“There will be no past tense here,” Eamon Dunphy begins, as the mood turns sad and nostalgic. The date is 10 July 2016 and John Giles is appearing for the final time on Irish television’s state broadcaster RTÉ in his role as senior analyst for the station’s football coverage.
He is one-quarter part of one of the cornerstones of Irish football known as The Panel. Consisting of Giles, Liam Brady, Eamon Dunphy and, until his passing two years ago, presenter Bill O’Herlihy, it revolutionised analysis of the game and made football more accessible for the masses, bringing the game into living rooms across Ireland in an engaging and homely fashion unlike anything that had gone before it.
“John’s career has been, and is, brilliant,” the epilogue continues.
Portugal have just beaten France in a shocking turn of events that would see Éder’s extra-time strike from outside the box clinch their first ever piece of international silverware, embarrassing the hosts in front of their own support and condemning the competition as a whole to the summation that a combination of narrative and efficiently bland football can and would trump all other diminishing factors such as goals, high-tempo football, attacking ingenuity or even a stand-out player.
But a night dominated by Fernando Santos and Cristiano Ronaldo turns to matters closer to home as the analysis moves its focus towards a man who had lived his entire life with football as an oxygen tanker. Dunphy continues: “His greatness is due to his courage, his foresight and his wisdom,” he says on Giles. “He had the wisdom to leave Manchester United when they were a top club in England, go to Leeds United in the Second Division and to believe in Don Revie, who was building a great team which John partly led, and largely led – intellectually he knew that was the time [to go].
“Revie wanted him to succeed him at Leeds as the manager. Bill Nicholson wanted him to succeed him at Tottenham as the coach. He went on to West Brom – won promotion. Came fifth in what now is the Premier League, was the hottest young coach in England and walked away from the game because he didn’t like the way it was run: responsibility without power.
“[He] managed the Irish team, changed the culture over seven years, gave Liam [Brady], Mark Lawrenson, all these great players their debut. Came home to try and create a great team at Shamrock Rovers: brave, courageous foresight – it has always been his hallmark.
“And in the 30 years he is sat in that chair, if any of the kids out there are wondering ‘who’s that guy?’ That guy is the greatest football man we’ve ever had in these islands. He is a great, great friend of all of us, a joy to work with, and a great, great figure in the history of Irish sport.”
Compliments pouring from the free-flowing mouth of Dunphy on top of Giles and Brady had been a hallmark of the former Millwall player-turned-career pundit’s repertoire in RTÉ down through three decades.
And while Giles had always remained stridently conservative in brushing aside lavished tributes toward his career, this time the completely earnest manner of the usually brash Dunphy seemed to strike a chord with the 75-year-old, as his face turned reflective; the profundity of his colleague’s kind words sending his mind racing through seven decades of memories that all began with no more than a bouncer – a rubber ball roughly twice the size of a tennis ball used where real footballs were too expensive – and a child’s dream of one day becoming a professional footballer for Manchester United.
This was all set to the backdrop of 1940s Ireland and the suffocating bedrock of Ormond Square where the seed was planted in the school of hard knocks in Dublin’s inner city, and the dream set in fluid motion thanks to a transcendent gift for playing football.
“I realise it was a gift,” Giles wrote in his 2010 autobiography. “And I also realise that I had done nothing to deserve this gift. I had not worked hard to develop it, I just had it. I can take no more credit for it than I can take the credit for receiving a present on my birthday.”
Perhaps whatever superficial entity that instilled the gift for football John Giles talks about also had the foresight to dazzle some additional talents for punditry too. Because Giles always appeared reflective, confessing that from a young age he was shy and sensitive like his mother Kate.
“But as I got older,” he continues. “I would also be lucky enough to have the awareness that I needed to do everything I possibly could to honour this gift. To make it my life, not just a pastime or a job. To get the respect of my colleagues, not just appeal to the crowd. To be selfish in getting the most out of what I’d been given, and unselfish in doing it for the team.”
Giles has and will always been known as a football man. It is the title of his autobiography and is referenced by Eamon Dunphy in his tribute to his colleague above. Dunphy almost – almost – declared Giles the greatest footballer in Irish history that night, but stopped short. He consciously stopped short because to label Giles the greatest would mean to overlook Liam Brady, sitting right beside Giles in RTÉ studios that day, as well as Paul McGrath, Roy Keane, Dennis Irwin, Ronnie Whelan and so on.
It would be pointless and irrelevant to label Giles the greatest because what John Giles means to Irish football, as a child-prodigy turned serial winner, turned coach, turned manager, turned analyst, goes far beyond his reach as a footballer alone. Is is subjective to label a player “the greatest” and a disservice to someone who has had an impact both as a foreign export and to Irish football – internationally and domestically – like Giles has.
It’s something which Giles himself would appreciate deeply given his strong opinions on what makes great footballers great. “We are well-known for making that distinction between good players and great players,” he said of his role as an analyst. “I feel it is important to draw that line for a few reasons. First of all, it is just better to be accurate in the words you use. If you’re saying that everything is great, it all becomes meaningless. After all, if everything is great, ultimately nothing is great.
“And in my view football is entitled to the same set of standards as books or films or the theatre. In all these areas serious efforts are made to try to establish who the true greats are, the ones whose work will stand the test of time.
“Football has its own men of genius, as important in their own way as any of the great writers or painters – arguably they are more important because their genius is accessible to everyone. Basically, football makes more people happy than almost anything else out there. So it should be taken seriously, and its great practitioners should be honoured in the right way.”
Another man who shared similar views was the legendary sports journalist Arthur Hopcraft.
Writing in his 1968 book The Football Man, Hopcraft predates Giles’ opinion that football means more to the masses than any other art form due to its accessibility and its necessity, from its origins in factories and in working-class inner cities where entertainment was scarce at a time when more free-time was afforded to workers on weekends.
“The point about football in Britain is that it is not just a sport people take to, like cricket or tennis or running long distances,” said Hopcraft. “It is inherent in the people. It is built into the urban psyche, as much a common experience to our children as are uncles and school. It is not a phenomenon; it is an everyday matter.
“It has more significance in the national character than theatre has. Its sudden withdrawal from the people would bring deeper disconsolation than to deprive them of television. The way we play the game, organize it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are.
“What happens on the football field matters, not in the way that food matters but as poetry does to some people and alcohol does to others; it engages the personality. It has conflict and beauty, and when those two qualities are present together in something offered for public appraisal they represent much of what I understand to be art.”
• • • •
John Giles and Arthur Hopcraft share a lot in common and help greatly in defining what the characteristics we consider inherent in football men are. Is a football man somebody who obsesses over the tiniest detail of various spanning tactical systems? Is a football man someone who lived through the old-school generation before the introduction of the Premier League in the 1990s which brought with it hyper-inflated wages and a drift away from the classical virtues of modesty and restraint? Does a football man have to be a hard-man? Rather, does a football man have to have played football at a professional level at all? In this day and age who do we define as the football men of our own generation. Does a football man need to be a man?
To answer these questions we return to Eamon Dunphy: “I believe the good pro was the true hero of professional sport,” he said in the introduction to his 1976 autobiographical book Only a game? “He is not necessarily a great player, or even the best player in the team, although he can be both. His goodness has to do not just with his talent but also with his spiritual state. The good pro is a trier – not one of those despised young automatons that pass for midfield players these days, all sweat and crunching tackles, but a much nobler embodiment of sporting virtue.
“The good pro accepts responsibility – both his and, when the going gets tough, yours. Most of his virtues are invisible from the stands and terraces.”
Giles shares many of these views, outlining his own five characteristics which make great footballers so unique: 1) Whatever abilities the players possesses must be used for the benefit of the team. This requires honesty of effort, 2) Moral courage is needed to take the responsibility in accepting the ball, no matter how important the game and regardless of the score, 3) An honest effort must be made to regain possession when the other team has the ball, 4) There must be no public remonstration with team-mates, and 5) A player must have the intelligence and humility to play the simple pass when that is the right thing to do.
But perhaps there exists a difference between the model pro – “the footballer’s footballer” as Dunphy puts it – and the football man. Giles recognises the genius of men like Arsène Wengerand José Mourinho, who had never the played the game to any of the heights regarded with most successful managers. The same can be said for Bill Shankly, Sir Alex Ferguson, Arrigo Sacchi and numerous others.
Do we disregard such people who have contributed towards the annals of football’s construction and rich tapestry due to the fact that they lacked the so-called “gift”, which Giles himself confesses he was fortunate enough to be given as a player?
The answer to that is no. And similarly, and on the same merit, we cannot prejudice against today’s gifted footballers as not of the cloth that Giles and others are as ‘men of football’ simply because they were lucky enough to make it as professionals with an ease which more passionate young players could hold an envious grudge against.
• • • •
All of this comes down to why we hold these men in such high regard. “I had a gift,” Giles writes. “And I could look back and say that I was true to that gift. But I had always seen it as a big responsibility that demanded that I do my best all of the time.
“I had dreams and they came true, but it hadn’t happened just because I wanted it. I wasn’t like the fellow at home in bed who dreams of scoring the winning goal in the cup final, and then leaves it at that. I had to go out and do it.”
It all bears down to that one word: responsibility. There are good footballers and there are great footballers. Glenn Hoddle was a good footballer; Stanley Matthews was a great footballer. John Giles stands apart as a football man because he respected the game and gave more to it than he received in due course.
“I was determined, if and when I became a professional footballer, to look after my mother as best I could and, in fact, the only regret I have about not getting paid the vast Premiership salaries of today is that I could have looked after her better if I had been a lot richer,” he wrote.
Football was his life and Giles made a life out of it to the point where some were critical of him for being too serious on the subject. On the flip side, Giles acknowledged from a very early age that he had more of what some might call “talent”, if such a thing exists, and made good of it to the point where the dream of a six-year-old child with posters of his Manchester United heros Jack Rowley and Stan Pearson transitioned into the reality of sharing the same turf as his idols in Old Trafford.
Any argument Giles had – and there were many of them – including those with Sir Matt Busby, Brian Clough, Eamon Dunphy and Jack Charlton, came down to a matter of clashing principles and not out of any underlying spite or personal affliction. It was a coming together of those that loved the game so much so, in such a way that an act of love like hugging can cause hurt and discomfort if performed too tightly.
• • • •
Number three in Giles’ list of what he regards to be inherent in great players reads: “An honest effort must be made to regain possession when the other team has the ball.”
Through more than 70 years in the game, he never appeared to ask any more of a player than the honesty of true effort. Some may pick out specifics in this maxim that defies logic: would it be of most utilitarian benefit to Real Madrid or Barcelona if Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi wasted what limited stamina they have in chasing back which could be used to score goals with relative ease?
This statement is true and shows a bridging generational gap between modern football and that of Giles’ era. But what stands the test of time is the honesty that Giles holds highest. Those who may have watched Giles’ career on RTÉ as a pundit may in his 30 years on screen have giggled childishly as he failed to pronounce the names of players like Jakub Błaszczykowski or Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
But what Giles’ possessed in his seven-decade stint in the game were timeless, universally applicable views on football grounded in a lifetime of experience, honesty, hard work and an acknowledged responsibility and obligation to his role towards spectators, either in the stands or at the other end of a camera lens, as a role model and practitioner of a game millions of people hold near and dear to their hearts.
For this reason alone, John Giles will be cherished for generations to come as a true and sincere football man.