Face To Face
Shea Tomkins meets the soccer legend John Giles
IT'S A BLEAK Monday afternoon in January and John Giles has had a long day. In town to launch his foundation's Walk of Dreams project, the indefatigable soccer great enters the room looking dapper in a pristine navy suit, then crosses the room to shake my hand. One of several hundred hands he has gripped today. 'Have you been waiting long?' he asks courteously, and instantly his manners impress. Declining an offer of a cup of tea he beckons to a nearby table, takes a sip from a glass of water and with lips whetted, he's poised for a grilling. As with all good stories, we take it from the start.
'I was never pulled aside and told that I had a gift,' he says, when asked who it was that picked him from the bunch. 'It was something that I realised myself. I was only three when I started kicking a ball with my grandfather. I could do it correctly so that gave me the enjoyment to kick it again.
'As I got older I started playing in the streets with my pals. At that time you were only allowed play on a team when you reached the Under-14 level and I was Under-8, six years under these bigger lads, but I could really play. That was when I knew I was good. But there was no personal satisfaction in that because I knew I had a duty to make the most of it. That was my driving force in football. I wanted to finish my career and say that I had made the most of this gift that I had been given.
'A Dublin man called Billy Behan picked me for Manchester United. I had played schoolboy football for years and he knew my father. Behan played in goal for United and he was scouting for players in Ireland. He went around to schoolboy matches and he knew of me.
'I was a Manchester United supporter as a kid because Jackie Carey was a great Irish player and he played for them. I don't support anyone now though I would have more of a leaning toward Leeds than Manchester, because I was 12 years with them.
'Carey captained United when they won the FA Cup in 1948. This was long before the Busby Babes and they had a terrific team even back then. When I was 14, my father told me that they wanted to bring me over and have a holiday there. That was one of the happiest moments of my life. I went over for four weeks and it was wonderland for a young kid. The homesickness wasn't a problem then because I only went for four weeks and then I came back. The next year, in 1956, I went for good, when I was 15.'
Born on November 6, 1940, in Dublin's Ormond Square, Michael John Giles has always been a family man. When he was a player there were no club tours or international matches to prolong the end of a season and they were entitled to longer holidays. It was during the off-season, in an effort to pass the summer months in Dublin while maintaining a level of acceptable fitness that he picked up a racquet and joined the Ashdale Tennis club, where he met his future wife, Anne. They were married and moved to Leeds, where they would plan their future together.
Soccer runs through the blood. His dad, Christy, donned the colours of Bohemians in the 1920s, winning a league title in his first season at Dalymount Park and two of John's sons, Michael and Chris, represented Shamrock Rovers in the 1980s and '90s respectively.
His career has been well documented. In 1963, after falling out of Matt Busby's favour he asked for a transfer and was sold to Leeds United for £33,000. Rumoured to have told his wife that he 'was going to haunt' Busby, it was during his time at Leeds that he developed into one of the best midfielders ever produced on Irish playing fields. He feels his controversial Leeds team could have tasted more success and there is little doubt about which of his managers earns his highest respect.
'My proudest achievement in football is playing as long as I did. I made my debut in 1959 and played for the international team in 1979. If I have any regrets I suppose it's not winning more trophies with Leeds, but that would be only relatively speaking. We won the league twice and the FA Cup, the League Cup, the Fairs Cup twice and the Second Division championship. With the ability we had, we could have won a lot more.
'I played under Don for 12 years and I see him as the finest manager I played for. He took over Leeds when they were in the Second Division and they had never won anything before. From a non-footballing area, he built a great team. When Shankly went to Liverpool he was reviving Liverpool. Jock Stein was a great manager but he was reviving Celtic who had a great history.
'Leeds didn't have a history. Don did it from scratch.'
Different generations know John Giles for different reasons. There are those that remember him as the crunch-tackling playmaker who to paraphrase Brian Clough 'could grab hold of a match, tuck it in his back pocket and carry it around with him'. Those of us with fewer seasons under our belts know him as the gentler half of television's Giles/Dunphy partnership. How, then, did his gig with RTE come about, and as a former professional was he cautious about embarking on a career where he has to criticise players on a regular basis? Surely he didn't enjoy picking up the Monday papers and reading about how rubbish some reporter thought he had played the previous Saturday afternoon.
'Eamon encouraged me to get into punditry. I did the 1986 World Cup for RTE and it was after that they started airing live matches. Then I did the 1988 European Championships. The first World Cup was a one-off gig. I thought I would go home for the summer and do it and that would be the end of it. Tim O'Connor, who was head of sport in RTE, was a friend of mine and I suggested to him that there was no one doing the cocommentary and would he give me a go. That's how I started. One day Tim gave me a bit of advice. He said " don't talk unless you have something to say" which was great advice. When I'm watching a match and there's not much happening suddenly I start thinking that I haven't said anything for five or six minutes. That's when you end up saying stupid like "this is not a good game". But everyone can see that. So Tim told me to just let it go.
'I learned as a player to ignore criticism because I read reports where I had played rubbish and they said I played well. And I read reports where they said I played rubbish and I actually played well. Praise or criticism, I just learned to ignore it all.