Giles' trademark is to tell it as it is -- but for once he doesn't
Irish legend's autobiography greatest story never told
Published 06/11/2010 | 05:00
As John Giles sums up his autobiography, he reveals that, to this day, "I would say that the people I am most comfortable with are the old Leeds players."
It just seems like a pity that he wasn't sufficiently comfortable to express what it truly felt like to be immersed in one of the most controversial periods of English football.
A time when, as he freely admits, when supposedly even the best contemporary examination of that period, David Peace's masterpiece, 'The Damned United', invited stark contradiction from Giles himself.
There is a resounding logic that would seem to inevitably flow from his defiant stance against Peace's treatise of the period, whatever one's opinion of his motives. And it is one that would see him put the record straight in the most comprehensive and authoritative manner possible.
Sadly, it seems that the sepia tints of sage reflection from this most decorated of Irish sport's newest septuagenarian disallowed all but the faintest whiff of sweat, blood and tears from those cordite-filled dressing-rooms and football fields to filter through the generations into the pages of this book.
Spurs manager Harry Redknapp titillated the modern football fan recently when he contributed to the debate about bad tackling sparked by Fulham's Danny Murphy. "It's highlighted more now because every tackle is looked at but, back then, you had genuine hardmen," reminisced Redknapp.
"I was talking to Joe Jordan the other day about the old Leeds team. Players like Norman Hunter, Paul Reaney, Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner, they could all dish it out, couldn't they?"
Redknapp could only rely on dewy-eyed nostalgia. Giles has the authority to delve into the actual truth of those times, to display his remarkably vivid recall and sense of detail to illustrate just who dished it to who, and why.
Even George Best, whose sense of recall was so sadly obliterated by the voluminous amounts of alcohol that clogged each artery, recalled in his autobiography that Giles "had a go" at him during the 1970 FA Cup semi-final
after the Belfast boy had already "scored" an hour before kick-off.
But discretion too often supersedes Giles' heartfelt valour in his repeatedly labouring attempts to defend a Leeds side who retain a fascinating hold for legions of football fans 40 years later.
And yet even for the sake of revisionists, it would have been illustrative for Leeds fans to examine just why the club acquired such an unhealthy image when others, such as Everton and Chelsea, to a lesser extent Liverpool, often seemed to escape history's accusatory finger.
Aside from vague allusions to running feuds, there is an element of detachment from the witness, which, given his extraordinarily intimate vantage point, is extremely disappointing for fans of the great man. It would not have been necessary to demean his reputation; of that he is most assuredly unlikely to see dented at this stage of his life. One cannot always demand warts and all from our heroes.
But this is almost blemish-free.
He maintains his innocent stance concerning the tackle that supposedly ended the career of Manchester United player John Fitzpatrick.
The latter's varying testimony last year -- after apparently absolving Giles of all blame in 2002 -- allows for an ambiguity that leaves the matter still unresolved more than 40 years later.
Mercifully, he is more forthright about an incident involving Chelsea's Eddie McCreadie.
"In a really tight match one day against Chelsea at Elland Road, down near one of the corner flags, and with our backs to the referee, I caught Eddie McCreadie with a late tackle.
"As he lay on the ground with a look of genuine surprise on his face, he said 'What the hell was that for?'
"I told him it was for doing my ligaments at Stamford Bridge, on that day back in 1964. McCreadie looked at me in total bewilderment.
"It was 1972."
And there it is in black and white. Giles' Alf-Inge Haaland moment.
The apex of naked aggression stripped bare. Raw violence inflicted as cold-hearted revenge. You can almost see McCreadie's lost eyes, hear his screams of anguish, imagine Giles' oddly cruel detachment to such a football assassination.
And you want more. More of what had infused Giles with so much venomous hatred that it could reside for eight whole years before finally being unleashed in a torrent of muck and sweat and spit.
More of what other damage, physical and emotional, had been wrought on the young Giles as he foraged on the killing fields of the Football League, in an era where protection for footballers demanded more than a conniving agent and a super-injunction.
Footballers, still pawns of chairmen as Giles explains elsewhere -- but again too briefly -- protected themselves the only way they knew how. With fists. And elbows. And boots.
Was Giles really, as Chelsea's Tommy Baldwin once alleged, "the instigator of all the bad tackles?" Why did he need that what Gary Sprake called the "edge to survive"? Why did, as Peter Osgood claimed, the Leeds players dislike Chelsea's players so much that they "gave out a bit of stick"?
"I suppose the black-and-white myth will always be more attractive than the reality, which tends to be more complex, with shades of grey," he writes.
That is fine. But given the opportunity to paint what could have been a glorious canvas in colour, it feels like we are being sold short. For someone whose trademark is to tell it as it is, the book predominantly seeks to avoid this route.
This is not a review of a book. It is a view of a book. A view that asserts that much more could have been offered by the person best qualified to offer it.
Yesterday, a former Irish international, who shared the pitch on many occasions with Giles, was eager to get his hands on the autobiography of arguably the greatest living Irish player.
When told that it mostly airbrushed the intensity of the period during which Giles was at his pomp, the player laughed. "Jaysus, I remember him doing me three times in one match. And I was a mate." He didn't get a chance to write his book. Giles did. "It was good to play in that team, with those lads," he concludes. "No, it was great."
To continue the paraphrase, 'A Football Man' is a good read. Sadly, not a great one.