Football, frolicsome puppy dog that it is, will quite readily mess the carpet over any sort of mismatch. Simply scoop up some of the froth surrounding cup ties to witness how giddy we all get over a team of courageous kitchen fitters clashing shins with those villainous, neon-booted billionaires from the Premier League.
And this Saturday evening we can treat our dangerously swollen hyperbole gland to one of the top flight’s more interesting internal contrasts. In one corner there is the fuming, glaring, immovable defiance of the pinkest man in Europe. In the other is a nice chap.
Perhaps it’s more complicated than that. Eddie Howe is, after all, far more than just a thoroughly likeable man. In fact, his likeability is inextricably linked to the kind of success that ignites genuine human emotion in even the most disenfranchised fan droids.
From the brink of dropping off the face of the planet (slash, the football league) Howe has lifted Bournemouth up into the best* league in the world (*with the possible exception of all the ones that are quantifiably better, like the Norwegian Fröstenshippen). Also I believe it’s now a legal requirement for me to point out that their stadium only holds 12,000 (tiny) people. While we’re at it, Charlie Austin used to be a bricklayer and Slaven Bilić speaks some languages.
Howe’s opponent this Saturday is cut from a different, far angrier cloth. Louis van Gaal’s CV reads like he has simply tattooed a list of all the trophies he’s won onto his crimson gonads and is now resting them casually on your eyelids.
But despite glorious times (and filthy bust ups) at some of Europe’s biggest clubs, Van Gaal finds himself with rancid dog poo all over his clogs. Which seems strange considering United sit in 4th place in the league, a mere 3 points off the top (and that pesky Champions League thing has been tactically sacked off).
Which is where the obvious contrast in characters makes way for a more interesting comparison altogether. Howe, in 17th place, is winning praise and goodwill at every turn. Van Gaal, in 4th, might as well have just hit Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry and the PG Tips monkey with his car.
Of course, a very big part of this is the wildly different expectations each man is working under. Bournemouth are little, plucky and all sorts of other patronising endearments that seem like strange ways to describe a team that smashed an empathic fist through the promotion hatch. United, by contrast, have spent enough money to build a hospital. Or a space station. Or a hospital on a space station.
And yet both managers are right to feel that their transfer business hasn’t gone entirely to plan. In the space of what seemed like a minute, Bournemouth lost their two star signings (Max Gradel and Tyrone Mings) as well as their top scorer (Callum Wilson) to serious knee injuries. Manchester United, meanwhile, could categorise their big summer signings as either a bit raw (Anthony Martial), a bit lost (Memphis Depay) or a bit plodding (that man who looks like Bastian Schweinsteiger).
What both managers also share is a struggle to get the very best out of the experienced players who should be driving things along. While Howe needs to see more goals from the likes of Harry Arter and Matt Ritchie (25 goals between them last year, 2 this), van Gaal needs to trap Wayne Rooney in a complex system of underground caves. (And if that seems like smirking bandwagonry, we should probably note that Wayne Rooney still has 3 fewer league goals than Wilson – a man who hasn’t played since September).
After European disappointment can United bounce back and prove the Cherries are ripe for picking?
Of course, the reason we’re all enjoying Eddie Howe’s efforts is because, alongside his obvious talent and achievements, he’s a humble, thoughtful, reasonable character. The nicest thing you can often say about Louis van Gaal is that you’ve never seen him deliberately kill a man with a spade.
But, regardless of who we’d love to share a crumpet with down at the garden centre café, and despite Bournemouth’s impressive win against a slowly melting Chelsea team, Manchester United are still a side fighting for the title. And, in this kind of ideological tussle, it’s not unusual for the good guy to come away with nothing.