause on one aspect of the night’s proceedings: all three were upset to see Lionel Messi looking so out of sorts, looking — dare one say it — almost ordinary.
“It’s very sad,” said John Giles. “It could well be his off-field problems. When you are playing football, you have to be problem free, whether it be domestic or business.”
And this wasn’t just a case of being wise after the event. As Dunphy pointed out in the post-match analysis: “John hit the nail on the head before the game. No-one else has identified this except John Giles in any analysis in any station. And the wonder is: what’s wrong with Messi? What was wrong with him last week? Messi’s a god in mind, a great, great player, and I don’t want to see him ever lose a match.
“But there’s something wrong and it could be he has been implicated in the Panama Papers, the offshore account thing, though there’s no allegation of wrongdoing. But he has in the past had problems with tax and that can get in an athlete’s head. And maybe that’s what it is. But the real Lionel Messi hasn’t been there for a few weeks.”
Just for the record, I hope I can be forgiven for noting that, in this very space last Saturday, and on foot of an underwhelming performance by Messi in the first leg, I wrote: “One couldn’t help wondering if he might have been a tad distracted by what it says in the (Panama) papers.”
In fact, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines even then but, since John Giles would normally beat your correspondent in a nail-on-the-head-hitting contest 11 times out of 10, I might as well avail of this rare opportunity to take the antique trumpet out of the safe, blow off the dust and give it a tuneless parp.
More to the point, I also detected what I’d regard as an obvious subtext to Dunphy’s little hymn of praise to his colleague, a not so coded message to their employers in RTÉ who, in their dubious wisdom, have decided Gilesy’s race is almost run at the station.
If the three wise men were sad to see Messi struggling, then there was added sadness for the rest of us in the dawning realisation that Wednesday night might well have been the last time we’ll see football’s best analyst talking about football’s best player in front of the live television cameras.
Of course, Giles himself has insisted that he’s not going into retirement, so the hope must be that TV3 or some other station will have the cop-on to keep beaming him into our living rooms.
But all we can be sure of, for now, is that he’ll be departing Montrose at the end of the European Championships this summer, bringing to an end the era of the panel to beat all panels.
As he invariably does, Giles managed to stay above the flak that flew in the studio on Wednesday night, but when it came to summing up Barcelona’s exit from the Champions League, he cut right to the heart of the matter — as he also invariably does.
“There’s a difference between having a great team and great individuals,” he observed.
“A great team is made up of a balance of defending as well as attack. And they don’t have that. I love Barcelona. I love Messi and Neymar and Suarez, particularly when they’re at their best, but even if they’re played out of the game – Messi in particular — as they have been over the two legs, you still don’t have to lose goals.
“It’s just bad defending. There’s very few teams who can get away with that over a long period and it’s caught up with them.”
There are, it seems, some people out there who appear to share RTÉ’s view that Giles is now past his sell-by date, the kind of people who also like to make much of the fact that he’ll occasionally mispronounce a player’s name or even momentarily forget it altogether.
To paraphrase another great Irish pundit — the boy Wildey — I would tend towards the view that these are people who know the name of everything but, perhaps, the value of nothing.
Giles’ genius as a football analyst is that he has always dealt in the essence of things, the eternal verities, as it were, and for all the changes in the game in the modern era, it hasn’t been so completely transformed that a top player from the 60s and 70s can’t still bring his own rich experience — and the wisdom of many more years thinking deeply about the game — to bear in a way which delights and illuminates like few other football communicators can.
That’s what Giles has always done and what he continues to do, even as he’s being not so gently ushered out the door in RTÉ. Happily, there are some ear-catching contenders for the title coming through, with impressive contributions from a couple of the most recent additions — Damien Duff on RTÉ and Richard Dunne TV3 – only serving to confirm that long-held view that you’ll rarely beat the Irish when it comes to talking a good game.
(That said, kudos to David James and Pat Nevin who did full justice to Liverpool’s rip-roaring Europa Cup triumph over Dortmund on Setanta on Thursday night).
But John Giles is still the main man.
Messi might be gone from this year’s Champions League but, for Irish television viewers, there’s some consolation in knowing that we’ll still have our own maestro for Milan on May 28.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved