John Giles: One of the few public figures of the era who still retains the respect and affection of the people
Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30
One of the great RTE television careers is ended on Sunday night, when John Giles sits on the panel for the last time, on the occasion of the final of the European Championship
In the 30 years in which he has been educating us all, he has become not just a profoundly wise commentator, but one of the few public figures of the era who still retains the respect and affection of the people.
You might even say that it is meaningless to be describing Giles any more as a "commentator", still less a "pundit", since at some deeper level he has become a kind of a father of the TV nation - in Britain they have been busy getting rid of most things that are any good, yet they clung to a David Attenborough or a Peter Alliss because they too had this aura which was enhanced rather than diminished by the fact that they had passed the civil service retirement age.
But it was felt by RTE that Giles should be "retired" at this time, for reasons that may be quite clear to them, or maybe not - they've done it anyway, because I suppose they always like to be doing something, in case anyone might think that they were doing nothing.
Not that they don't understand that Giles has been very good, it's just that they don't seem to rightly understand - as our friends on Sky Sports might say - that he's better than that.
There is now a plaque in honour of John Giles in Dublin's Ormond Square, where he grew up in number 7A, near the fruit markets and the fish markets, between Capel Street Bridge and Merchant's Quay bridge, and around the corner from the Four Courts in the heart of the city.
He was no more than three years of age when he realised that he had this gift, this satisfaction that he got from kicking a ball, some instinct that told him he was doing it the right way.
And given the heights that he eventually reached in the game, it is appropriate that this site in Ormond Square has been marked in some way, to recognise the fact that it was possible for an utterly dedicated child prodigy from this area to realise his dreams, to break out of the wretchedness of Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s, to show that "heroes come from here".
But if you go down there now you will also see another sign, not too far from the John Giles plaque, warning that there is No Football Allowed. And you will realise that it is probably as hard now as it was in the 1940s, to get past the Dead Hand.
But it can be hard too even for the best-intentioned of us to maintain a true perspective. When I was working with John on his biography, A Football Man, I was listening to him one day describing a match in the early 1960s between Manchester United and a Real Madrid team that contained Ferenc Puskas, who was reaching the end of his career but who was still sending shots whipping past the post in a way which demonstrated to the young Giles how good he must have been.
It took me a while to get a proper fix on this, to see the magnitude of it, that this man sitting on my couch modestly sharing his experiences in the game, had played against Puskas, a figure so legendary in football he is virtually a fictional character - frequently I would find that the story of Giles had this coming together of the realistic and the fantastic, calling to mind the Philip Larkin line that it was "rather like walking through St Pancras station and meeting St Pancras".
On his first day in Manchester, aged 14, he was introduced to the great Duncan Edwards, who was sitting on top of a post box, eating an apple, waiting for a bus - you'd hardly put such a scene in an old-fashioned MGM musical, yet it happened to John Giles, this most pragmatic of men who could also believe absolutely in the magic of the game, a deeply rational person who could also imagine himself doing wonderful things like scoring a stunning goal on his debut for Ireland at the age of 18, a man who was able to make such things happen.
This is the dynamic we are dealing with, a man who was never a "character", who has a pathological aversion to eejitry of every kind, yet who eventually overcame these barriers to popularity in Ireland by the quiet but relentless power of his Reason, and a kind of an effortless charisma - it is only when you look all the way back at those early pictures of Giles, the teenage soccer sensation, that you realise he has been in the public eye for most of his life, that he has had this star quality since the age of three.
Nor at the age of 75 did he show any signs of losing it, with the RTE panel during the Euros sometimes getting higher ratings than the RTE match commentary - even if we watch the game on the BBC, it seems we always go back "home" to find out what actually happened.
On Sunday night, due to circumstances beyond our control, we did that for the last time.