Sport Soccer

Saturday 25 November 2017

From Wise Men to Stooges

Eamonn Sweeney

We love our myths in this country. Like the one about how the football fans of Ireland should go down on their knees every morning and thank God that they have been blessed with the finest analysts on the planet in the shape of Eamon Dunphy, John Giles and Liam Brady. Or, for the purposes of brevity, Gibranphy.

Sky Sports, apparently, is full of shysters trying to persuade you that bad games are actually good ones while both ITV and BBC are silly and trivial. Gibranphy, on the other hand, is a creature of awesome erudition, a teller of harsh truths, an oracle unrivalled in its ability to read the auguries and discern the true meaning of the game.

So goes the conventional wisdom parroted most enthusiastically, oddly enough, by those who see themselves as possessing a bit more nous than the members of the common herd. But is it true or just another load of self-aggrandising nonsense that doesn't bear up under any kind of close scrutiny?

Take, for example, the aftermath of Italy's semi-final win over Germany. Dunphy pointed out that this was the latest in a series of failures by this particular group of German players. These players, he explained, had also lost in the 2006 World Cup semi-final, the 2008 European Championship final and the 2010 World Cup semi-final. They'd just have to face up to the fact that they weren't good enough. Small wonder that Bill O'Herlihy, wearing his best, 'I'm a complete and utter gobshite, enlighten me further,' expression wondered where the Germans could go from here given that this team had been part of our old friend, A Golden Generation.

Dunphy's statement was articulate. It was typically forthright. The only problem is that it was also a load of old bollocks. Only two of the German players who started against Italy, Philipp Lahm and Lukas Podolski, had started the 2006 World Cup semi-final. Only three of the starting line-up had even been on the German team two years later, Bastien Schweinsteiger being the addition. Miroslav Klose, who came on as a sub on Thursday, had also played in those games.

The fact is that the German squad was the youngest in the competition with an average age of 24 and is backboned by players who were still in their teens in 2006. Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos and Marco Reus are 22, Mesut Ozil, Jerome Boateng, Holger Badstuber and Mats Hummels are 23, Sami Khedira is 25, Manuel Neuer didn't make his international debut till 2009. These players had as much to do with the German failures in 2006 and 2008 as Dunphy did. If there is A Golden Generation in Germany, its time is beginning rather than ending.

Okay, we all make mistakes. But that pontification on Germany is a classic example of Gibranphy at work. It was a sweeping statement delivered with great authority. And it made no sense at all.

The most notorious example of Gibranphy's predilection for ignoring the facts when they don't fit with some preconceived theory is their continued insistence that Cristiano Ronaldo isn't much of a footballer, which at this stage has become something of a crusade. When Ronaldo was producing a string of great performances for Manchester United and scoring 42 goals in 48 games as they won the Champions League and the Premiership in 2008, Gibranphy heaped credit on Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, anyone but the Portuguese player.

Ronaldo is an even greater player now and the season just gone saw him produce one of the finest individual campaigns ever. The 46 league goals he scored in 38 games was a La Liga record until Lionel Messi surpassed it with 50 for Barcelona, but more impressive still was the way that, during Real Madrid's epic run-in battle with Barca, he so often scored at vital times, notably when hitting the winner in a 2-1 victory at the Nou Camp.

Yet, even after all this, Gibranphy have continued to focus more on Ronaldo's step-overs and his 'petulance' than his talent. This sniping reached a new apogee of lunacy after the player's outstanding performance in Portugal's quarter-final win over the Czech Republic when Giles and Dunphy eschewed all other analysis, instead opting to defend their low opinion of Ronaldo by suggesting among other things that he wasn't a great player because he shouted at his team-mates.

Things became surreally daft when Richie Sadlier, bearing the air of a man who couldn't quite believe what he was hearing, suggested that perhaps Pele and Diego Maradona hadn't exactly been brilliant at defending and tracking back either. When Giles said they had, Darragh Maloney intervened to prevent the senior member of the connoisseurs from embarrassing himself any further.

Sporting analysis is a matter of opinion. There's no empirical truth other than the scoreline. But we're entitled to doubt the brilliance of analysts whose opinions bear little resemblance to reality. I'm entitled to suggest that Colm Cooper and Henry Shefflin are over-rated players of little real talent. But you're just as entitled to think this shows I haven't a clue what I'm on about.

That two thirds of Gibranphy were fine players themselves doesn't mean they're immune to getting things badly wrong. After all, Tolstoy said that Shakespeare "can not be recognised either as a great genius or even as an average author."

The argument that Gibranphy dismiss Ronaldo because he doesn't meet some strict platonic standard of greatness doesn't hold water. After Wayne Rooney had lumbered sweatily around the pitch against Italy like a hangover looking for a head to land in, Dunphy was still describing him as one of the great players of the modern era. It doesn't matter how many times Rooney fails in major tournaments, Dunphy can still detect greatness in him. As with Ronaldo, this judgement seems to have little to do with the performance of the player in question.

Sweeping statements are great fun to make, particularly if you rarely admit to getting it wrong. And, listening to two thirds of Gibranphy compare Ronaldo unfavourably to Maradona, I couldn't help remembering a time when

Dunphy had given Diego the same treatment. It was at half-time during the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. In the first half, Maradona had gone on a couple of long runs at the heart of the English defence which Dunphy derided as aimless excursions. Ten minutes into the second half, one of those runs produced perhaps the finest solo goal of all time.

I suppose I should finish off with a sweeping statement and say that Gibranphy are rubbish. But I'm not one for sweeping statements. Sometimes RTE's big guns are good but sometimes their prejudices and the certainty with which they expound them makes them sound more like The Three Stooges than The Three Wise Men.

And are they really an oasis of erudition in a desert of idle chatter? Gary Neville on Sky has turned out to be consistently better than the three of them, Roy Keane on ITV was the man who told the harsh truth about Ireland and provoked public debate and Dietmar Hamann, Richie Sadlier and Kenny Cunningham have arguably been better than the big three during the championships.

The decision to put Brady on the panel during Ireland games turned out to be a disaster, his friendship with the Irish manager forcing O'Herlihy to phrase every question with the delicacy of a showbiz reporter asking Angelina Jolie her opinion of Brad Pitt's new film.

These days Gibranphy is running on empty. The troika members have become sad imitations of themselves. Apres Match is still pretty good though.

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