The greatest team ever? Better ask Northampton Town
TV VIEW:THERE’S RARELY a consensus about these things, but the Brazil side of 1970 has a habit of topping those polls asking which was the greatest team of all time. Memorably, Jack Charlton used to insist the Northampton Town side from a few decades back was up there with the boys from Brazil, leaving us wondering if he conceded on Saturday that Barcelona might also be Northampton’s equals.
Much to Jack’s chagrin, you can imagine, there was divil a mention of Northampton by either the RTÉ or Sky panels when they addressed the “who’s the greatest?” issue after the Champions League final.
While Liam Brady hailed Barcelona as “the best team I’ve seen in my lifetime” and Graeme Souness insisted they are “the best team to ever play football”, generally there was a reluctance to try to compare sides from different eras. Short of hiring a time machine and actually pitting them against each other – in, say, a round robin tournament featuring Brazil, Barcelona, Real Madrid (of the 1950s) and Northampton – we’ll just never know. And sure, we don’t really need to.
Even Gary Neville, over on Sky, graciously conceded that Barcelona were rather good and deserved their triumph, perhaps influenced by that text that was doing the rounds: “Man United have unveiled a new ‘19 times’ banner at Old Trafford in recognition of how many times they touched the ball at Wembley”.
Incidentally, Neville, who joined Souness and Jamie Redknapp on the Sky panel, is still new to this punditry lark, but he should probably learn fairly sharpish to stop talking about “we” and “the gaffer” when he’s referring to United and Alex Ferguson. Hard as that might be.
At half-time, when he was forced to watch a replay of Pedro opening the scoring for Barcelona, he noted that “the goal was a problem for us”, but his familiarity with all things United was, generally, a bonus for Sky.
Indeed, his insights allowed the viewers almost feel as if they were in that United dressingroom.
“What will the players be doing now,” Jeff Stelling asked him 15 minutes before kick-off.
“Getting their shin-pads on, having a drink, going to the toilet, simple things,” he said.
Back on RTÉ they were focusing on simple things too, like how on earth Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs were going to cope with the Barcelona midfield.
“They won’t,” was the gist of Giles’ verdict.
And so it proved. With Xavi, Iniesta and Messi pirouetting around them, the United midfield had stars in their eyes. Literally. Even the Duracell bunny that is Ji-Sung Park had a flat battery after 20 minutes: shadow-chasing takes its toll.
“It was almost like United upset them,” said Neville, trying to account for what he’d witnessed, Sky “The English Premier League Is The Best League In The World” Sports a bit taken aback by it all.
Equally baffling for Neville was how “a team that’s full of midgets” could overcome big lads, but back on RTÉ Giles was taking this as further proof that you don’t have to be a muscle-bound Goliath to prosper in football.
“Don’t ever believe when someone says you’re too small,” he said.
Messi. Well, what can you say?
“There’s an argument that he’s the best ever,” said Souness.
“Yeah, once those hips sort of swivel there’s nothing you can do about it,” swooned Redknapp.
“He’s up there with Pele and Maradona,” purred Giles.
“He reminds me of Liam,” said Dunphy.
“Get lost,” said Brady.
“Liam on steroids,” Dunphy added.
Bill O’Herlihy, though, wondered where it had all gone wrong for United, how they’d been so hopelessly outplayed, but Brazil and Northampton combined would, most probably, have suffered the same fate.
While not wanting to kick the United midfield when it was being unknotted back in the dressingroom, Giles insisted they just weren’t good enough, simple as that – no mystery.
Bill, though, quoted Ferguson saying Carrick “is the complete player” and that “he can alter the tempo and dictate play with his passing”.
“He can against Fulham, Bill,” suggested Dunphy.
“No, he can’t even do it against Fulham, Eamon,” said Giles.
But most of the focus was on the majestic Barcelona and a performance that was a touch beyond sublime.
“They killed them Bill, killed them,” said Giles, “absolutely brilliant.”
“You were purring with pleasure, John, weren’t you,” said Bill.
“I was, Bill.”
And to cap it all, they only went and let Eric Abidal collect the Champions League trophy, two months after he had on operation to remove a tumour on his liver. How could you not love Barcelona?
(“Well . . .” Shut up, Jose).
“The beautiful game has never been more beautiful,” as Stelling put it when he bid us goodnight.
A very good night it was, too.
The Northampton of the 2000s? We salute you.