The hype surrounding their unveiling was extravagant. Their arrival has been hailed – nervously one suspects – as heralding “a new dawn”. True, they carry the hopes of an expectant nation. But nobody in their wildest dreams imagined that this particular combination of ‘talents’ – of men who played under rival flags – could foretell a period of success. As Jimmy Greaves frequently said, though: “Football is a funny old game.”
One is an introspective, cerebral man, a thinker who learned at the knee of one of the giants of the game. His mentor was unconventional and outrageous, but undeniably successful, taking a provincial, backward outfit, and fashioning them into a slick, all-conquering powerhouse. The pupil learned well, graduating as a sophisticated, cultured proponent of the finer arts, an astute reader of games, alert to opportunities, always ready with the killer pass that would undo the opposition and put rivals to the sword.
The other is a more private individual, celebrated more perhaps for brute force and iron will than for skill or technique. Throughout his career, though, he could be relied upon to get stuck in where and when it hurt, and he’d never ask a colleague to do something he wouldn’t do himself. Many a time – in white hot cauldrons of battle – we saw him with our own eyes stiffening the resolve of those who stood behind him.
Both men carry the scars of battle and the medals of achievement, but as a management pairing, is their alliance the stuff of dreams or does it have the makings of a nightmare? The game is wholly different depending on where you view it from – the pitch or the dug-out.
For the moment, the pair will get away with posturing for the cameras and swatting away journalists’ questions, but long-term – if their partnership is to work – the two will have to trust one another, lean on one another, modify their behaviour and learn a new skill – the art of compromise.
Whether two such dogmatic people as Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are capable of accommodation remains to be seen. When they played, it wasn’t the taking part which mattered but winning: victory was everything. The sport has moved on though. Can fans on the terraces – who regard trade-offs as sell-outs – be taught to appreciate the modern game, in which the objective is not a win but a ‘win-win’?
One thing’s for sure: it’s going to be a roller-coaster of a ride. Dream or nightmare? Time will tell. It’s a funny old game.