Friday 23 February 2018

All this and Madonna too

Eamonn Sweeney

Nothing adds spice to a sporting rivalry like contrast. The articulate and graceful Muhammad Ali versus the taciturn, bludgeoning George Foreman; establishment favourite Sebastian Coe against non-conformist Steve Ovett; Pep Guardiola's sunny Barcelona taking on the dark arts of Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid; Kenneth Egan, who's achieved almost everything in amateur boxing, meeting Joe Ward, who's got it all ahead of him.

And you couldn't get two more contrasting characters than the quarterbacks who'll go head to head in tonight's Super Bowl. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots could be the finest quarterback in the history of the game. Eli Manning of the New York Giants isn't even the finest quarterback in his own family, brother Peyton being one of Brady's rivals for the all-time number one slot.

Brady came into the NFL as a number 199 draft pick and has overachieved spectacularly since then; Manning was drafted number one and hasn't really made the most of his huge natural talent. Brady is a furiously animated character who's been known to have touchline bust-ups with the New England coaching staff, Manning is often derided for his laid-back demeanour on the field which can make him look like a frat boy engaged in a Thanksgiving game of touch football.

Brady is a suave and extremely handsome Californian, the face of such unmacho products as Ugg Boots for men and Glaceau Vitamin Water, Manning is a down-to-earth southerner who has turned up to press conferences looking like he's just rolled out of bed and says Hollywood won't be able to make a film of his life because all actors are too good-looking. Brady is married to Gisele Bundchen, the world's highest paid supermodel, which makes him half of the world's wealthiest celebrity couple. He is about to move into a $20m mansion; Manning is married to his college sweetheart and lives in a New Jersey apartment he paid half a million for. Mister B and Mister M are like the two main characters in a remake of The Odd Couple.

The differences between the two men are so striking that when, at the start of the season, someone suggested a similarity he got laughed at. The name of this doofus? Eli Manning who claimed that, as a quarterback, he was actually up there with Brady. This declaration earned the Giants QB an enormous amount of mockery. What was wrong with Eli? Had he lost the run of himself?

Because comparing yourself with Tom Brady is a mug's game. He was outstanding when the Patriots won Super Bowls in 2001, 2003 and 2004, becoming the first team to win three in four years. If they triumph tonight, he'll be only the third quarterback ever, along with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana, to win four Super Bowls.

The Patriots have perhaps the worst defence to ever reach the Super Bowl, a mediocre running game and a team which in almost all departments is inferior to their earlier winning sides. Even their key receivers are a long way removed from the athletic flying machines who tend to dominate the NFL. Rob Gronkowski is a lumbering white guy who plays tight end, a position the quarterback normally throws to as a next-to-last resort. Wes Welker is a small white guy who didn't even get a college football scholarship as a kid and initially went undrafted in the pro game. He relies not on blinding speed but on the elusiveness he developed when playing soccer as a kid.

Yet Welker has become one of the great receivers in the game while Gronkowski has this season redefined what a tight end can do, scoring 18 touchdowns, five more than the previous record. That they've done so is a tribute to the talent of Brady and the canniness of Patriots manager Bill Belichick, probably the best boss in the sport.

Belichick is a kind of American Alex Ferguson who has made the Patriots the best team over the past decade. But he and Brady may be haunted by the fact that they have underachieved in terms of Super Bowls. In 2006, they blew an 18-point lead to lose the AFC Championship game 38-34 to an Indianapolis Colts team who went on to win the Super Bowl easily. Last year they went into the play-offs as favourites and got turned over by the New York Jets.

And, most painful of all, is the memory of February 3, 2008.

In the regular season the Patriots, inspired by Brady, had played perhaps the most exciting football ever seen in the NFL. They swept all opposition aside and entered the Super Bowl unbeaten, needing just one final victory to complete the finest season in history. Their opponents were a team who had scraped into the play-offs on a wild card. They were the New York Giants and their quarterback was Eli Manning. The greatest upset of all-time saw the Patriots go down 17-14.

Those who wrote the result off as something of a fluke might have felt justified by the Giants' inability to win a single play-off game since. Until this season when the Giants' campaign has borne a spooky resemblance to their 2008 run. Once more they got there as a wild card after an undistinguished regular season. And once more they've looked a different team in the play-offs, going to Green Bay and hammering the reigning champions and travelling to San Francisco where they halted a 49ers team that seemed to have built up an unstoppable head of steam.

In the course of this run it's become clear that the Giants' ability to go on late surges like this is bound up with their quarterback's personality. Because while Eli Manning will never compare with Tom Brady in terms of stats, he is beginning to look like another New York quarterback, Joe Namath, in his ability to get things done when the going gets tough. His 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes this season set an NFL record while he's the only quarterback to have won five play-off games on the road. He, and the Giants, spring to life on the big occasion. Time after time this season they've come back late in the game.

The post-season Eli reminds me of Errol Flynn in the Adventures of Robin Hood chortling in the middle of a sword fight, "I needed that scratch to awaken me." And it could be that the aw shucks demeanour which irritates Big Apple fans so much when their quarterback plays badly is the very thing which makes him that most valued creature in any sport: a clutch performer.

For all his talent and achievements, Brady's legacy is at stake to a certain extent tonight. Lose and he'll be 2-0 down in his Super Bowl match-ups with Manning. The idea of the man as a great big-game quarterback will take a blow. Eli, on the other hand, will have shown an uncanny knack for coming good at the right moment, unlike his brother who was four times NFL MVP but won just one Super Bowl and lost more play-off games than he won.

The fascination of this year's Super Bowl is that it features two players trying to achieve a couple of the most difficult tasks in sport. Brady is endeavouring to hoist a deeply flawed team up on his back and drag it over the line, while Manning is trying to get an inconsistent side to give their very best display of the season when the pressure is greatest. Such accomplishments are rare enough to mean that whoever wins tonight will have achieved the greatest feat of their career. You could say that Brady is Maurice Fitzgerald in 1997, while Manning is Brian Whelahan in 1998. I fancy the Patriots myself because it's so difficult to bet against Brady but if the game is close with four or five minutes left, we'll definitely be in Eli time and the spooky music will start playing in Belichick's head.

All this and Madonna at half-time. What more could you want in the early hours of a cold Monday morning? An Irish angle? Okay then. Brady has traced his Irish ancestry back to Cavan and Cork and visited Ireland with his father. Eli doesn't seem to have any such connection. Oh hang on a sec, his wife's name is Abby McGrew. Surely one of our own somewhere along the line. Of course I could have mentioned Giants manager Tom Coughlin's Irish roots instead. Know why I didn't?

Because tonight it's all about the quarterbacks.

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