The football legend knows how to distinguish greatness, says Declan Lynch, who has written a new book with him
WHEN he was a small boy, John Giles would hear his father and other football men arguing about whether Stanley Matthews was better than Tom Finney. They would argue their cases with total conviction, untroubled by the fact that they'd hardly ever seen Matthews or Finney actually playing, either in real life or by any other means.
To the young Giles, it was enormously frustrating to hear this talk of great players who seemed to belong to some distant world. Because he really wanted to know how good these guys were, if they were all they were cracked up to be, or if they were actually better than that.
And he wasn't satisfied by what he heard -- indeed, to this day, he is still not satisfied. And sure enough, when he went to England and became a player, he quickly discovered that some of the more illustrious names of the time were over-rated. That some of the men who were less celebrated were genuinely great players.
You could say that this quest to separate the truth of football from the mere eejitry has been John Giles's life's work. But the fact that he himself was a great player gives everything he says on these matters another dimension.
I remember one day just after we had started working on The Great and The Good, he mentioned that in the early Sixties at Manchester United, he had played against a Real Madrid team that contained Ferenc Puskas, then reaching the end of his career, but still able to send these shots whipping past the post in a way that revealed to the young Giles what a terrific player Puskas must have been.
At which point, as he continued to talk, my mind started to drift. "Dear God," I thought to myself, the magnitude of it dawning, "this man sitting on my couch, has played against Puskas." That would be Puskas who is almost beyond legendary, due to the fact that there are relatively few moving pictures of him, and most of them are in black and white. But John Giles has a clear picture of him, in his head, from some match they played in 1962.
At the other end of his career, in his last match for the Republic, he played against the young Maradona. And in between he played with or against Bobby Charlton, George Best, John Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Jairzinho and Rivelino.
But he is no less fascinated by the players that came after him, and that vital distinction between the good ones and the great ones. In literature, music and the movies, it is
considered right and proper to establish who are the true immortals, as distinct from those who are just very good at what they do. Giles insists that football is just as important as any of those art-forms, just as entitled to the most intelligent analysis. He has educated us all.
When he explains in this book why exactly Ryan Giggs is an exceptionally good player in many respects, but not quite a great player, not quite Paul Scholes or Roy Keane, he is not taking anything away from Ryan Giggs. What he is doing is insisting that nothing is taken away from Paul Scholes or Roy Keane.
Likewise, he is reluctant to put Cristiano Ronaldo in the pantheon along with Lionel Messi, because that would take something away from Messi. He has been criticised for this, and yet even Ronaldo's advocates, in their hearts of hearts, must know that Messi is the man.
It is a precious thing, this greatness, and as Giles has observed in football and in other sports, it is such a fragile thing. Which is why those who have it, and who manage to hold on to it, should be honoured all the more. Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres seemed destined for it, and then lost it for various reasons. It even got away from Tiger Woods.
There are those who have it for a while, like Thierry Henry, and who seem to think "I've done enough". What Giles loves about Barcelona, along with their beautiful football, is that there is no such thing as "I've done enough".
When I was a small boy, my father would take me to Dalymount to watch the Republic, led by John Giles, and even as a child, I could see that he was better than anyone else. I have somehow ended up working with him on A Football Man and now The Great and The Good, and I can say it has been a joy and an honour, and something that has connected me to some of the happiest days of my own life.
I think the reader will feel that connection too.
'The Great and The Good -- The Legendary Players, Managers and Teams of 50 Football Years' by John Giles, with Declan Lynch, is in the shops tomorrow. To mark the publication by Hachette Ireland, there will be an interview with John Giles by RTE's Darragh Moloney in the County Hall, Dun Laoghaire on Thursday evening at 7.30pm